Dr. Kara Allen, Chief People, Impact & Belonging Officer of the San Antonio Spurs
Watch full episode:
Our partners at the San Antonio Spurs have five NBA championships and the winningest coach in NBA history. But in San Antonio and beyond, the team has also built a powerful connection with the community that’s become about something much more than just great basketball.
On the first episode of season 4 of It’s Not Magic, Dr. Kara C. Allen, Chief People, Impact & Belonging Officer of Spurs, talks with Sixth Street’s David Stiepleman about the team’s commitment to community and how values translate into action for a franchise that’s developing the next generation of the Spurs, on and off the court and among the fans.
Kara discusses her experience joining the organization in 2021 as the first NBA team executive dedicated exclusively to impact and shares her perspective on the power of sport to bring people together, especially during moments of tragedy.
Thank you to Kara for her time and insights and to everyone at the Spurs for their ongoing partnership.
More from this episode:
- San Antonio Spurs Name Peter J. Holt Managing Partner and Introduce Sixth Street and Michael Dell as Strategic Partners, June 18, 2021
- Spurs Gives, the official nonprofit of Spurs Sports and Entertainment
- Spurs Voices, Stories from Spurs staff on how injustices impact their organization, YouTube
- Spurs win Humanitarian Award at ESPYs, San Antonio Express News, July 13, 2023
- Victor Wembanyama’s NBA Draft arrival infuses Spurs with generational talent and hope, NBA, June 23, 2023
- Spurs Continue to Honor Uvalde Shooting Victims on Anniversary, Sports Illustrated, May 24, 2023
- 100-year-old Spurs fan sat courtside for her birthday, USA Today, December 29, 2017
David Stiepleman: Welcome back to It's Not Magic, our Sixth Street podcast. We invite influential leaders and founders to get to the core of how they've built their careers and stand out in their areas of expertise. We have a terrific guest to kick off our season four, a special guest from a company that's part of our sports investing portfolio. She's charged with bringing culture and community and humanity into everything the franchise does.
Kara Allen: Section 212, row 16, seat four. What is the perspective and what is the vantage point from there? How can I see very opportunity from that vantage point? That seat holds a lot of power for me of a responsibility I have to something much larger than myself.
David Stiepleman: That's Dr. Kara Allen. She's the Chief People Impact and Belonging Officer at the San Antonio Spurs. Do you ever talk to an incredibly rare special person? Kara Allen is this kind of person. You're going to hear about the Spurs. They're great partners of ours. They have what they call a “get over yourself” culture that comes from Coach Popovich. We try to live that at Sixth Street. You're going to hear about that. You're going to hear about Kara's view and her connection with sports and how sports really are a vehicle for connection and for healing, and in terms of reaching out to the community. Kara Allen, thanks for joining us. This is great. So nice to have you here. I think it would be podcasting malpractice if I didn't start with mentioning Victor Wembanyama because he debuted for you guys’ last night. And I don't want to talk about his basketball because I would be unqualified to, but he's a 19-year-old guy, right? And I know the Spurs are so focused on culture. And so, in addition to this young man being a great basketball player, he seems like a great human and someone who's got a lot of intellect and a lot of character, is that important to the organization?
Kara Allen: Critically, right? You knew the answer to that before you asked, I'm certain. But that's it, right? At the end of the day, I think Pop has instilled values, beliefs, culture, tradition, into the way we do things. We have to bring people into this space for the next generation of the team that holds onto the core. That doesn't mean that it's the same thing. I think that's an important differentiator, that Victor is his own brilliant human. He's different than the Timmy that was a brilliant human, and the Manu that was a brilliant human, and the Tony that was a brilliant human and all the other players on our team over the years. Having said that, Victor, as you have seen, is as legendary as they say in terms of being a standup human.
David Stiepleman: So that obviously is a crucial part of your job, fitting into that culture. How does that work, and how did you get acclimated to that when you started in your role?
Kara Allen: So, I came into the organization never intending to work for the Spurs. I came into the organization as a consultant. Our CEO asked the question to his leadership team at the time, essentially, what do we stand for? And one of the things that they realized they stood for was community and community impact, and they had gone through this strategic visioning process and out of that they realized, well, wow, this is one of three strategic objectives that we have at the organization, right? Where does that show? How do we know? And other than having a nonprofit on the sides, “Spurs Give”, which I'm also the Executive Director of, you might not know that impact was part of the Spurs culture, right?
Kara Allen: And so, well, what do we do? How do we show up? And how do we as an internal organization know and tell the story of what we do externally and internally to take care of people, to do impact work? And so, I was hired as a consultant. They said, “Can you interview 10 to 20 folks and figure out what it is, what do the Spurs mean to community?” Right? About 260 emails, or 260 interviews later here we are. I'll say before that, I did my first presentation with the team. And RC probably tells the story infinitely better than I could. But after that there was, yes, we got to make space at the leadership table for this work to, to permeate throughout.
David Stiepleman: And you're talking about RC Buford the CEO of the Spurs organization. Incredible human, incredible executive, but how does that work? How does he talk about the sort of mission and the culture? How does that permeate downward in the organization?
