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Powerful Women Let's Talk - 115: Keri Becker

Jennifer Moss welcomes GVSU Athletic Director Keri Becker to Powerful Women: Let’s Talk

Keri Becker is the Athletic Director at Grand Valley State University. Keri was appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to the Task Force of Women in Sports that convened 2019-2020. She is a current member of the NCAA Division II Membership Committee, is the current chair of the GLIAC Management council, and a Board of Directors member of the Women Leaders in College Sports national organization.


Narr: Produced by women, about women. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world; transforming who we are and how we live.

Jennifer Moss: Hello, everyone. Time for Powerful Women: Let's Talk. Thanks so much for joining us today. I'm Jennifer Moss. It is a pleasure to bring you today's powerful woman, Keri Becker. She's the athletic director at Grand Valley State University. She spent her entire career intercollegiate athletics, spanning 25 years. Plus, she is currently in her 7th year as the director of Athletics at GVSU prior to being named director of athletics, Becker’s career has always been on a college campus. She started her journey in the 1990's as a softball student athlete in Division 2 Saginaw Valley State University then moved into the head softball coaching position in 1996 at another rival school, Ferris State University, where she stayed for 15 years. Now in 2011, GVSU brought her on board as the associate athletic director and senior woman administrator and now she's in her 7th year here as the director. Lot of powerful woman stuff going on. Kari Becker, we surely welcome you to Powerful Women; Let's talk.

Keri Becker: Thank you. I appreciate being here.

JM: Yeah, we enjoy that and a little bit more about Keri here before we start our conversation. She was appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to the task force of women in sports that convened in 2019 and 2020. She's a current member of the NCAA Division 2 membership committee, current chair of the GLIAC Management Council, and a board of directors member of the women leaders in College Sports National Organization. And she was awarded the Michigan ACE Distinguished Woman in Higher Education Leadership Award during the summer of 2022. Most recently GVSU Athletics received the NCAA MOAA Award for diversity and Inclusion. Trust me, this is the short list we could go on and on, but let's talk. So we want to welcome you again and just say, you know, what a pleasure it is for you to be here. As we start, we should mention that under your leadership GVSU has continued its dominance at the division 2 level. We claim 28th overall Great Lakes Intercollegiate athletic conference, GLIAC. Presidents Cup title as the league. All sports champion and winning the 2021-22 division all sports Lear field IMG College Directors Cup crown for the 14th time. These are certainly some big accomplishments. Everyone’s going oh wow. My question for you is, are you enjoying the journey?

KB: There is no place I'd rather be. I love what I do, who I do it with and where I do it. And I was an athlete at heart growing up and I never thought athletics was a career path until I think it chose me and now that I'm in it, there's nothing else I'd rather do. So, absolutely. Love coming to work every day and seeing student athletes mature through the process and develop our coaches, develop talent, leadership through the context of sport. So, no better job.

JM: Absolutely. That's a good part of the journey to be able to say that you enjoy it. So, a lot of accomplishments again under your belt. As we talk about powerful women as we often do, have there been any barriers? And you’re at this space now, but, you know, you don't get there without a lot of work along the way in the years that you put in. And as you travel along this journey’s path, have there been barriers that you perhaps encountered?

KB: You know, being a female in college sports where it's a- it's a male dominated world, I get that question a lot and the thing that I think is different for me is I'm a twin. I’ve got a twin brother. So I was raised with boys. And so I never, you know, people say, you know, you know, that must have been tough to navigate your career through athletics. When I reflect back, I think it's just my upbringing. Boys were always a part of my upbringing. They were always part of my life. They were always a part of my competition. So it was a non-issue for me, I never saw them as creating barriers for me or the barriers I think when I think back in my career, are ones I really created for myself. The barriers of self doubt, the barriers of, you know, being able to be in the room, knowing that you belong in the room. Through mentorship and through just doing and being competitive. If there's one word to describe me, it’s competitive. Being competitive at my core, you overcome those barriers, you go through them, you go over them, you go around them, or you get people to help you move them. And I think that's the key when I think of any barriers, whether real or perceived, that I think help me navigate those. And so it's hard for me to answer that question because when I felt like I just- I just worked. I just did what I thought was right. I just continued to put my head down and create value wherever I was at, and take the opportunity to not just do the job in front of me, but figure out how I can help those next to me. And that really helped me expand my breadth of experience within the world of college athletics and then set me on this path to continue to go from coach to associate AD to an AD.

