JACKSONVILLE, Florida — Hundreds of girls and women joined together Wednesday at the University of North Florida to be inspired, encouraged and to share their wisdom with one another at the Generation WOW event. It's the brainchild of Donna Orender.
"Generation WOW is a program where girls, the leaders of tomorrow, come together with women, the leaders of today, to share the wow by forming mentor connections that will reap long-lasting benefits," Orender said.
Colleagues call her a visionary, an innovator and fearlessly creative. Fearlessness has been a hallmark of Orender's career.
"My mom's best piece of advice, what I would give to girls is, if you don't ask you don't get, very simple," Orender said. "Every day, I say that to myself 'If you don't ask, you don't get.'"
Her list of accomplishments is impressive: professional basketball player, former president of the WNBA, named one of the top 10 Most Powerful Women in Sports, a former senior executive at the PGA Tour, author and mom.
She was in high school when she asked the boys' tennis coach if she could join the team because there was no girl's team.
"I always think about how my life could have been very different," she said. "If you can earn your way on the team, you can play, and I'm going to give you that opportunity."
He set up a match, and she got the spot. That was just her first step blazing trails.
"I did come to this awareness that boys were in charge when I was growing up," she said. "They really were. I mean, they had every opportunity. They had all the adulation, all the adoration. They had the opportunity to go to college in a way that I didn't, and I decided that I wanted what they had."
Orender's drive and determination landed her on one of the best college basketball teams in the nation and from there the first women's pro-basketball league.
"I didn't jump the highest, I wasn't the fastest," Orender said. "I was one of the best shooters for sure, but no one was going to outwork me or out-care-about-it me right. I was going to bring the discipline and a focus and I was going to challenge anyone to say OK you might have more skills than me in this way, but I'm going to create a package that's going to make you make it tough for you to beat me," Orender said.
She went from the boards to the greens and then back again. After more than a decade as a senior executive at the PGA Tour, she landed another life-changing opportunity.
"Becoming president, commissioner of the WNBA changed my whole life in ways that I could never have foreseen, but I'm forever grateful," Orender said. "It put me back in touch with being part of a sisterhood, the value of women. Here I am on the front lines building a business about strong women."
Her mission now is to create opportunities that help women, girls and communities realize their better selves.
"What my drive was, I remember saying this in college, I say it now, I want to make a difference in the world," she said. "I want to be able to help other lives be better."
Orender founded Generation W and Generation WOW, helping build the future leaders of the world by connecting them to the leaders of today.
"Generation W really is a community of women and men and communities who are about supporting the belief that we can be the best that we can be if we connect, if we are open to ideas, and that's where education piece and then of course inspiration which I think is the fuel for our souls," Orender said.
And she created "WOWsdom." The colorful book includes advice and inspiration from leaders of all ages from all walks of life.
"In this book, 'WOWsdom,' we say positive thinking and self-talk make a difference," Orender explained. "I will tell you that I am definitely a self-talker. Every single day I talk to myself. If I'm in a situation that's challenging, I would tell myself 'you can do this. This one is 'Look in the mirror. I am worthy. I am worthy. I can do it, and I will succeed.'"
When faced with adversity, she says remember you are not alone, and there is power in connecting with others.
"There's somebody in the world probably very close to me who's had a similar experience, and if I can have the courage to ask for a little bit of help then I'm going to go really far," Orender said.
Teaching girls and women how to explore the possible, embrace the positive, find their passion and live their purpose is how Donna Orender is paying it forward.