Kara Allen: Sure. Two things, right? I'll say one, our values are pretty lived, which is a really easy thing to say, right? It's a really easy thing for most folks to say values are lived and they're not just writing on the wall, and I'm gonna co-sign on the easy thing to say with backup, right? Of what does that look like for us in action? One is the values and the way in which values show up which drives our impact vision. The second thing is there's a lot of humility built in, in our c statement of “what do we do in community?” We know people love us. People paint the Spurs brand on their garages. We are a religion in San Antonio, and that is family. And also, dig deeper. What are the ways in which we know San Antonio is better, different? Folks feel like they belong because of the work that we do. We didn't know that yet. And he didn't know. So, RC asked the question of, “What is it? I don't know.” And I'm not the right person to figure it out, who is the right person to help us figure it out?
David Stiepleman: Did you need persuading? You weren't in Texas. You were coming from the educational world. It's where your PhD is. You've been a teacher; you've been working in nonprofits. Was it a natural transition to go to a sporting organization or were you like “no”, and you needed to be persuaded, or what?
Kara Allen: It's funny. So, one, I love sport. I could run my mouth about sport and basketball forever.
David Stiepleman: You were a basketballer in high school, correct?
Kara Allen: Correct. And I've been out of Indiana since I graduated from Purdue. My mom and dad are getting older and were in Indiana. They're going to be so mad that they heard me say that.
David Stiepleman: It's nice to assume that they listen to the podcast. Correct?
Kara Allen: That’s right. That is real fair, sir. My sister and brother are both in Chicago. And so, I made the decision, to bring my 10-year-old to Chicago and lay down roots there, which is not a comfort zone for me. So, I bought a house, loved Chicago. That was home. And then RC said, “come to San Antonio.” Listen, the opportunity for impact is the story. I've got a kiddo who calls me mom, who's now 30, who's at UC Davis at medical school, and I called her and asked her, and she said one thing. I said, “What do you think about Texas?” And she said, “You've always told me one thing, mama.” And I said, “what?” And she said, “Enter the fire.” That's the work. Enter the fire, go where it’s hardest, and do your best work.
Kara Allen: And I say hardest because the things that we do on the impact side, right? I love ball and I love sport, and I believe in the power of sport deeply. And also, there are real complex things to solve both in Texas and in San Antonio and in America, and beyond. Am I naive enough to think that we're going to solve them alone as a San Antonio Spurs or Spur Sports Entertainment? No, and having said that, is there a platform for us to drive some real opportunity for conversation, for engagement, for action? Yeah. That's it.
David Stiepleman: Oh my God, we have so much to talk about. Okay. So, let's start with sport. You love sport. Why is it so important? I mean, we obviously believe that we’re invested in sport. We obviously think that the Spurs are an incredible organization, and you guys have been incredible partners for us. But it plays a big role in society. Why? And then we'll talk about all the other stuff.
Kara Allen: Oh, it's a philosophical one. So, I mean, it's actually a really valid. We could have tea for this conversation alone. As an athlete myself, right? There are things that sport does. Whether or not we name them true, sport does it. And I think as humans, we have a responsibility to respond to the things that occur. So, for instance, sport is healing. Healing is a hard word for folks, particularly those of us who are White. It is a strange word. Healing feels strange unless you're talking about, “Hey, I healed from my cold. I healed from my sickness. Yeah, I healed from a broken arm.” But healing from hurt, healing from trauma, healing from the injustices that exist all around, that's a different thing. And it's hard to talk about. And particularly in the business world, where we want metrics and measurables, we want to see change today and tomorrow. Sport is healing and, and sport brings people together. And I tend to believe, maybe I'm going to sound all Pollyannish at the end of this, but I tend to believe that as humans, we actually crave that. We crave the connection; we crave the belonging. We also crave excitement, and we crave competition. And it heals. So, I'm not sure that that's the answer, but it's my answer, that, sport does something. Sport, entertainment, maybe a little bit of music, right? There's something unique that brings us together that I think we have a responsibility to use that for something good.
David Stiepleman: So, I wanna talk about obviously the community work, but let's focus inside the arena for a second. So, the opportunity for healing, for connection, for coming together, I assume it's part of your role to try and cultivate that even more. I mean, just going to a game is probably half the battle, but what kind of environment are you trying to create inside the arena to make that even more likely?
Kara Allen: That’s right. So, I'm not one to name a title except to say when a title informs a community about a decision or a priority. So, RC made a decision to add “belonging” to my title, as if Chief Impact Officer wasn't already a strange thing in the NBA, and the first one. Chief People Impact and Belonging Officer feels all sorts of soft and a lot of questionable things. We define belonging pretty clearly. You can bring your authentic self here, and that is about our humans within the organization. And that's about every single human who steps into that arena, who believes in the brand, who paints the brand on the garage. Who wears the T-shirt, who saves money and goes to school, dresses up with the Spur, right? It is all those people. In the arena, we have a responsibility to do whatever we can to let everyone be seen. All of them. Right? Their whole identity, their whole self. And so that absolutely means: are there inclusive spaces for folks who might be overwhelmed by the noise? Yes. Does it mean that there is food that is home to San Antonio, though it might not be home to arenas around the country? Yes, and we have a culinary residency program that is truly only dedicated to local restaurants who bring their food into the arena. But it is really listening to community and then doing whatever we can in that pocket, in those couple hours, 41 games a year, to let people feel like this is their way in. This is a spot; this is a home spot.
