Cheryl LaFoy: Managing Logistics, STEAM, and the Dream
Imagine simultaneously managing game operations for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four tournament and organizing the NCAA Men’s Golf Championship – all while coordinating your own wedding – within a five-month time period.
This is exactly what Cheryl LaFoy was tasked with in the spring of 2013. At that time, LaFoy was the facilities and operations manager for the Georgia Tech Athletic Association (GTAA). How did she handle such a logistics crazy-maker?
“The best year of my life was getting married,” recalled LaFoy in a recent interview. “It was a time when I put the ISyE skills I learned together with both my career in athletics and my own wedding. That was such an emotional high for me, getting to excel both professionally and personally.”
All told, LaFoy spent 16-plus years working for the GTAA – four years as a student assistant while an undergraduate in Tech’s Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (BSIE 02), and then 12 years in both GTAA communications and athletic operations. Eventually, as the director of event operations, LaFoy oversaw GTAA’s 17 varsity athletic programs, which included football Saturdays at Bobby Dodd Stadium. In addition to the back-to-back national championships in 2013, she also directed the 2016 NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships.
During the championships, movement of 300-plus student-athletes; over 3,000 attendees; more than 125 volunteers; and more than 25 staff members in and out of the Campus Recreation Center – which remained open to the rest of campus – presented LaFoy with a new set of challenges. She relied on experience gained during her Senior Design project with Kroger to ensure success.
“My Capstone project involved the reconfiguration of a distribution center for Kroger, but the part of the project that fascinated me most was the constant flow and optimization of items in and out of the center,” LaFoy said. “It was the same for these two weeks of championships: Athletes arrive and depart, with several overlaps, on three different occasions during the day, in addition to volunteers and staff coming and going for the two daily sessions. Maximizing their experience by decreasing wait times and minimizing our costs by using ideal time frames for various required components of hosting the championships provided a huge win for us on a national level.”
Happy with her role at GTAA, LaFoy wasn’t looking to move on. But in spring 2016, she received a call from Theresa Wenzel, president of Atlanta’s WNBA team, the Dream. LaFoy knew Wenzel from Wenzel’s time as assistant athletic director at GTAA. Wenzel invited LaFoy to be entirely in charge of the Dream’s business operations.
It was a tough decision.
“I had only managed game operations for Georgia Tech Athletics, but when I had the opportunity to work in championships, that’s where I had a larger impact with budgeting, corporate partners, and working with the community. However, that was very limited – just a few days each time, so I was hesitant,” LaFoy said. “I loved working in athletics, but I wondered if I needed a different challenge – a challenge that would stretch me a little more.”
Ultimately, in May 2016, LaFoy became the vice president for business and event operations for the Dream.
“I don’t select the players or evaluate their talent,” she explained, “but I’m responsible for nearly all other aspects of the business – marketing, ticket sales, corporate partnerships, finance, and our community involvement. Selling the business, whether to season ticketholders, corporate partners, or the city of Atlanta, is the biggest challenge because of how saturated this market is from a sports standpoint. The bonus we have is that we’re the only female professional team in a seven-state radius.”
One of the most exciting aspects of LaFoy’s current role is the Dream’s connection with the Atlanta community. Working in conjunction with Atlanta’s Department of Parks and Recreation has provided the opportunity to impact middle-school children who come to the city’s recreation centers. The team hosts Dream FIT events, which are 60-minute health and wellness clinics that teach kids about the importance of movement and good nutrition. The team also offers educational opportunities through their work with a community technology partner.
“In some of Atlanta’s underserved areas, the children don’t have computers at home, or regular access to one,” noted LaFoy. “So we give them the chance to learn how to use tech products to gain experience with computers.”
For all children – ages five to 17 years old – the Dream offers STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) programming at a couple of the team’s games each season. Up to 500 children participate in STEAM-based activities before the basketball game, stay for the game, and then have the opportunity to meet one of the Dream’s players after the game is over. The team has increased availability and grown attendance at these STEAM games through partnerships with Georgia Tech – because of Wenzel and LaFoy’s connections to the Institute – and local STEM-based groups such as STEM Atlanta Women and Women in Technology.
“We want children to start thinking at a younger age about all of the things they can possibly be in the STEAM realm, because that’s really what we have a passion for,” LaFoy said. “And what we also see more and more is that kids really want to be involved with the Dream.
“It’s very simple. At the end of the day, our goal here with the Dream is to educate and inspire through the game of basketball. So with every decision we make, I ask whether the decision we’re making supports that mission.”
LaFoy has returned to Georgia Tech with the Dream for the team’s current season, which began on May 26th and runs through August 11th. Traditionally, the team shares Philips Arena with the city’s NBA team, the Hawks. Philips is being renovated, so the Dream plays its home games in McCamish Pavilion.