A winning concept
Q: A new book called "Where Good Ideas Come From" concludes that innovations usually occur when ideas from different people "bump against each other" and spawn a winning combination. But have you ever been struck with a great idea of your own making? If so, did it meet with resistance, and did it turn out to be a success?
That's what most people thought of my idea to build an athletic center at Trinity in the early 1990's. Back in that day, Trinity was still a relatively small daytime women's college with adult and graduate programs in the evenings and on weekends. Like many historic women's colleges, Trinity was exempt from Title IX, the 1972 law that mandated equal funding for men's and women's sports in college.
Since we didn't have to balance funding a football team with dollars for women's soccer, in fact, our women's sports teams operated at a great disadvantage compared to the women's teams at major universities. Women's colleges generally lacked the funding for fancy equipment, multiple full-time coaches in each sport, and the premiere facilities that attracted female athletes to the newly-coed universities. We lost enrollment because our playing field was severely imbalanced compared to what women could get at the former men's schools.
But when I tried to make the case that in order to attract a new generation of women students we had to improve our athletic facilities, I ran into serious opposition. We had razor-thin margins and the trustees were very reluctant to indulge some pie-in-the-sky adventure into women's sports as a strategy to boost enrollment.
"I'm not going to vote in favor of a $10 million gym for five women to play basketball," one steely-eyed trustee declared.
But I kept thinking. A new idea slowly emerged with the inspiration of the Women's Sports Foundation, an organization founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King to promote equity and opportunity for women in sports.
My encounter with the WSF came from another amazing idea -- in the late 1990's, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and other business and civic organizations came together to make a bid for the Washington region to host the 2012 Olympics. That bid was certainly as daring as thinking about a sports center at Trinity.
During that period of time, the late Susan Williams was chair of the Board of Trade, then only the second woman to hold that position, and she made connections with the WSF, whose leadership was also interested in creating a major women's sports competition (the Women's Global Challenge) in the Washington region as a precursor to the Olympics.
Neither the Women's Global Challenge nor the Olympics came to Washington, but 10 years later, the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports is thriving.
How did I turn "preposterous!" into success?
Seeing opposition as a challenge, and leveraging the ideas I encountered through my exposure to the Olympic bid and the WSF meetings, I set about building my case to skeptical trustees and donors. The explosion of glamorous sports venues for professional men's sports in the Washington region helped me to focus even more.
As I drove past Camden Yards and the Ravens Stadium in Baltimore one day, and thinking about recent visits to see the Redskins at their new field (now Fedex) in Landover and the new basketball arena (now the Verizon Center) going up in the center of Washington, I calculated more than several billion dollars going into investments in men's professional sports.
Where were the places for girls and women to play?
I went back to my trustees and said, you're right, we should not spend $10 million on a gym for five women to play basketball. Instead, let's spend $20 million to build the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports, a destination venue for amateur athletics, emphasizing sports for girls and women, that will also provide first-rate facilities to build our own intercollegiate athletics teams.
To my delight, the trustees said, "Yes!" The bigger and more ambitious concept proved to be so much more compelling. Donors agreed.
100 years after Trinity welcomed the first women students to our campus in Northeast Washington, we broke ground for the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports in November 2000. Among the hundreds of cheering supporters who gathered for the momentous occasion on our old hockey field, we welcomed leaders of the Olympics movement, the Women's Sports Foundation, the emerging Washington Mystics professional women's basketball team, elected officials, educational leaders and children from the neighborhood along with our students, alumnae and very generous benefactors.
Ten years later, the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports has proven to be a great success. With more than 30,000 athletes, fans and other patrons using the Center annually, the Trinity Center has fulfilled its promise as a destination venue for amateur athletics with an emphasis on sports and wellness for girls and women. Our neighbors and citizens from the larger D.C. community enjoy the pool and fitness center.
On any given Saturday, hundreds of children play soccer on our fields, and troops of Girl Scouts might be found step dancing or participating in ceremonies in the arena. Most mornings, a dedicated group of neighborhood seniors take over the pool for water aerobics while other neighbors work out alongside students and staff in the weight room.
And, yes, we have room for men's sports and fitness, too -- some of the largest events at the Trinity Center have been DeMatha-Gonzaga basketball games and the New Zealand National Rugby competition.
Since the Trinity Center opened, our campus enrollment of young women in Trinity's full-time women's college has grown more than 100 percent, to nearly 1,000 students this year. Our coeducational enrollment in graduate and professional programs has also grown dramatically, with overall enrollment up more than 75 percent, topping 2,300 this fall.
The idea of the Trinity Center, born of necessity but inspired by many other great ideas about women's sports and the Olympic dream, has become a great success for Trinity and for our community. I got the idea from the confluence of many other great ideas, and certainly, the final result depended on the collaboration and generosity of thousands of benefactors, friends and patrons.
In the process of coordinating all of that input, I learned that the leader's job is to keep burnishing the concept, promoting it relentlessly, and never giving up on the search for ways to make the idea possible. I have learned that when I know the idea is right, persistence will eventually produce success.