David Stiepleman: I’ve also heard you talk about, there's a response, it's part of your responsibility to reflect values in what goes on in the arena, sort of away from game day. Can you explain that?
Kara Allen: Yeah, correct. I mean, we have a tremendous space, an enormous amount of space that we take up. So, sometimes that means being a registration site for voting. That means that we host nonprofits who need to do board meetings there or celebrate galas there. That means that before games, on all of our cultural heritage celebration impact nights, we’re bringing folks from within and beyond our community to engage in a difficult conversation. It means that - think of what's a gap that we can fill with the space we have which we’re responsible to use well. And we kind of ask ourselves that question and fill in the blank. We're going to figure out how we can make it happen.
David Stiepleman: Got it. I want to go back. So, they persuaded you not to stay in Chicago. To go there, you're running to the fire. I want to talk about the fire in a second too. You've given me so much to think about. It's a blank sheet of paper. It's a new role. First Impact Officer and then all the other titles that you have. What did you start putting on that blank sheet of paper? How did you start organizing the function?
Kara Allen: Well, I'll say my center remark. I have a requirement to have a different center than a lot of folks in the organization, right? We have a leadership team of six, and we're a business, and we need to make revenue, and we need to do things that drive revenue, and drive fan engagement, and drive the next generation of the consumer to the brand, and all those things are important and valid. And my responsibility is to community. And my responsibility is to build community, maintain community, and grow community. And so, I require myself to take a different perspective on just about every conversation we have. That doesn't mean the thing I think is right or is the thing we're going to do. That doesn’t mean that I’m right in the way in which I see it. But I say that to give an example of, we have a lot of conversations about season ticket members, front row clients, right? Like in game, how is their experience? The first thing I did when I got into that arena in December, I moved to San Antonio in December of 2021. Section 212, row 16, seat four is the top row in the corner of the arena. What is the perspective and what is the vantage point from there? How can I see every problem from that vantage point? How can I see very opportunity from that vantage point? And I use as an example, why do I think about this work differently? It's because that seat holds a lot of power for me of a responsibility, I have to something much larger than myself, of course, but much different than the ways in which we traditionally think about sport.
David Stiepleman: Yeah. So, when you sat down in that seat, metaphorically or actually, did you, were you like “Oh my God, this is not an ideal experience for this person who’s sitting in this seat.” What did you change? What did you do?
Kara Allen: That's awesome. Right? Yeah. That's, the “enter the fire” moment, and the beauty of this role is that I'm not responsible for creating anything new, right? I'm responsible for listening, listening, listening, and then doing our best to act well with intention and with clarity. Saying no to things that aren't right for us. And saying yes to things, and saying “yes, well” saying “no, and” and saying “yes, well.” We talk a lot about moving at the speed of community, but that was it. What's community telling us we need to do? And then how do we integrate that? And how do I push on conversations that otherwise might not center the people whose voice I want to make sure are heard. And so, the question, maybe I'm still not getting to it, but the question being - nothing changed for me. That's what I've always done. So, the beauty is like, I just keep showing up the same way.
David Stiepleman: It's funny, you keep talking about listening, I heard you when you kind of wade into the sports world, you realize just how focused people are on their team, and I am too, which is crazy. And you were on either a podcast or some kind of program that's a daily program updating on what's going on with the Spurs. And I'm sure there's plenty of things to talk about every single day. But you were opening a community core Acme course. I don’t know what that is. And either you or the host of the program, I can't remember who said it, and I should have gone back to listen, said” Oh, it's so great to hear the community back alive.” It was a very nice moment, what did that mean to you?
Kara Allen: That's it, right? I know exactly the moment you're speaking of. And I love the sound of an arena, right? Yesterday was remarkable. Last night hearing our first game back in the arena is incredible. And also, nothing me happier than a basketball and an outdoor court with young people in joy mode with their parents. That's it, that's the work we get to do. And be fair. The nerd in me will tell you that you build a basketball court in a community and crime goes down. While that's not the story that's sexy or fun, or that we're going to put on the jumbotron, that's the reality. So, if I know the center and I know the data, then I'll quietly work when people can think I just talk on podcasts and smile and laugh, right? But when you sleep, I'm digging into the data to figure out, what are the most transformative things we can do with the resource we have available?
David Stiepleman: Which brings up the topic – now you’re going out into the community. Let's talk about San Antonio first, because obviously there's a whole San Antonio, there's Austin, and there's San Antonio, Austin, Texas, and then there's the world because it's a global brand. I want to talk about that too. I'm starting to feel like our list of things that continue to fall, it’s getting a little disorganized. But it's okay. How do you get out there and how do you hear what the community's asking you to do?
Kara Allen: A couple ways. One, we have a responsibility as an impact team, not just me as a human, but as an impact team, to model for the whole organization how we constantly listen and learn. There’s a lot of really little ways. So, someone just celebrated a hundredth birthday. She's a legacy in San Antonio. But because of a friend of a friend of a friend, somebody learned that her dream has been to sit courtside at a Spurs game. But that's as community as anything else. Get to her and get her to a courtside ticket. It's just that easy. That's community in the same way that it's building a core, and it's creating space for healing, and it's showing up in all the different things we do. But you mentioned it earlier, I am nothing if not a steward of teaching folks how to stop and listen. Slow down and listen and pay attention. Don't just hear but listen.
