Sarah Mensah balances life, work, play

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Articles - March 2012
Friday, March 02, 2012



Trail Blazers COO Sarah Mensah and her son, Davis, outside the Rose Garden in Portland.

Sarah Mensah went to her first Trail Blazers game in 1976 with her father, an original season ticketholder. Now she’s the team’s COO, and one of the highest-ranking women in pro sports. The Sports Business Journal named her one of its Women in Sports Business Game Changers. Mensah, 47, grew up in Beaverton and attended the University of Oregon and has worked for the Blazers for 18 years. When Davis, her 12-year-old son, was diagnosed with autism disorder, it began Mensah’s journey to champion education opportunities for children of all abilities. She is a Portland Schools Foundation board member, helped create the Cradle to Career Partnership initiative, and sits on the Northwest Autism Foundation board.


“Learning to live with the ups and downs. With winning and losing, it’s hard not to get caught up in the emotion of that. But that comes with being a basketball team. Several years ago [during the team’s “Jail Blazers” days] we lost our way. We pursued winning at all costs, without regard to the types of players on our roster. We are constantly challenged with making sure we stay true to our values.”


“This is going to sound crazy, but I sit on a lot of boards. To keep sane, I find something completely opposite to do other than my day job. It has brought me a great deal of peace. When my son was 2 years old, he was diagnosed with autism disorder. I am fortunate to have a terrific job with a lot of resources. But I was so moved by other parents who didn’t have the same opportunity. I have a very strong focus on righting that.”


“I’m intense, passionate. But I think they would also say that I’ve allowed them to have a good balance in their life. I believe with as hard as we work and with the long hours, people need the freedom to handle a lot of their personal issues... I’m grounded a lot by my family. I have a son who is the light of my life. I have a strong family and a great foundation of commitment.”


“There is no way I could do what I do if I didn’t have an absolute army of amazing friends, neighbors; my father has been a godsend. My advice: Create community for yourself. Help can come in all kinds of forms. It is easy to get isolated. Portland is an amazing place; it’s the type of place you want to raise a kid. I’m overwhelmed by the outpouring of goodness here.”


I’m getting contacted by a lot of women who are interested in a sports career. I’m spending a lot of time talking to them about how I did this. In my wildest dreams I didn’t imagine I could do this and I’m happy being that example to women in sports. There aren’t many women in sports management and I’m proud that I could be part of proving that is possible. I can’t wait to see the first woman coach.”



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There’s a fascinating article in the December issue of the Harvard Business Review about a profound power shift taking place in business and society. It’s a long read, but the gist revolves around the tension between “old power” and “new power” as a driver of transformation. Here’s an excerpt:

Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.

New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

The authors, Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans, don’t necessarily favor one form of power over another but merely outline how power is transitioning, and how companies can take advantage of these changes to strengthen their positions in the marketplace. 

Our Powerbook issue might be viewed as a case study in the new-power transition. This annual book of lists provides information on leading businesses, nonprofits and universities in the state. Most of the featured companies are entrenched power players now pursuing more flexible and less hierarchical approaches to doing business. Law firms, for example, are adopting new technologies and fee structures to make legal services more accessible and affordable.

This month we also take a look at a controversial new U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring public companies to disclose the median pay of workers, as well as the ratio between CEO and median-worker pay. 

Part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, the rule will compel public companies to be more open about employee compensation, with the assumption that greater transparency will improve corporate performance and, perhaps, help address one of the major challenges of our time: income inequality.

New power is not only about strategy and tactics, the Harvard Business Review authors say. “The ultimate questions are ethical. The big question is whether new power can genuinely serve the common good and confront society’s most intractable problems.”

That sounds like a call to arms. Or a New Year’s resolution. Old power or new, the goals are the same: to be a force for positive change in the world. Happy 2015!

— Linda

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