As the former captain of Yale's women's ice hockey team and a former professional hockey player, Lisa Strasman honed her team-building and leadership skills well before she became president of Next College Student Athlete, an organization that connects high school athletes to more than 42,000 college coaches. That's not bad for someone who didn't always know whether she wanted to work in sports.
Strasman spent a season after college playing professional hockey in Switzerland before she started a career in technology sales, a field she excelled in but had little passion for. She joined NCSA in 2004 as an entry-level recruiting coach when the company was a start-up with 20 employees.
From NCSA headquarters in Chicago, Strasman, 38, now oversees a team of more than 650 people across the country and guides the development of the organization's proprietary software in matching student-athletes with potential schools. She builds relationships with collegiate coaches in 31 sports. Strasman is also a frequent panelist and speaker on the role of sports in the workplace. On top of that, she finds time to hit the ice as a coach with her 6-year-old son's ice hockey team, and she is pretty sure she is the only "mom coach."
Here is Strasman's story, in her words:
No girls? No problem
When I was a kid, my mom put me in figure skating, and I didn't want anything to do with the girly side of that, the costumes or the ice shows. I was a tomboy. I knew some boys who played hockey, and one day, I came home and told my parents I wanted to try that. That was back at a time when women's hockey was incredibly rare. There were very few girls that were playing across the country. In kindergarten, I learned to play with boys in my hometown of Skokie, Illinois, and was on my first real team in second grade. I was always the only girl on my teams. For me, I just loved playing so much, I'm not sure I even noticed. I played on a competitive girls' travel team and on my high school boys' team.
In about seventh grade, I ran up against a coach who said he would never take a girl on his team and held true to that. Throughout the years, I definitely faced coaches who would just be patronizing about the fact that I was out there, say that I was "cute." That type of thing always motivated me to be better. I remember my dad telling me early on that if I was going to be the only girl, it was that much more important to really prove my value. That's something that always stuck with me.
From the locker room to the board room
After college, I got an incredible opportunity to play in Switzerland, which I did for a season for St. Gallen, a town outside of Zurich. That was just one example of how playing hockey has opened up so many doors for me. I also think that being a female in a male-dominated sport has helped me in working in the sports industry. I've spent my whole life playing with males on the ice, so in a work setting, I feel like I fit in.
Being a competitive athlete and being a part of a team really instilled in me the value of hard work, perseverance and teamwork. Those are all traits that are absolutely a part of my day-to-day life in the corporate setting. A lot of what we went through in a locker-room-type setting isn't all that different from what you go through in a corporate environment of rallying people toward a common goal, overcoming obstacles and working together to achieve success.
Hacking the college recruiting process
The college recruiting process is really hard and stressful for families and for coaches. What we say at NCSA is "Where you go to school is not a four-year decision. It's a 40-year decision because of not only your degree but also the friendships that you make." We've built a platform and process to help student-athletes find and connect with the right schools for them, and we offer extensive support and guidance to help guide their families through the process. We also provide college coaches with data and insight so they can find the best possible recruits for their program.
A big part of what we do at NCSA is help our student-athletes and the college coaches make better connections. We're able to leverage years of data and layer on predictive analytics to help recommend the right programs to athletes and the right athletes to programs. We're constantly working to add more. We have a new app that's about to launch for college coaches. We have a team that's been out getting a lot of feedback from our student-athletes to find out what can make our recruiting process better for them.
Giving back is one of our core values and something we take very seriously. Our goal is to help every student-athlete who wants to play at the next level, regardless of their financial situation. We want to be accessible for everybody, so we have programs to help kids who are on a national free or reduced lunch program. Those student-athletes automatically qualify for 50 percent off any of NCSA's premium services.
I spent many years coaching youth hockey. While I love that, it was never something that I saw as a full-time career, so working at NCSA has really been the perfect combination of sports and the business aspect of solving problems and a give-back aspect where we are truly making a difference. Those three pieces fit together perfectly.
For me, the most satisfying part is really hearing back from the student-athlete or their parents, either once they've made their commitment or once they're off and playing at college.