David Stiepleman: What's that skill? How do you cultivate that skill? It's really important in everything. Investing, doing the work you do, everything.
Kara Allen: Confidence in self. I mean, to be fair, it sounds like maybe now we're going to do a whole new class we're going to have a conversation about. When we stop centering our own identity, stop centering our own ego, and we focus on what is the mission at hand? What is the work? It's bigger than self, it's bigger than ball. Pop says, “Get over yourself.” I think in order for us to get over ourselves, we got to have confidence, safety, and trust that “I'm okay, I’m safe here, I’m trusted here.” And if all those things are true, then go out and go be great. And just listen. I'm not asking you to deliver anything but your ear and a response. A meaningful, intentional, honest response. And then, let's move like ducks real fast underwater to do the rightest thing, but we listen first. And so, I think the first step for me has always been, how do I ensure that the folks around me feel safe and trusted and valued? And that they don't know it all? And that's cool. And we're going to mess up and it's cool. And also go, “Listen, we're going to be all right.”
David Stiepleman: You need a great team. And how do you hire for that?
Kara Allen: Hire people smarter than me. You know that, right? Hire people smarter than me. But again, I think I'll go back to it's an ego free conversation, which is to say, where are you really good? Where do you also want to go? And what gaps still exists in the work that we do? That is one piece. Two, we can have real conversations about who's representing the people in the community. And that for me has also been important. Like, whose voices are at the table when not everyone is at the table together. And in having those hard conversations. And then, I think maybe finally, how are we aligning on what our vision as a team is constantly? How do we realign on that and ensure that we are on the same path? Because our work, when we talk about impact, people often think it's like just the community relations piece. Community relations is very small part of the work that we do. But really the DEI work, the crisis response work, the people and culture building work, that's all under one umbrella for us for one reason. It all has to be approached through the same lens. We have to stay focused on the ways in which we believe that the team has to move in order for us to execute on those visions.
David Stiepleman: You reminded me of a conversation we had last season with Rick Weltz, who's a friend of our firm. He is on the board of our Bay FC, our NWSL franchise and was the president and COO of the Golden State Warriors. And he was very insistent on the sporting side, the business side, and to your point, the impact in every side, needs to be kind of sung from the same hymnal. And there has to be a culture of excellence and rigor. Because then it reinforces each other, and the value stuff reinforces it. So how do you do that? You were talking about section 212 – this is a very compound question, I apologize – how you go into those rooms, “We need to take this into account too,” or, “Let's reframe and look through the right lens.” What are those conversations like? How do you make sure that we're all thinking about it the same way?
Kara Allen: Pull back the curtain. I landed a little bit ago in San Francisco, right? Our CEO calls me and says, “We need somebody, a body to be the connection point between basketball, impact and business.” And this is a lot. We have had an org design conversation more intentionally for probably the last six, seven months. But what is the right design? So, my short answer is, which I don't really give, let's be real, but we don't have it all figured out yet. We don't know. We are making a couple big bets right now. But the nerd in me will also tell you that none of those big bet’s work if we can't sit in a room and trust each other. We did this exercise, a mousetrap exercise, which will tell you I ran summer camps for a long time before anything else.
Kara Allen: I was a teacher for kiddos who often weren't interested in learning the traditional way. And the mousetrap exercises, you progressively get to a point where you and I are partners, you are blindfolded and I can't touch you, and all I can do is talk to you and teach you how to move your hand above the mousetrap and dislodge the mousetrap on your hand without snapping a finger, which takes a lot of trust. Right? And I share that to say, I can tell you in the 10 minutes of that activity, who in this room is ready to build trust. And when you're not in the room, I have basketball's best interest in the room. When you're not in the room. I have the interest of revenue in the room for you. That's hard to do. We don't have it figured out yet. We're building a few models to test and learn and see if we're going to get it right. And it also starts at the top. Rick is right. And I think Rick, models that and has driven that in the same way RC is modeling that and drives that.
David Stiepleman: The amount of learning across boundaries - the possibility that that presents. Because if, as a sports fan, you look at teams and, and sometimes the difference is, do they trust each other? Are they working well together? And you have to instill that so quickly as a coach or as a GM or whatever. And presumably, if you're working on that at the executive level and across, that can renown to the benefit of the sporting side and vice versa. Is that real?
Kara Allen: Absolutely. Right? We talk about One SS&E. One SS&E is One Spur Sports Entertainment, and what does it mean to be One SS&E? How do we exist and live and name in the tensions between these priorities? A good example: So, we have three strategic objectives. We have seven key initiatives that we're executing on right now as an organization. The whole organization. Every town hall. You'll hear about the key initiatives. You go onto our intranet; you hear about the key initiatives. You talk to one of your leaders, you're hearing about your key initiatives. Those key initiatives each have an approver. Our purpose-built global partnerships team, the approver is me. So, that means that we do not say yes to a partnership of any size, be it naming rights, Jersey Patch, right on down, without me as the approval.
David Stiepleman: Oh, very interesting.
Kara Allen: Which is to say, we have said no to six and seven figure partnerships because they do not align to our impact strategy.
