This WNBA Star Plans to Build an Old Boys’ Club — for Women
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s got plans to develop a female-focused investment fund.
By Matt Foley
Alana Beard wasn’t quite sure what life as an intern would be like. A four-time WNBA All-Star, reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year and 2016 WNBA champion with the Los Angeles Sparks, it had been a while since Beard was anything other than an organization’s front-facing leader. But Beard’s post-career aspirations extend well beyond basketball. So this past offseason, she set about making herself uncomfortable at venture capital firm Next Play Capital.
“As an athlete wanting to cross over into the business world, you crave the access and the knowledge,” says Beard. “There’s so much to learn.”
A savvy shooting guard and No. 2 overall WNBA draft pick out of Duke University in 2004, Beard, 37, has always known that basketball would only be the first stage of her professional life, a launching pad. But while her male counterparts in the NBA (where even mid-tier players pull down $10 million per year) have the capital on hand to break into new industries, WNBA players like Beard (whose WNBA salary is $108,000 this year) face more of an uphill battle.
And trust us, she’s got plans. Already a successful franchisor (more on that later), Beard hopes to put her venture capitalist learnings to work serving women, who are often overlooked in the VC world: Just 2.2 percent of venture capital funding went to female founders or all-female groups in 2018. Her ultimate goal? Become a founding managing partner at a venture capital firm that raises funds from other professional women athletes and invests in marginalized communities. Ultimately, she hopes to help reallocate wealth by leveraging her network of “powerful women to come on as advisers.”
Franchising is valuable and a good place to start, but now we’re going after something bigger.
“I’m not a financial expert,” says Beard. “But I know that I can build a professional ecosystem for women that creates opportunities in the investment space.”
While interning this winter with Los Angeles-based Next Play, which boasts daily fantasy sports platform FanDuel and at-home fitness company Peloton in its investment portfolio, Beard saw firsthand the grind that leads to startup success in Silicon Valley. Under the tutelage of co-founder and managing partner Ryan Nece, Beard sat in on meetings with investors and entrepreneurs, performed due diligence in sectors of interest and put together investment memos for the team. “I was surprised by the access that they gave me,” says Beard.
A former NFL player, Nece knows plenty about the transition that Beard hopes to make from athlete to business leader. “There’s no other way to learn this space than by fully committing to the work,” says Nece. “Just like sports, there’s only one way to get better.”
For Beard, that meant reading new industry publications and constantly digging for valuable information. Sometimes, it meant discomfort. Other times, it meant networking in an arena where Beard has always thrived.
For years, Jeff Jordan, a general partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, has hosted weekly Saturday-morning pickup basketball games at Stanford University, where Jordan is on the athletics advisory board. The games routinely consist of former college and professional ballers, Silicon Valley executives and bigwig angel investors. Joe Lacob, the owner of the Golden State Warriors and partner at VC firm Kleiner Perkins, is a regular, and Nece plays on occasion. During her internship this winter, Beard earned an invitation to the exclusive run, permitting her the opportunity to network with industry leaders while impressing from her comfort zone.
“It can be intimidating entering a sector you know nothing about,” says Beard. “That’s why I say yes to opportunities so often. In order to be successful, you have to be extremely uncomfortable.”
While basketball has always been Beard’s passion, business has long been in the back of her mind. Her mother, Marie, likes to remind her daughter of how a teenage Alana foreshadowed her off-court future. Back in Shreveport, Louisiana, where she eventually led Southwood High School to four straight state titles, Beard stopped at Smoothie King for a smoothie after basketball practice every day. At some point, Beard informed her mother that one day she’d buy a Smoothie King franchise. “I’m here every day,” young Alana would say. “Why not own my own!”
Beard never became a smoothie queen, but she did intern for Jamba Juice’s then-CEO James White back in 2010. In November 2016, Beard teamed up with her former Washington Mystics teammate Marissa Coleman to open a franchise of the Mellow Mushroom pizza chain in Roanoke, Virginia. They have been close since Coleman’s rookie year in 2009, so when Tom Wallace, the father of one of Coleman’s college teammates at Maryland, approached her with a franchising idea, Coleman knew she had to bring her mentor aboard. “Alana’s like my big sister,” says Coleman. “We’re both driven to build successful careers outside basketball and knew we wanted to work together.”
Originally, the pair planned to build a small empire of franchises. Pizza, smoothies, ice cream — the food and beverage business was their oyster. But over the past year, those plans have changed. “I think we both realized that we can do something much greater,” says Beard. “Franchising is valuable and a good place to start, but now we’re going after something bigger.”
While Beard interned in California this offseason, Coleman performed her own due diligence in the nation’s capital. She interned at entrepreneurial incubator 1776 Startup Network. Joining the firm during a period of fundraising downtime, Coleman immersed herself in a side of the venture capital business that often goes overlooked: grunt work. She assisted with audits and researched portfolios, learning how deals get made months before the money appears.
Like Beard, Coleman has tried to become a sponge for information. She hopes to one day own a vast portfolio of businesses — maybe even a WNBA franchise — like her idol, NBA Hall of Famer and mogul Magic Johnson. A women-driven investment fund could one day prove to be the perfect vehicle to extend the dream from a Smoothie King outpost to the Smoothie King Center, where the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans play. After all, New Orleans does lack a WNBA franchise.
Are franchise ownership goals too lofty? For Beard, not when growth comes from putting in the work. “I’m a believer in doing, not talking,” she says. “I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m heading in the right direction.”
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