Donald M. Gruhn; Georgette Chapman Phillips, Kevin L. ’84 ’13P and Lisa A. ’13P Clayton Dean of the College of Business; Mary Clougherty; and Cathy Engelbert stand together on stage holding a basketball at Lehigh University

Students, faculty, staff, and members of the Lehigh community learned insights from Cathy Engelbert’s leadership experiences as WNBA Commissioner and former Deloitte CEO at the 12th Donald M. Gruhn ’49 Distinguished Finance Speaker Series held on October 23 in the Zoellner Art Center’s Baker Hall. Pictured are Donald M. Gruhn ’49; Georgette Chapman Phillips, Kevin L. ’84 ’13P and Lisa A. ’13P Clayton Dean of the College of Business; Mary Clougherty ’21; and Cathy Engelbert ’86 ’23P. 

'Aspire to Lead': Cathy Engelbert’s Rise to the Boardroom and Beyond

Engelbert ’86 ’23P, WNBA Commissioner and former Deloitte CEO, delivered the 12th lecture in the Donald M. Gruhn ’49 Distinguished Finance Speaker Series.

Photography by

John Kish IV

Cathy Engelbert ’86 ’23P, WNBA Commissioner and former Deloitte CEO, spoke as though she was with a roomful of friends during the 12th Donald M. Gruhn ’49 Distinguished Finance Speaker Series held on October 23. Students, faculty, staff, and members of the Lehigh community learned insights from her leadership experiences and how her alma mater helped set her on a successful path. The presentation, titled Aspire to Lead, was held in the Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall. 

Georgette Chapman Phillips, the Kevin L. ’84 ’13P and Lisa A. ’13P Clayton Dean of the College of Business, thanked Judy and Donald Gruhn ’49 for their patronage of the series that brings industry leaders to campus to share their expertise.

“The college is pleased to bring nationally and internationally recognized thought leaders such as Ms. Engelbert to our campus, to address important business topics of the day,” Phillips said.

Patrick Farrell, provost and vice president of academic affairs, introduced Engelbert and Mary Clougherty ’21, who interviewed the keynote speaker about her life and career in a fireside chat format. Clougherty, a guard on Lehigh’s women’s basketball team, is majoring in accounting and business information systems with a minor in global studies.

Lehigh student athlete Mary Clougherty sits in armchair on stage facing Cathly Engelbert during a chat-style presentation for the Gruhn Lecture at Lehigh University

Mary Clougherty ’21, Lehigh women’s basketball guard, interviewed Cathy Engelbert ’86 ’23P in a fireside chat-style presentation titled Aspire to Lead.

Although she is now at the helm of women’s professional basketball, Engelbert came to Lehigh as a lacrosse recruit, in part because she could play two sports. A walk-on guard for women’s basketball in her freshman year, she ended up captaining both teams and received the Hall Foundation Award for most outstanding senior female athlete. In her senior year, the women’s basketball team won the East Coast conference championship, where Engelbert was named tournament MVP. She graduated with an accounting degree in 1986 and went straight to work at Deloitte.

“I think when you play college athletics, you don’t know it until years later, but it creates leadership skills. I learned lessons at Lehigh that provided a great foundation to lead 100,000 people [at Deloitte] and now a league that’s doing well,” said Engelbert, who pointed out that Lehigh taught her how to be tactical. “When I was hired by Deloitte, they said the differentiator about me was Lehigh—they said Lehigh produces well-rounded candidates who thrive later in their careers.”

She also learned that it didn’t matter if she was the only woman in the class in first-year English. “When I joined the business world, in many cases, I was the only woman in the room, including in 2015 when I began as a female CEO. Lehigh was a great training ground, so that when I walked into rooms, I had confidence.”

A New Chapter

After retiring from Deloitte after 33 years, four of them as CEO, Engelbert began her new post as commissioner— the WNBA’s first—in July of this year. She was looking for something different “with a broad women’s leadership platform” in her second career.

“This job seemed like it was made for me, at a time when we have this moment in women’s sports, coming off the women’s World Cup win in soccer; the momentum around the WNBA, which has the best elite athletes in the world; and this movement around women’s empowerment. That struck me—there’s the three M’s: moment, momentum, and movement. It’s time to take advantage of all that,” Engelbert said.

Her biggest hurdle as commissioner is “the number-one challenge for any sport: to get more fans in the seats.” But she also wants to give the fans a great experience. This, Engelbert said, is one of the “three pillars” on which she’s working—fan experience, player experience and economics.

“The WNBA is the only women’s professional sports league to survive over two decades. We just concluded our 23rd year, but we don’t have enough money, the right economics or enough fans in the seats.”

Engelbert said that only 5 percent of all corporate sponsorship dollars and 5 percent of all media coverage of sports goes to women. She lamented the fact that the Women’s U.S. National Basketball Team, “the equivalent of Team U.S.A. women’s soccer,” will be going for their seventh consecutive gold medal in Tokyo next summer, with a record in their previous six medals of 100 wins and one loss.

Cathy Engelbert poses with basketball and Lehigh University Women's Basketball team on stage at Gruhn Lecture.

Cathy Engelbert ’86 ’23P (center), WNBA Commissioner and former Deloitte CEO, poses with members of the Lehigh University women’s basketball team and Head Coach Sue Troyan (back row, far left), who attended the lecture.

 

“It’s a dynasty of massive proportions, and guess what? No one’s talking about it,” she said.

Engelbert believes this is the perfect problem for her to help solve.

“This is what I want to do—make an impact and transform the league and women’s sports,” she said.

Clougherty called Engelbert and her career an example of what business professionals aspire to, but Engelbert said she never set her sights to be a CEO or commissioner.

“I never aspired to a box or a title, but I did aspire to lead. I was blessed to constantly keep in perspective what it meant to work hard and to make sure I was bringing the next generation behind me to be leaders. Because if they didn’t become leaders, then I couldn’t rise,” she said. “That’s a pay-it-forward attitude that actually works in today’s environment.”

In a humorous twist at the end of an audience question-and-answer session, Engelbert admitted that she’d always wanted to be an ESPN sportscaster. She proceeded to conduct a “lightning round” interview of Clougherty, asking her about her favorite players, teams and influences.

Psychology and journalism major Hannah Edwards ’20 was both entertained and impressed by Engelbert’s presentation. “It was amazing, especially being a female, to hear how her experiences at Lehigh translated to the business world. It was really cool to see someone, who’s sat in the same seat I’m sitting in today, who has gone so far post-Lehigh.”

Story by Cynthia Tintorri

Photography by

John Kish IV

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