David Stiepleman: So that's real. The organization's putting its money where its mouth is in terms of values. It's impressive. Not surprising, but impressive. You mentioned Uvalde, obviously a terrible tragedy that the community's going to be working through for generations. How do you walk into that in terms of some of the fires you're talking about? You walk into that with, with grace and credibility and there's got to be some degree of cynicism as to why is the professional sports organization? How did, you do that? Because you've gotten incredible results and feedback and forget about awards. You've gotten awards too, but that's not why you're doing it. What do you do? How do you do that?
Kara Allen: Credibility is out for the Spurs, right? The Spurs and the brand had credibility long before I was there. Sure. I'm an outsider. I got to earn my stripe in San Antonio, earn my spur in San Antonio every day, and I receive it. I love it. I love the accountability that that community holds me to. And so, I read an article like everybody else, and was overwhelmed and as you can imagine, I’m getting dozens of messages a minute, “What are we gonna do?” “What Spurs response?” “What’s the NBA response?” “What’s the Texas NBA team’s response?” “What’s the Texas Pro sports teams’ response?” Mind you, I’ve been in pro sports for eight months. I’ve been spending my lifetime running nonprofits. I don’t know, I’ll tell you what a nonprofit does, but a sports team is going to do something really different.
Kara Allen: So, I root on what I know to be true, which is, let’s listen to community. So, I’m listening and reading, and I read this story about this girls’ basketball team, Tree City Spurs, and their name is Spurs. So, I wonder who coaches the Spurs? Well, it’s this guy named Steven. Well, who is Steven? I’m looking this man up on Instagram. Steven’s a barber in town. So, I go to find the barbershop and Google the barbershop, and I called the barbershop. I was like, “Hey, is this Steven?” And it’s silent. I say “Steven, this is Kara. I work for the Spurs.” And Steven hangs up the phone. I was like, “all right, okay.” So, 20 seconds later Steven calls back, “I'm really sorry, what's your last name?” I said, "It's Kara Allen. I work for San Antonio Spurs.” “Okay, can I call you back?” And he hangs up the phone again. So, the man Googles me, and he calls back and he's like, “Okay, do you have any media with you?” “No sir. It's just me in my office. I'm skipping a meeting right now. But I found your number and just wanted to call.” And Steven and I ended up talking for a while, and he's the coach of this team, and he's got 11 girls and two of them were murdered at Robb Street. Or Robb Elementary rather. And so, I just kept listening. Like Steven, Erica, his wife, “What do you need? What do you want? What do you need?” “We don't need a scholarship fund right now. We don't need a story right now. We need these media to leave us alone so we can figure out how we heal.” “Cool. We are here.”
Kara Allen: Same thing with the city. Same thing with partners - our staff who are from Uvalde, asked the honest question, "What do you need?” And then wait and listen to the real answer. If we would've centered ourselves, I would've launched a fund immediately. It would've been on Twitter. And we would have put it on Instagram, and we would have asked the NBA. We could've done all those things. As a matter of fact, if you dig deep, there were negative comments about what the Spurs weren't doing. What had the Spurs given to you Uvalde? Zero point zero dollars.
David Stiepleman: Everyone’s looking for the immediate, the easy.
Kara Allen: I don't care. You know. And our comments are like -
David Stiepleman: That's hard for you in your eighth month not to care about that kind of press. How did you handle it?
Kara Allen: I would rather get fired and lose my job for caring about that message than ever make anyone in Uvalde feel like they weren't the center of the world. That's it. There's no question. There's not but, and there's no comma. That's a period. And after that, how do we truly take care of each other? We got impact jackets that say take care of each other. We have a responsibility to live that mission of taking care of each other. And so, we did, and we still do. And did we launch a scholarship fund? Yes. Those kiddos will leave high school, whatever happens next in their world, they'll have a significant number of dollars that they receive that is just theirs to do as they wish. Do they also need HEB cards for groceries because they can't go back to work yet? Because they're exhausted? Yes. We got you for that too. I will never forget, there's a longer story around the new practice facility, but the short story is with our practice facility the team was in at the time - Listen, we want to do something to just bring joy to just this team.
David Stiepleman: This is the practice facility that the professional basketball team was in. Okay. Got it.
Kara Allen: So, let's bring the Tree City Spurs, and their families, and the families of those who have the girls who were lost. And let's bring them to the practice facility and let's give them all the love, the half court, the halftime, and the timeout games that we play on the basketball court, let's bring them in. The coyote, let's bring him in. Coach, let's bring him in. Players, let's bring them in. No cameras, no story. Just love and joy and be together. And I will never forget that moment. I will never forget the stories that come from those little pockets of joy. Right? Does that solve a crisis? No. But what does sports do? It brings people together. It unites people, it heals folks. And it allows folks to see and be seen. And that doesn't solve, right?
Kara Allen: But it does. And there are other things we can do to solve on the side, but sometimes you just got to do that work. The Uvalde story, I think is, I, never want the story of an award or any number of awards of other work that we do to overshadow one, the tragedy and the horror of the ways in which we exist in the world. And I'll name for you, the clarity with which the organization as a whole had in response to Uvalde is why the Spurs story and the Spurs brand remains so true. That our staff all went out to volunteer. That we took the whole open scrimmage to the Uvalde Valley High School and ran it out there. And our staff made the fair happen and our staff were there sun up to sundown and then some, and planning for it.
