Heather M. Owen’s career can best be defined by how hard work and following your passion results in opportunities to truly make a difference. A student-athlete turned lawyer turned college athletics professional, Owen’s path hasn’t always been straight-forward, but has yielded an administrative position at her alma mater that has allowed her to enact positive change. Today, she is a champion for diversity and serves as an Executive Associate Athletics Director at Stanford University, where she also competed with the women’s basketball team from 1994-98. Owen resides in Redwood City, California with her wife, Maggie.
Summarize your career path. How did you arrive at your current position?
I graduated from Stanford in 1998 after playing four years of basketball and went on to play professionally, both abroad and in the WNBA. After that, I went to law school and practiced for in and around five years.. I had a moment, however, where a lot of my peers were changing course. You can see the writing on the wall if you want to navigate the law firm landscape. I started to ask myself if I was really committed to making a run at partner and I realized that I could get more joy and satisfaction from work than what I was getting at the law firm, so I made the decision to change course.
I thought that I had a lot of transferable skills, but I was concerned about getting painted into a box. Luckily, one of my former teammates (Stanford Associate Head Women’s Basketball Coach) Kate Paye did the same thing - she went to law school and lasted six months at a law firm before changing course and starting to coach. I met with (Stanford Head Women’s Basketball Coach) Tara VanDerveer and Bob Bowlsby (Big 12 Conference Commissioner) who told me the way to get into this industry is to get your feet wet.
I remember thinking, ‘that’s cute. I’m at a big law firm getting paid way too much for what I’m doing. How am I going to justify this in my own head, let alone to the outside world?’ Tara put it bluntly, saying that I had to check my lawyer ego at the door, so I showed up and started volunteering in Stanford’s athletics department. Kate told me that I needed to treat this like I was a walk-on: make myself indispensable, be the first one there and the last one out, and do whatever is asked of me so they can’t cut me and the team can’t exist without me.
Shortly thereafter, I got a job in development at Stanford, joining the annual giving team. I started to see in myself - with my amazing mentors along the way - that while I could do the fieldwork of a mid- to high-level fundraiser, I didn’t derive a lot of energy from it. I tried my hand at management and once I started on the management leadership track, I haven’t looked back.
I recently moved into an Executive Associate Athletics Director role, an expanded scope of management and leadership, working with three sports and overseeing development as well as six student-athlete support teams. I have found an awesome niche here. (Director of Athletics) Bernard Muir has assembled an incredible leadership team and somehow, serendipity has allowed me to remain at Stanford.
You’ve risen through the ranks at Stanford quickly. What do you think sets you apart from your peers?
It’s probably not me, that’s for sure. When I came to work at Stanford, I found mentors who took a vested interest in me as a human being. I feel fortunate and lucky and oftentimes I ask why that happened and I don’t know why.
The message I’ve heard consistently is to just be humble and hungry. This job is a lifestyle choice and you’re serving others. If your ego ever gets in the way, you have to recalibrate. You have to have humility but have an edge, be hungry and have a great work product.
This is a male-dominated industry but it seems like we’re making progress. It was no different than working in a law firm. You have to be great and your work product has to be great. It was, and remains, all about the process and doing the right thing and your best work.
What is one lesson you’ve learned throughout your career?
Listen more. It’s a lesson that I still try to employ more. When you think you’ve listened enough, you need to listen more. When I was younger and entering the workforce, I felt like I knew the answer. But I don’t think I listened enough to understand the implications that may be coming from a different angle. Trying to understand all of the things that go into the fabric of a university, why something has been done the way it’s been done, there is logic behind that. A university is dynamic so I try to slow down and listen.
What advice do you have for women in the industry?
It depends on their career goals. I go back to what I heard - it’s about the process and working incredibly hard. Meet people and learn how they got to where they are. You can find common denominators and boil it down. You have to be a student and always try to learn. That doesn’t mean you go home and read budgeting textbooks, but you have to push yourself to learn and there are many ways to do that.
How can organizations increase diversity in the workplace?
I’m fortunate that I’m not aware of my sexual orientation impacting me at work. Everyone I’ve worked with has been amazing, and I think that comes from the top: our Director of Athletics, Bernard Muir, is supportive of everyone. But I’m not naive that I may have been impacted and don’t know about it. A lot of people hide things about themselves because of the fear and backlash.
If you’re working with LGBTQIA student-athletes, be there, be supportive, and try to understand their story. Be there for them as an individual and try to help them find their path and strength.
I’ve also been fortunate: my parents are awesome. I grew up in a supportive and inquisitive environment where my opinions were challenged.You want to be surrounded by and learn from diversity. You can’t be scared of or put off by someone who’s different from you. Instead, you should go and learn from that.
In my view, the best way to increase diversity in the workplace is through deliberate and strategic human resources practices. We have to work at composing a qualified and diverse candidate pool, and that takes effort.