A Champion for Women’s Basketball
A Champion for Women’s Basketball
Margaret Stender ’74, minority owner of the Chicago Sky, revels in their 2021 WNBA Championship win.
BY SUSIE ZIMMERMANN
When the Chicago Sky won its first-ever Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) championship in October 2021, the city quickly organized a celebration rally in downtown Chicago. As Margaret Stender, minority owner and chair of the Sky, approached Millennium Park for the rally, she was nervous that the crowd would be sparse and that the Sky players would be disappointed. But she had nothing to worry about.
“I was absolutely blown away by the size of the crowd, and all the joy and enthusiasm,” she recalls. “It was exhilarating, a sea of blue and yellow. It was the incredibly diverse Sky crowd: women and men of all ages, colors, and ethnicities…all swaying and singing and cheering together for their Chicago Sky. What a beautiful site in today’s world of division and conflict!”
Margaret was the team’s first employee, founding president and CEO when the Sky was established in 2005. She led the organization through its first six years of growth, challenges, and development. At the rally, Margaret reflected on how far the team had come from those early days when the organization struggled to get media coverage and sell tickets to games. In the run to the championship, the fan base grew game by game to, eventually, sell-outs for the semi-finals and finals, and an enormous crowd for the celebration rally that included the governor, the mayor, and many of the city’s famed pro athletes. “Seeing thousands of my fellow Chicagoans love and support this team, this amazing group of women, is a feeling I will always cherish.”
Gaining Confidence, Leadership Skills, and a Love of Sports
For Margaret, the Sky celebration also marked the culmination of her career and life-long love of sports, which was ignited at St. Agnes. As an Upper Schooler, she played basketball, field hockey, and softball, ran track and field, and served as captain of the Green Team. She received the Good Sportsmanship Cup in her senior year. Margaret also was involved in student government and served as president of her junior class, was counselor-at-large to the Honor Board, and worked on the Lambs’ Tale yearbook and Ecology Club. “I hung out at school all the time,” she remembers.
The trophy weighs 18 pounds!
“Seeing thousands of my fellow Chicagoans love and support this team, this amazing group of women, is a feeling I will always cherish.”
– Margaret Stender ’74
Among the teachers and coaches she admired, Margaret remembers meeting coach Kathy Jenkins in 1971 soon after she started at the school. “She cut in front of me in the cafeteria, and I thought she was a new girl,” she says, “but it turned out she was our new basketball coach!” This was the start of a coach-athlete mentorship and friendship that has continued through the decades, and the two remain close friends today.
Margaret (right) rallying the Green Team to a win in her senior year.
“Kathy encouraged me to get better, to care more,” says Margaret. Kathy encouraged Margaret to develop her game so she could play basketball in college, a non-traditional path for girls at the time. “Even though Kathy was only 23 years old then, she had a vision and wisdom beyond her years,” says Margaret, who remembers Kathy starting the lacrosse program at St. Agnes without much knowledge of the sport and, as a such, innovatively and successfully applying her basketball expertise to the stick sport. Fifty years later, Kathy’s tenure was celebrated in May, along with her 800 career wins and the legacy she has built for girls lacrosse at SSSAS, in the region, and around the country.
Kathy remembers Margaret from those days as an outstanding athlete and person. “Her successes came from her strong work ethic and a passion and love for playing sports,” she says. “She inspired her teammates to play their best, and her desire to spend extra time working on her basketball skills helped me become a better coach. Margaret’s love of basketball pushed me to study the game so I could stay one step ahead of her.”
For Margaret, attending the all-girls school “was a huge advantage,” she says. “I was shy, quiet, tall, skinny, and being in that environment and playing sports helped me find my leadership voice and confidence in all aspects of school life.” Margaret adds that the “strong-willed and at-times intimidating Headmistress Roberta McBride helped us believe we could do anything!”
During her college years, Margaret would return often to St. Agnes to help Coach Jenkins with her teams and demonstrate skills, and cement a connection with Kathy and the school that would last for decades. In 1997, she was the inaugural inductee into the SSSAS Hall of Fame.
From College Athletics to Coaching
Margaret attended the University of Richmond, where she was a three-sport student athlete and the first female to receive an athletic scholarship. She captained the field hockey team and was named to the 1st Team Tidewater All-Star Team. Co-captain of the basketball team for three years, she led her team to the most victories in school history at the time. She was named to the All-State Basketball team for three years, and, as a walk-on lacrosse player, made the 3rd Team Lacrosse All-State. Not a bad run for someone who said she had bad stick work, “although my basketball cutting and running skills helped make up for that by allowing me to stay open and shoot,” she reminisces.
At Richmond, Margaret also served as an Honor Council member and class officer, and was voted by the students as one of 20 seniors who made significant contributions to the university. In 2007, she was inducted into the University of Richmond Hall of Fame and earned a Spider Athletics Alumni Achievement Award in 2020 for leadership and professional contributions.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in education and history, Margaret moved to Norfolk for three years to teach PE and coach girls varsity basketball and lacrosse at Norfolk Academy. A casual conversation with a lacrosse parent about a link between business and sports led Margaret to consider a career in business, and with that in mind she returned to school to earn her MBA at the University of Virginia.
After receiving that degree in 1983, Margaret moved to Chicago to work for Quaker Oats, working her way up in the ranks of the consumer products company. She left Quaker to work at Ameritech and Rand McNally, and later returned before Quaker was acquired by PepsiCo in 2002. In the subsequent years, her leadership roles included president for Quaker Oats Ready-to-Eat Cereals and president of Tropicana Shelf Stable Beverages.