Kara Allen: And then the training conversations with our staff - well, how do we talk about not using the word parent. Well, how do you say it? Because every family looks different. Maybe you live with grandma, maybe you’re in the foster care system. So how do you talk about it? So what do you say? Well, if a kid's less than eight years old, just say, who's the adult you live with? And if they're older than eight, you probably say caregiver. And they'll know that language. And it's like, we're a professional sports team. There's no responsibility that we need to have that conversation, but it's a little thing that folks learn to get better as a result.
David Stiepleman: I ask this deliberately as a follow-up question, not because I want to turn to clinical business stuff, but because that story is all about doing it the right way, doing it in a sustained way with grace and with class if I can use that word. How do you scale that? Is that even, are you thinking about, does that matter? I mean, it kind of matters. There's a lot of stuff going on in the world even just in San Antonio. So how do you scale that?
Kara Allen: So scale's an interesting question, right? So, what are we trying to do? Are we scaling grace? You know? What's the scalable thing that we should talk about? Are we scaling culture? Or are we scaling response to tragedy? So, the longer answer is, I'm curious, what's the scalable thing that you want? And let's dig deep there. For me, the way in which I think about the question is, with the tools that we have available, knowing the business priorities as well as the community of fans, which we call family, right? What is our response? How do we connect those? How do we authentically connect those? In two weeks, we'll head down to Mexico, where we built two new basketball courts, and we launched our youth basketball league there.
Kara Allen: We have fans in Mexico. Since Victor joined, we have 4,000 new season ticket accounts. And our highest growth is in the Hispanic population. And now of course, there's a business reality to that, but also, we're community. I see you; you see me, I see your identity. I use Hispanic because Hispanic, Latino, that identity is a family for us and for them. So, respond, go do the right thing. Those folks who buy tickets? I would venture to guess that not everybody in their surrounding community, family or circles of identity all have the opportunity to buy tickets, whether by geography, economic ability, et cetera. Okay. So, let's go to them and get them what we can with what we have. That's the scalable piece, right? We can’t solve all the things, we won't. But what we can do is listen. Who are our people? Listen to the people who can't come into the arena and still want to be our people and understand what they need and want and use what we have to go get it. And know when to say “no, and.” Sorry, my last piece.
David Stiepleman: Explain that.
Kara Allen: Uh…
David Stiepleman: Please.
Kara Allen: No, you don't have to say please. I was still going to explain it, sir. So early childhood education is critically important, in Texas and everywhere. It's critically important. There are lots of players doing really good work. “Well, Kara, why don't you launch a Spurs Community Leadership institute around early childhood education?” Well, because that's actually not our focus area. We are not experts at that, we aren't unique in that. So no, and I know how to find all those people. And I know that because of the nonprofit space, the ways in which organizations work and the ways in which government structures work, the philanthropic world works, we often don’t take the time or know who’s going to have the money to bring us all together to talk about the things that are working, to talk about the ways in which we can amplify and scale the things that we do it better together and to do joy.
Kara Allen: All right? So, find the 10 providers, 10 funders, and the two governmental agencies who are supporting the work in San Antonio and the surrounding area. We'll give you the impact suite for the night. Take the impact suite, come an hour and a half early. Engage. I can facilitate if you'd like us to facilitate or you can just have the space you go do your thing. We give you the space. You go to be great. So that's my “no, and.” I can't dedicate all of our team resources to it. I can allow what we have to allow you to get better.
David Stiepleman: I want to follow up on one of your themes, which is having hard conversations, getting around the table, and link it to walking into the fire in particular. Maybe whether it's because you're in Texas or because of our current environment or whatever, and I don’t want to make assumptions, that some of the ideas or principles that you're subscribing to are not popular with everybody and you meet resistance to those things. What's the method? How do you handle that? That’s hard. What do you do?
Kara Allen: We listen. For me, that's the work. And to be honest, that's what makes me happiest about the work, is that we've created an atmosphere. Not that we've always gotten it right, or that we always get it right, but we are creating an atmosphere where folks feel comfortable saying the thing. Saying the thing like, that doesn't work, or we can't do that. And then we dig in together. It was easy - I was a CEO for nonprofits for 19 years. And so, I got to make the decisions. And obviously there's going to be pushback from board and otherwise, but largely with data to prove the priorities and the decisions that we make, we keep it moving. Well, it's like running three different nonprofits, all of which have different priorities, et cetera. Right? We've got business and basketball and impact, and that's cool. That's where the tension lies. And so, I had a conversation with an investor yesterday who was like “Well, why do you always feel so calm when it's messy?” So that's it. That's where the work is, right? That's where the magic happens. And that's also where I think we reveal ourselves the best.
David Stiepleman: You've talked about the work being cathedral building work. Explain that. I think that's a cool idea.
Kara Allen: Yeah. So, I think sport in particular more than anywhere else, right? We want to see you put a new human in the game, right? You see an opportunity and the results change on the court. You make some shifts on offense, shifts on defense, and you see the results change ideally, right? That's a theory, philosophy in a business is similar. In impact sometimes it takes a little bit longer. And to be honest, if we're real, in business, it takes a little bit longer as well. And for me, the cathedral building work is a reminder that one, each of us has the responsibility to lay a really good brick, right? That you, whether you lay one brick or you spend your lifetime laying 130 bricks, you're still laying bricks and you're still not building a cathedral with 130 bricks. But if each of us take our bricks responsibly and keep building together, then that's the cathedral. We're building something that we're never actually going to see the outcome to. That's so cool. I'll be long gone by the time my vision for the Spurs is true. And nobody will say, what did Kara do? And everybody will say, “Look at this brilliant way in which impact lives, drives and flourishes for the Spurs, for the San Antonio community and for the Spurs family because of the work that we were laying bricks doing now.”
