A leader in an industry built on scoring, Dr. Allison Barber redefines the common conceptualization of success.
“Success doesn’t mean you always win; success means you always learn,” Barber, president and chief operating officer of the Indiana Fever, said.
Her eight careers across states, fields, and goals have informed her definition of success. Barber joined the workforce as a first-grade teacher before adding stops at the Pentagon, the White House, the American Red Cross, WGU Indiana, and more to her career trajectory.
“Connecting and contributing — those would be the two constants in my eight careers,” she said. “[Asking] how do you connect with people and then how do you work hard to contribute to their good?”
Barber has worked in education, PR and brand-building, and philanthropy, leading to her current role in the sports industry.
“I’ve been so fortunate to be on good teams,” she said.
Some of the teamwork she found most fulfilling, Barber said, was her work at the Pentagon after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. At the Department of Defense, part of her job was connecting with families who had lost someone during the tragedy.
“There was this special moment in our history where people were calling the Pentagon constantly — individuals, corporations, nonprofits — [asking] how can we support our military,” she said. “So, I really just had a front-row seat to seeing the best of America as people came together to support our military, our military families, and I was able to put together, with a great team, some special moments.”
That work included creating freedom walks — a national tradition of remembrance of the lives lost on 9/11 — and establishing the America Supports You program, which connected Americans to nonprofits supporting U.S. troops.
Barber, who worked in the Bush administration for seven-and-a-half years, said working at the White House was never a goal, it was an opportunity.
Her time at the Pentagon and at the White House “was so satisfying because the work we did mattered at a very different level,” she said.
After about 20 years in Washington, D.C., Barber returned to Indiana. Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels asked her to kickstart WGU Indiana, a non-profit online school established by the state in order to make higher education more accessible to Hoosiers, she said.
With experience teaching first, second, and sixth grade and a mother who was a schoolteacher, Barber jumped back into the education sector upon her return home, she said.
“Education is part of our family business,” Barber said. “[But] I do like change and disruption, so I don’t think I ever set my sights on one career.”
Barber credits her storied career path in part to her adaptability.
“I’m a creature who loves change,” she said. “Kids in kindergarten right now will have jobs that don’t even exist yet in careers that don’t exist. That’s how quick things change, the pace of change. And so, adaptability [is so important.] Now if you’re a college graduate, you will have on average eight careers, so I’m a little ahead of my time.”
In the current segment of Barber’s career path, she oversees the business side of the Indiana Fever franchise. She spends time managing the financial piece of the organization, working to build partnerships and the brand, and setting goals based on a three-prong strategy of committing, competing, and contributing, she said.
“Every day that drives my behavior, my actions, my work — commit, compete, and contribute,” Barber said. “‘Commit,’ you know, you have to start there personally. How do you show up every day, how do you continue to get better, how do you work to be the best teammate you can be, to support the people around you? Commitment is critical. ‘Compete’ is important because it means we’re competing for not just wins on the court, but goodwill. How do we compete for goodwill in our community, how do we compete for fandom, how do we compete for partners? And then ‘contribute’ is how we give back to the community in meaningful ways.”
Serving her community has been a common thread in Barber’s professional and personal life.
“Part of [the importance of service to me] is the family I grew up in,” she said. “My great-grandparents were immigrants from the Middle East, and so I think there’s always been this ‘people helped them’ when they came to Gary, Indiana, so I feel like that’s been a bit of the culture of my family: giving back and helping others.”
During her late 20s and early 30s, Barber worked with an ad agency grounded in the importance of singular focus.
“So, I spent a lot of time thinking about if I had one word that would drive my behavior, what that would be,” Barber said. “I landed on the word ‘contribution.’ And it’s an exciting word to think about — it’s daunting and hard because it takes focus, and I don’t always get it right, believe me, I don’t. But it is a space that seems to work for how I was brought up, what I believe to be true, and so that’s where I can jump from career to career to career, but I can say ‘OK, what’s the common theme here,’ and connecting and contributing is it. It’s just been a satisfying journey for me to put my efforts toward that.”
Barber emphasizes how her work and goals exist on a continuum rather than a single-point destination.
“Success to me is a constant pursuit to get better at what you’re putting your hand to,” she said. “Rarely do things happen in big ways, they happen in a lot of small ways, little things, you build competencies, you get better.”
Success is incremental progress that leads to accomplishing your goals, she said.
“And when you look at it as incremental progress, that means that you’re giving your mind places to say, ‘OK, this is getting better. Today wasn’t a good day, but tomorrow I can make it better,’” Barber said.
One of her personal mottos reflects that growth mentality.
“‘To the hoop’ is kind of my mantra,” Barber said. “My dad used to say it to me when we played basketball in our driveway in northwest Indiana. I think he was saying it to me just kind of hoping I’d get closer and might increase the odds of making the basket, but really that has become [something I live by].”
The idea demonstrates several concepts intrinsic to her life, Barber said.
“If you’re playing basketball and you’re driving to the hoop, you’ve got a goal and you’re playing offense — and I’m a big fan of offense — and you’re willing to take risks, you’re willing to get fouled,” she said. “And you’re willing to have the scrutiny — if somebody goes out and they shoot a 3-point shot and they miss it, the crowd’s like ‘OK, that’s a hard shot.’ But if you miss a layup … the crowd’s against you. So, the ‘take it to the hoop’ mentality is really saying ‘I’m willing to put myself out there and take a chance, take the risk, embrace the scrutiny that comes along with that if you miss.’”
“To the hoop” applies to Barber personally, but also now professionally working in the basketball industry. As a Hoosier, she has been a lifelong fan and player.
“My favorite part is connecting with our fans,” she said. “These are people that, before it was popular, they believed in women’s sports and opportunity and equality and inclusion.”
Fever fans are loyal, Barber said.
“I’m also a Cubs fan, so I really appreciate people who are loyal to the team and the culture even if you don’t win the games,” she said. “That’s what you see in our Fever fans. They’re just loyal, and they believe in what we’re trying to accomplish both on the court and in the community, and I think both things are equally as important to our fans, so I really just love being with our fans.”
She’s excited about the fans, partners, and team, Barber said.
“I want all of the businesses in our city and state to be associated and connected to the Indiana Fever,” Barber said. “All of our companies talk about inclusion and diversity and opportunity — they need to talk about these things — and the sports team that represents all of that is the Indiana Fever. When you think about opportunities for women, especially with the 50th anniversary of Title IX this year, this is a really exciting time for companies and individuals to come alongside the Fever.”
Jenna Williams is a digital journalist writing, reading, and talking as fast as she can. In her free time, she runs marathons, watches bad ‘90s television shows, and (probably) single-handedly keeps Half Price Books in business.
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