In the 1974 “Lamb’s Tale,” the words under Margaret’s senior portrait (left photo) tells her story, including: “jock, enthusiastic Green, Councilor at Large, Mrs. Jenkins, always smiling or laughing, tall, to be a gym teacher, loves math, knee socks and topsiders, legs…
Reaching for the Sky
In 2004 Margaret was introduced to longtime Chicago businessman Michael Alter, who had just decided to start a new WNBA franchise in Chicago when the league was looking for local investors. Alter needed someone to run the team, and while Margaret was skeptical at first, she was pleased to discover that the two of them had complimentary skills and values which would make a good team in building the organization.
Margaret was a business-trained marketer who capably built the Sky’s brand in the community. Michael’s commercial real estate expertise forged the connections and resources they needed with local businesses and politicians to build the franchise. “Ours was a fun and productive partnership,” says Margaret.
“When I graduated from high school in 1974, one in 33 girls had the opportunity to participate in high school athletics. Now that number is one in three. These girls are learning the life lessons of sports and becoming a generation of women who believe they can do anything.”
– Margaret Stender ’74
Working with the Sky also presented Margaret an opportunity to further advance women’s sports while also getting more involved with the city of Chicago, something she had not been able to do previously. And of course, witnessing first-hand the progress in women’s sports that Title IX has brought was a thrill. In 2007 at the time of her University of Richmond Hall of Fame induction, Margaret says, “When I graduated from high school in 1974, one in 33 girls had the opportunity to participate in high school athletics. Now that number is one in three. These girls are learning the life lessons of sports and becoming a generation of women who believe they can do anything.”
As invigorating as the new job was, Margaret also faced innumerable challenges. At the time, most WNBA teams were affiliated with their NBA counterpart teams in each market, but the Sky was independent of the Bulls NBA organization and the WNBA headquarters had little experience with independently owned WNBA teams. However, Margaret and her organization’s pioneering efforts to build the team on the court and in the front office have since led to a transformation of some of the WNBA’s league rules to make it possible for other independent franchises to operate successfully.
Through all the obstacles the organization faced, Margaret’s appreciation of the fans and their unwavering support for the Sky has been mutual. She fondly remembers the team’s Opening Night in 2006. “The arena was packed and everyone was giddy,” she says. “People were thanking me and I wanted to thank them for buying tickets!”
Throughout her tenure, Margaret always sought to keep “an eye to the game and an eye to the business,” by focusing equally on the fans and the athletes. “Pro sports seem to think first in terms of the game, which of course is important,” she explains. “But it’s also critical to appreciate our most loyal supporters and address what they care most about.”
She steered the franchise through important milestones, corporate partnerships and sponsorships, a venue move to Allstate Arena, TV broadcast contracts, creation of the Chicago Sky Cares Foundation, and helping to build a winning roster that included 3 WNBA all-stars. “We have been proud to introduce our world-class athletes as exceptional role models,” says Margaret. “It has been rewarding to showcase strong accomplished women as an inspiration and a force for positive social change.”
Margaret stepped down from the president/CEO role with the Sky in 2010 so she could have more time with her children and her parents, who had recently moved to Chicago. She retains a minority ownership and chair role with the Sky, while continuing to attend almost every game and cheer every accomplishment leading up to the championship.
When daughter Kathryn was in seventh grade, Margaret recognized the need for a girl-focused basketball club in Chicago, so she established Flow Basketball Academy with former pro athlete and coach Korie Hlede. The basketball and leadership travel club works with girls 9-18 years old and offers a holistic approach that helps athletes fully engage physical and mental skills, capabilities, and preparation. The organization was able to continue through the COVID-19 pandemic, first via Zoom, then in small groups, and slowly returning to full squad activities for an enrollment of up to 90 student-athletes. Flow also helps its more senior girls create basketball resumes and college lists to market themselves to continue to play in college, and nine of its alumnae are currently playing at the college level.
In the past, Margaret served on the boards of The Latin School of Chicago and the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago & Northwest Indiana, and she was also a member of The Chicago Network.
Daughter Kathryn recently graduated from college and is working for the YWCA in Salt Lake City, while her brother Nicholas, 28, is a middle school social studies teacher in Chicago Public Schools. Proud mom Margaret stays in close touch with both of them, while also raising a new puppy, avidly bike-riding, cooking, and reading.
Looking back on her career and life, she encourages today’s Saints to recognize the lessons offered by sports, including goal-setting, teamwork, hard work, initiative, and leadership. “Use them as confidence boosters,” she says, “and skills and behaviors that can be applied to anything that you do in life.” Her career is testament to that.
More broadly, Margaret worries that American culture and society has become too focused on winning and losing. “Winning shouldn’t always mean that someone else loses,” she offers. “We shouldn’t lose a sense of kindness, caring, collaboration and empathy.”
Margaret speaking at the celebration for Kathy Jenkins when she achieved 600 lacrosse game wins in 2012.
Kathy Jenkins and Margaret remain close friends today, and Kathy appreciates the natural leadership Margaret has exhibited throughout her life and career. “High-performing athletes tend to be natural leaders both on and off the field or gym. Margaret was known for her leadership, sense of motivation and the innate ability to bring out the best in herself and those around her. I love that she has given back to the sport she loved the most. Margaret has 100% inspired and given young women a chance to be a part of her dream, and changed their lives for the best.”