David Stiepleman: Your kind of alluded to this before. In all of our work, we want to measure it. We want metrics. But that longer view, it’s not as if the metrics don’t matter, but you have to have this longer view, so you don't lose sight of the impact and also the patience that some of the stuff is generational. How do you resolve that tension? Because you're still responsible to a team, and investors and all that kind of stuff. So how do you do that?
Kara Allen: Both things are true, and know what hat to put on, right? Both things are true. I know who's in the room with me and I know the things that they're going to need to hear. And I know that I also have a responsibility to keep us focused on the cathedral. So, if I both name the cathedral and back it up with the data, that's how we do the work. We just have to be okay with – RC, he will now say it often - like, “Okay, Kara, both things can be true.” Yes! I'm going to name that all the time, right? Both things can be true. It's the social worker in me, right? It is so much easier to see a black and a white. It is so much easier to say, data tells us we do X, so go do X. Alright. And is X the right thing for that long vision? And if not, why? And if so, how do we do both things really well? We ask the question, both things true, which is a non-answer and also the exact answer. That’s it. The magic is in the two of those.
David Stiepleman: Over the next five years. What are you hoping? What are the next couple bricks in the cathedral? What's the legacy you're building?
Kara Allen: Let's put this in practice. One, I'm gonna tell you take care of each other. If we stop that, then I'm out, right? If folks don't feel like they belong here, then we're doing the wrong thing. I'm not the right leader and that's my vote of no confidence to myself. And that's community's vote of no confidence to me. Both things are true. By 2030, I want us to ensure that 10 million girls and women have access to sport because of the way in which we show up at all costs. Because we know that 94% of c-suite executives who are women, played sport. And we know what girls in sport does for graduation from high school for pregnancy, right? For feelings of belonging, for mental health safety. We know all these things to be true. And by the way, you know this as well as anyone, investing in a woman's sports team is awesome. It's necessary. It's actually necessary even when the dollars seemingly “don't make sense.” They make so much sense.
David Stiepleman: They make so much sense.
Kara Allen: Do you know what else makes sense? When a men's sports team does that? That's not hard to understand. And that's doing that in all the ways. There's not only one way to do that, but it's showing up and it's ensuring that we're dedicating resources to do the hard things. So, I say both things are true, because both things are true. Take care of each other and drive that data. Make decisions that ensure that 10 million girls and women have access to sport because of us.
David Stiepleman: We started with Victor, and I think about these guys in these sports, and the women in the women's sports. They're very good at a particular thing. And then they show up and there's these bright lights and sometimes they're really young and Victor’s from France - I have great empathy for them. That must be so hard to do at a kind of different level. It was an adjustment for you as well. I mean, now you're in like the public eye. That wasn't your career necessarily. How’s that going?
Kara Allen: Well, one I'll say, so my 10-year-old said the other day, “Mom, Victor's like the tallest teenager in San Antonio.”
David Stiepleman: It's crazy.
Kara Allen: That's it. He is a human and a teenager first. And our responsibility is to see all of our players as humans first. They are awesome humans. Right? And like all of us, learning humans. And so, we do that first, right? Two, I've always been an open book. The things that have not gone well in my career have been because I've tried to be the thing, I thought I was supposed to be as a leader.
David Stiepleman: Interesting.
Kara Allen: And I'm confident enough in who I am and how I show up in this work now that my relationship is maybe the only thing, I keep private. It is a thing that I have to cherish. But beyond that, I'm in, I'm all in, I'm all here, because here's the thing: My responsibility is to community. So, my responsibility is also for you to know who I am as a human, not as an executive, not with a title, but as a human who is going to get dirty and do the work alongside you all the time. I'm going to walk every floor all the time. I'm going to show up alongside our staff all the time. I don't understand the public eye, but I also am uninterested in not being this person because I owe it to community. So here we are.
David Stiepleman: Growing up, whether it's playing basketball or in school or getting your PhD or along the way, is there a mentor or a teacher or a role model that you particularly think about when you're doing the work?
Kara Allen: I think adults have a responsibility to be pretty brilliant. I'll do all work for young people at all costs. That's as a human in the world, less so as a leader of the Spurs, though also for that. But I have always been both motivated by and driven for ensuring that young people have what they need to go be great.
David Stiepleman: Is there someone who did that for you?
Kara Allen: There’re people who taught me how not to do it, who are also mentors sometimes. My mom and dad are stellar humans. I'm saying that partially because I called them old earlier, but also because, I learned a lot of who I am not because we are all exactly the same. I’m just like my mom and dad, I’m not, I'm very different. But they taught me a nurturing space to go be great in the world. And I feel like I have a deep responsibility to create nurturing spaces to let other people go be great.