JM: And I think, too, with a lot of women, it is a self-inflicted deal for the barriers. Sometimes, clearly there are many real barriers that we face, trying to make progress in our careers and other areas of our lives. But I think sometimes it is that self doubt that self reflection things that we kind of come up with. So as you did this and continue to move through your journey, how did you actually find your voice? You went around, you went through it, you found people to help you out, maybe, but in a lot of time it takes that something to get your inner voice to be comfortable in your own skin and to own it. How did you get there?

KB: I like how you say be comfortable in your own skin and that's part of it. And that's that becoming that's that giving I think a little more faith in people that they are not looking at you through the lens that you're looking at yourself, which is usually deficiencies, that they're looking at and really paying attention to the positive accolades, the things that you did earn and knowing that you deserve them. And so once you say, yeah, I- I am good. Yes, I am ready. Yes, I want to do that. And keep stepping forward and raising your hand. The more you do that I think you develop this confidence. I go along this way. You either have to have confidence, you approach every situation with either confidence or courage. One is higher than the other typically, but you can tap into one and that's what can help you kind of propel yourself. And then, as you have some small successes, celebrating the small wins, then that builds more confidence and more courage. And they're like I am.

JM: Absolutely. And you use that courage sometimes to develop that confidence.

KB: You bet. Absolutely.

JM: Pushing through, regardless of how you feel at the time as well making it happen. So we should also mention you are a military veteran and what impact would you say your service has had on your life and perhaps even in the role as athletic director? How does that all come together?

KB: Sure, yeah, you know, I joined the military, 1992, during my college career as an Army reservist. And I again, my twin brother was that catalyst because when I went away to college, he went to the army. I saw him come back from basic training. He walked different, he talked different, and he exhibited some leadership qualities and like, wow, I want that same experience, but I didn’t want to go all in. I loved my college experience. I was on a different path from an educational standpoint. So I joined the reserves. I got a few bucks to help pay for college, but then more importantly, I got to be a part of the biggest team in the world, the greatest team in the world. And I'm going to emphasize the word service, right? It is that service to something greater than yourself. And then you get to meet just an amazing diverse group of individuals throughout that experience. Fast forward to 9/11, 2001. And then after that, Operation Iraqi Freedom and then during freedom I got called from inactive service, actually I wasn't even an active military reservist. I was inactive, but there's a whole reason for that, and I got called to active duty for a year. And you want to talk about just a whole different experience to a different part of the world that I'd never been in. I’d never been across the Atlantic Ocean. And so now, going to the Middle East. And then being a female in that environment and how I had to grow and how I had to really understand that culture. And it- was it was tough for me as being a strong female going into a culture where females have a different status if you will. But it was okay because you had to depend on your counterparts to help you navigate that and just make your way. You had to almost start over and create your value and create relationships with the people in that country. And then you realize that it was no longer really about my status as a female. It was just like anywhere else. You have to create relationships and connections through what you're doing and that's how you can still do the work. Fast forward to what is the impact? I think the military, it's just a different type of- I like structure. I like organizational structure. chain of command. And so I think it had an impact in terms of how from an operational standpoint, right? Leading people and managing things. I think it really helped me organize and manage the things. It wasn't necessarily helpful in leading people, but I did like a lot of the military concepts of teamwork and accountability. So those are some of the pieces that I've taken.

JM: And I would imagine that you can use those, really viably all the time in what you're doing now: the team working, the building, leadership.

KB: Oh yeah, exactly.

JM: You know, all of those things. So how important also then, you talked about you meeting a diverse culture as when you were in service, how important is diversity and inclusion in the world of collegiate sports? I note again that GVSU Athletics did receive an award for diversity and inclusion.

KB: Sure, yeah thank you. You know, I’m not a big award person, but as I've risen to the point where you're the person that gets the award, you have to be an award person because you're the one that gets to accept that award on behalf of everybody that brings that award to life, the work that everybody is doing, whether from student athletes to coaches, to campus partners, to our staff members. And so I've changed my thinking on that a little bit. And so I'm humbled to be able to achieve it or to accept it, but grateful that we were able to achieve it all together to get that award. Why is it important? I think there's no more important thing than to make sure that our student athletes come to Grand Valley and have the highest sense of belonging within our teams and our locker rooms. There's no more important thing than our staff having a sense of inclusion and belonging. And so if we're going to get all of the potential of our student athletes and be a part of that growth process, they need to be able to bring their whole selves. I used to have a saying when I was a coach, check it at the gate. The only thing that matters in this, on the softball field is what makes us the same. Our common goals, right? Actually flipped upside down. You want to be able to bring your whole self in that gate and be comfortable too. So you learn to be comfortable in your own skin and be valued not for what makes you like us, but different from us.

JM: Absolutely.

