When Donna Orender wanted to join the tennis team in high school, there was no option for girls. So she joined the boys on the court.
That was only the beginning of a career in sports that would make her an All-American point guard on the basketball team at New York’s Queens College, a member of the Women’s Pro Basketball League, vice president of PGA Tour Productions —and ultimately the second president of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA)
Today Orender, a mother of four who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., is founder and chief executive officer of Generation W, a charitable organization that focuses on inspiring and connecting women and girls.
Since it launched in 2011 as a one-day event with 700 women, it’s grown to a 1,300-member organization with events year-round that attract 40 to 50 speakers. It’s also spawned Generation WOW, a mentorship program for teenage girls.
Kveller caught up with Orender to find out how a nice Jewish girl from Long Island grew up to be president of the WNBA and a champion for young women’s empowerment.
How old were you when you started playing sports?
I think I played always. I played in the streets with our neighbors. The first sport I really remember being serious about was tennis.
How did your childhood experiences with sports influence your career choices?
I studied psychology, sociology and communications in college, and my interest has always been on where I can make a positive impact on the world. So I was going to social work school, but I was also playing professional basketball. Ultimately, I ended up choosing sports as a career, because I figured I could always go back to social work school, but I couldn’t always play professional basketball.
Ultimately sport became the vehicle for making me a path in the world, which I’m still amazed at today.
Did you experience limitations as a girl in sports?
Always. The opportunities that we had growing up as young girls just in terms of resources and where to play and uniforms and backing were nowhere near what the boys had. Then over and above that, the social and cultural messages were very limiting and not very positive for young girls who wanted to play sports.
How does that compare today?
It’s come a long way. When I played, one in 27 girls played sports. Today it’s one in every two and a half. That said, when I travel around the country and speak about many of these issues, I will still be surrounded by, let’s say, a top-level, collegiate team of some sort, and the girls still feel that pressure. There is an underlying feeling in many areas — not all — that the playing field is not exactly equal. As much as that may be in dollars and cents in some areas, because it’s the two really big sports that generate the revenue for everyone— men’s college football and men’s college basketball—there’s still differing levels of cultural acceptance and support.
You grew up Conservative Jew. Did being Jewish add a layer of challenge for you? For instance, was playing Saturday games on Shabbat a problem?
No, that wasn’t, but I always preserved the holidays. One year, the WNBA finals overlapped with Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, and I was very clear that if in fact the trophy was given out on that day, I would not be there to give out that trophy.
Are you still active in sports now?
Just recreationally. When my sons are home and they invite me, I’ll play basketball with them. If there’s some game somewhere, I’ll want to jump in. I still enjoy it, absolutely.
What inspired you to switch gears and found Generation W?
It really was about learning in my role at the WNBA–trying to build a business around strong women and how that made other people feel and how they reacted to that. When I came home, I knew that I wanted to continue my work around women and girls, because I think women and girls are really at the center of building communities, and I want to be a community builder in any way I can. Honestly, I could not be prouder. It is a soul-sustaining kind of work. You know that based on all of the testimony and feedback and interest we get that this truly is making a difference in people’s lives.
You’ve stayed true to your original goal of helping others in both of your careers.
You know, I didn’t really realize that, but yes, that’s true. It’s neat to be able to come at it from very different perspectives! No matter where I was, I was always looking for that element that was a difference-making element.
Where does this drive come from?
My mom was always saying, “Who can we help,” and my father said, “Whatever you do, you’d better do the best” – a good combination. It’s about this burning desire to make a difference. It’s about wanting to create impact and take the blessings of living on this planet, living where I live, having the gifts that I’ve been given and making them count. I also don’t have a high tolerance for social injustice. When things are wrong, it really bothers me, and I feel like I have to do something about it.
Let’s shift gears to parenthood. Are there lessons that you’ve learned from being a leader of organizations that you apply to leading a household?
Actually, I think the lessons are the other way around. There are so many times I’ll think, “You know, this is how I’ve dealt with my kids on this issue, I think I’ll bring it into the workplace.” Or someone will say something, and I’ll say, “You know, I just had this discussion with my son.” The delicate balance of interacting with people where you want to provide motivation and insight and support so that they can be a better form of themselves is not all that different from being a parent, at times.
How did you balance being a mom with work?
It was hard. First of all, I’m not sure what balance means. Is it 50/50 every minute of every day? Is it balance when you look back over a five-year or a one-year or a one-month [period] or one week in your life? Life places various demands at various times, which we need to stand up for, and you have to determine what that balance is at any one time. I’m not sure what that balance is, but if it’s this perfection, like “OK, today I devote eight hours to this and eight hours to that,” that doesn’t exist. [My attempt at balance] has been filled at times with guilt, but more often than not what I really try to do is understand what my priorities are and when, and then make sure I can meet them with a sense of self and understanding that gives myself permission to be do what I need to do, and most importantly – especially for women – not to feel like you have to do everything perfectly.
What TV show have you binge watched lately?
I’ll give you three. I really love Silicon Valley. I thought it was hilarious. I binge watch This is Us. I love that. And I also binge watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It’s hilarious.
What is your favorite Yiddish word?
Mieskeit, of course. It’s when my grandmother pinched our cheeks. “You’re such a mieskeit,” [she’d say]. I loved that.
What makes you kvell?
My kids. My family.
If you were a Jewish food, what would you be?
I would be a noodle pudding, because it’s filled with different textures and it’s sweet.