David Stiepleman: Awesome. You mentioned Victor and the fan base changing somewhat overnight, and it's skewing a lot younger as well in addition to selling a lot of tickets. What is that demographic? What does that fan base need or want that's maybe different? I think, if I recall correctly, the Spurs fan base went from the oldest in the league to youngest very, very quickly. How does that change your work? How does that impact your work?
Kara Allen: Yeah. So, all of what you read and learned is correct, right? Overnight, that's 4,000 new accounts. Half of those are either Gen Z or millennials. And so, we went from one of the oldest family bases in the league to the youngest family bases in the league. And so, we hired a behavioral economist to help us understand who our fans are now and what do they want and need. And while we are learning and we’ll continue to learn a lot and, and our behavioral economist is an incredible human who's helping us unpack what all this is telling us. One of the things we know to be true and what we have heard from the beginning is that our people want the impact work. Our people want bigger than ball work. And that's not too different than what I think businesses are learning around the new generation, right? Kara Allen (49:04):
It’s bigger than business, its bigger than brand, but let's go be great in the world together. And summarize and oversimplify, right? But our fan base is the exact same. The new fan base. The older fan base doesn't not want that by the way. I think an important asterisk here is our older fan base has been deep in community and has a deep commitment to community, and if you ask them as I did in our sort of ongoing interview process with community, it is the work, it is how and why we show up, which is aligned to our culture, that's so important. What's really cool is that in this new generation of fan, we have both a sustained commitment to the impact work, and an elevated accountability metric by which they're holding us to, to continue to do great work.
David Stiepleman: I think lots of businesses including ours, find we are being asked to speak out on topics that are timely, painful, lots of different things. And sometimes you might be asked to speak on things that you don't agree with or that aren't aligned with your values, or maybe you're not sure if you're the right person to be talking about it or waiting into it. How do you guys handle that?
Kara Allen: Everybody feels like we got to have the answer. We don't. We just simply don't. So, can we name when we don't have the answer. And then can we name how we're going to go get it? And maybe we need to do it together. So, there are times when our affinity groups or ERGs, or however you want to name it, are critically helpful. There are times when our network of people who we see as experts in their areas of work come in and help us make sense of things. But I think if I take a step back, prior to joining the Spurs, post the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Spurs didn’t do anything right away. The perception was the Spurs didn’t do anything right away. And what the Spurs did, was stop and think, what meaningful work are we going to do both to take care of our people here who might and are, wondering, hurting, processing, and what can we honestly commit to that isn't for us to feel good about being in the world, but actually, “All right, we're going to continue this.” So, one, the organization launched Spurs Voices, which was a deep dive into meaningful, authentic, hard acknowledgements of our own staff telling the stories of the injustices, the racism, what they have experienced and what has occurred. Which still lives and that we’ve grown over the last couple years. And then two, our CEO, along with other 12 other CEOs across San Antonio, launched Corporate Partners for Racial Equity, which continues to pour over $13 million into San Antonio. And now I sound like an advertisement, and I will say, part of the reason I came to this spurge is that, how do we drive meaningful conversations and meaningful progress, policy change when necessary, and possible to do this work?
Kara Allen: Well, the non-Dilutive Capital Fund, just for black-owned businesses in San Antonio, that also gives the training and development to be a sustained and growing business, even in the economy which all of us are navigating. That's the work. That's cathedral building work, and that's generational work that we're doing. So, I think that’s maybe an answer and non-answer. Right. How do we respond? Listen, don't say the thing to feel good about saying the thing. Be honest about knowing when and how you show up and be honest and acknowledge when you don't know the right thing to say. I mean, we've been in that mode, what do we anchor back in, by the way, is humanity. Like, how are we showing up for humanity?
David Stiepleman: I'll be a little presumptuous maybe and maybe just express it as a hope that the alignment that I think our two institutions feel is because of that. It's hard to listen and not have the immediate reflex response. And it's also better but also harder to have the patience and actually go do the stuff, and actually do it for real in a way that's going work. And that means it takes time and you got to actually be thoughtful about it, which you don't really have time for that anymore these days. In a lot of ways, I sound like an old person, but I think it's true.
Kara Allen: Well maybe we're both old together, but it's also less sexy, right? I think that's the thing, if you can't capture it on an Instagram post and you can't capture it the same way in a headline, and okay, go do the work. Okay. So, let's acknowledge this, let's acknowledge that. Let's also acknowledge when we need to do work to tell stories because we have responsibility to tell a story. And let's just go do the work. Let's figure out what it is.
David Stiepleman: And it's more sustained and it's more real. And yeah. It's, in the end it's better. Anyway, I'm gonna end it there. Kara, thank you. This is a delight.
Kara Allen: Thank you.
David Stiepleman: Yeah. Super fun. I really appreciate you being here.
David Stiepleman: That was Dr. Kara Allen, Chief People Impact and Belonging Officer for the San Antonio Spurs. We sat down in San Francisco on October 26th, 2023. I think you heard from her about what it's like to build a new function inside of a great organization. You heard about the power and the importance of humility and what I think people call servant leadership. And I think she's kind of emblematic of that. You heard how important it is to have the right tone at the top of an organization if you want to get great things done. And finally, I think you just heard about the power of stopping and actually listening to yourself, to your team, and to your community if you want to get great things done. So, thanks to Kara Allen for the open and honest conversation and all of our best to her and to her team, and to the San Antonio Spurs for the rest of the season. Thanks.