KB: Right? And so it's that whole idea, this whole holistic approach to coaching the person in front of us. So we want our coaches to develop talent and leadership into the context of sport. But we also wanted to have a great experience within their team and within the athletic department and ultimately the campus at Grand Valley. So if we can do that, to make sure that we have an increased understanding of our differences, then you can value that. Facilitate having conversations. It’s not about creating safe spaces, but brave spaces. It's about being able just to hold space. Coaches are experts in this work.

JM: Absolutely, yeah.

KB: But then they have to have an openness and a willingness for all of our student athletes to feel that sense of belonging.

JM: Kind of goes back to that word courage too, moving forward with the things that, you know, you’relearning and not being afraid to say, okay, we're going to do this with this way and everybody's included in this process maybe. So you work with a lot of people, of course, and impact a lot of people in your circles. You mentioned leadership as you are in the service and learned some traits there. What leadership traits do you like to see in the people that you work with or perhaps mentor and that you're working with on this journey?

KB: Yeah, I think openness to innovation and change and their ability to evolve. I think one of the biggest things I learned is I did all this work and professional development in trying to figure out the leader I was going to be. Once you sit in the chair of leadership as a director of athletics, it's no longer about you. It's about what your team needs. So it gets to what you're talking about. What is it that you're looking for, which usually is the same things, and you know. These things are important to me, so I want it to be important to them. Well, what you realize is everybody is going to do it a little bit differently and you have to make sure you're creating value for what their strengths are. And so the things that I look for is I think I just want people to have a sense of awareness of what our common goals are, but also what the differences are and figure out a way to value that each other. I want people to understand the value they have and what we’re ultimately trying to do. We're trying to create the best student athlete experience possible. Whether your coach or whether you work in compliance or athletic training and our medical staff. I want them to understand why they matter to what we're trying to do. And so it's that alignment of their values and how they work with what we're trying to do. So it's awareness and that it's also just in their ability to be collaborative. I'm okay with- it's not my job necessarily to set up tables and chairs for the event, but I'm not above that. It's to do that. Everybody to be able to raise their hands and say I’m willing to help out. For instance, our tennis team, we have a lot of international students and student athletes. We practice every day in Grandville Premier Tennis center. So we have to drive them there. Well a lot of international students don’t come here with cars, so we have some vans. Well now our coaches got to go back and forth picking up teams. But there's a day, Tuesdays and Thursdays, where I’m going to need somebody so the coach can be at practice. Can we find someone to drive the van? Someone sent out an email saying Tuesdays and Thursdays, will anybody from 1:30 to 2:30 be willing to go back and forth? And I know when I send that out, we're going to get people to raise their hand. Those are the types of people that I want to need to be a part of our department

JM: A team. A true team.

KB: Absolutely.

JM: So we mentioned off the top that you spent your entire career, for the most part, IN intercollegiate athletics. And you were an athlete, of course, yourself. What inspired you to go that route? And was it always your goal to maybe perhaps get to a position such as this?

KB: Well, I always say to people, athletics chose me. I did not know or think that it was a career path. I was getting my undergraduate in criminal justice. I was about halfway through the process to be a state police officer. That's what I wanted to do. Or a firefighter. I had actually, right before I took the position at Ferris, as the head coach, I was a finalist to be a firefighter in the city of Saginaw. So I knew I wanted to do one of those 2 things. The state police process was long, you didn’t know if it was going to happen in the end. And so I had hedged that with being a firefighter and I thought oh, I'm getting ready and they're going. I was the final 3. At the same time I had gotten to know at Saginaw Valley, working in the intramural department, which was in the athletic department, the assistant basketball coach who left and went became the head coach, basketball coach, Dr. Dana Monk, at Ferris State University. She saw something in me that I didn't see. She talked me into applying for the head softball position that had come open and thought ehh, okay. I didn't ever think of it as a career. Long story short, they hired me. I make this joke that the job was a full-time job. Full benefits, retirement medical $30,000 a year. It was about $28,000 more than I was making at the moment. So I said I can do this for 3 to 5 years and then still go be a police officer. I fell in love with being on a college campus. I fell in love with developing young women through the sport of softball. And my favorite thing is to watch the maturation process of a freshman student athlete and as they progress and then hopefully, maybe, they leave as a senior. They walk different, they talk different. And then you realize just maybe the impacts you may have had on that. And so that's where I fell in love with it and then continued just, all of a sudden I looked up. It was 7 years later. It was 8 years later. And then it was 15 years later. Now I knew I wasn't going to be that gray haired little old lady running around on the Softball field, though there's nothing wrong with that.

JM: Right right.

KB: That's when I started to expand my breadth of experience into some of the administrative things and then that set me up too. Then at that point, you're like I want to stay in a college campus, that's the next step was administration. And then from being an associate AD, why not me as the AD? So I decided to put my best foot forward and I’ll be darned if they hire me again.

JM: And the rest as they say is history.

KB: Let’s hope so.

JM: Well you’re doing a great job with it. How do you manage all of this, though? Your work-life balance. you're very busy, you know, sports keeps you busy. You are the director. You're not just not, I mean and coaching is huge, but being in charge of everything. ehh, that's a lot. How do you manage that? Your work-life balance.

KB: It's never in balance. That's a myth. But, I've been talking to some of my senior staff and, you know, there's a lot of people in our department that- they work so hard to make Grand Valley successful. They give so much to that. I said here's the deal. I love that. I’m watching that. The university has to give back to you and you can't give what you don't have. So I need you to take care of you and I need to model that. So probably in the last couple years I've gotten better at it. Monday morning I'm leaving for Mexico from Monday to Friday. I've never taken a vacation this time of year. It is extremely busy going into the Spring, but you know what? I've missed a lot of weddings, a lot of birthdays, a lot of things. I'm no longer going to miss those things. It's okay. I have a great team. And so I try to echo that and, one, model It with my staff. You have to take vacations. You have to, even if it's a half a day. Doesn't have to be a whole week. There's people that can't leave for 3 weeks at a time or 2 weeks. That's okay, but take the time. And so, it's that simple. You must take the time. You earned vacation through the university. They carry over only so many. If you don't use that, you're giving back time the university has invested in you. They said you can have that time. You must take it. It is- It sounds silly, but you must take vacation even if it's 2 hours. If it's 02:00 PM and I look out in the summer and it's sunny, I'm going on my boat. I’ll see you tomorrow.

JM: Absolutely.

KB: So some of it’s opportunistic, you know, some of it's planned, some of it’s opportunistic to take those moments. But also this job, you don't do this work at the expense of the things that are important. If you say family’s important, doing your work shouldn’t be at the expense of that. You better go to your son's tee ball games. You know, you have to make that a priority. So I try to hold my staff accountable to that. And I haven’t been very good at it, but it's one of those things that I'm starting to.

JM: It's a learning curve of sorts.

KB: Yeah, yeah, but I have to start with myself, right?

JM: So that you can model and have that leadership for the others to follow.

KB: Absolutely. Absolutely. You’ve got to find a way to fill the cup back up.

JM: What is it that makes you laugh? I love laughter. So what makes you laugh?

KB: Oh gosh, there are so many things. You know, one of, I don't know if there's a thing that makes me laugh, but what I have done is I think sometimes we think we have to be in situations where we are serious. We have to be a certain way. But if something happens or somebody says something, I don’t hold it in because maybe it's not appropriate. I laugh.

JM: Yeah.

KB: Right? And what I find is people are just waiting for the people to laugh. And everybody's shoulders go down a little bit. You know, so I don't know that there's any one thing and they can point out.

JM: It's like permission. You know, I had permission to laugh because they're funny.

KB: There is too much in the world that can bring you down, so if it’s funny. If I'm in a staff meeting, maybe not in it, but I'll start, look at this cat video, this is hilarious, whatever it is and just sharing those types of things where it's not just always about, you know what it is we got to do, you know, and getting the objectives done. If it's funny, we laugh.

JM: Take it and roll with it.

KB: You bet

JM: So much is happening, of course, as we mentioned, in the world that we live in, and today, people are often looking, though, for that word of encouragement, something to perhaps inspire them. Do you have any favorite sayings or mottos that you share with those you are working with, those you mentor and people in your life?

KB: I think there's 2 things, be the change in the world you want to see. That goes back to my modeling, right? But I think the biggest thing I always say and I say it over and over. Be where you need to be when you need to be there, and it goes back to what I was saying prior. You know, if you're with your family, don't worry about checking that email and vice versa, be able to be where you need to be when you need to be there. And it allows you to give context and perspective to what you’re doing and focus.

JM: Focus.

KB: That the things that you're in front of deserve, right? That the person you’re in front of you deserves all of you. Give it to them.

JM: All right, absolutely, good word there, Keri. Keri Becker, I really enjoyed this conversation. So nice to catch up with you today and talk with you. I want to thank you as well for joining us for another edition of powerful Women: Let's Talk. I'm Jennifer Moss. Do enjoy your day.

Narr: Produced by women, about women, these powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are, and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women: Let’s Talk? Get additional interviews at wgvu.org or wherever you get your podcast. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.

Jennifer is an award winning broadcast news journalist with more than two decades of professional television news experience including the nation's fifth largest news market. She's worked as both news reporter and news anchor for television and radio in markets from Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo all the way to San Francisco, California.
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