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Ivory Latta and Elizabeth Williams go from balling to Harvard Business School

The WNBA players are two of the first to participate in program that helps prepare athletes for life after their playing careers

When WNBA free agent Ivory Latta and the Atlanta Dream’s Elizabeth Williams got an email from the league about a new program to develop players’ business acumen, they were a little reluctant.

“I was like, ‘Uh-uh, I’m not doing this,’ ” Latta said. “So I just kept scrolling.”

It was an opportunity to attend the Harvard Business School: Crossover Into Business program for one semester. The program, once only open to NBA and NFL players, was now extending the opportunity to WNBA players.

“I went like a day or so, and then all of a sudden I was on Facebook and I saw something else that said Harvard and I’m like, ‘What? Is this telling me a sign that I just need to do it?’ ” Latta said.

She then spoke to her parents and her agent about the email, and they all encouraged her to take advantage of the new opportunity.

Williams’ email was initially overlooked.

“The league sent out an email just saying, ‘Hey, Harvard’s had this program before, and they’ve had NBA players do it and NFL players do it, and now they’re opening it up to WNBA.’ ”

Williams got a follow-up email from the president of the WNBA asking if she got the message. She read it again and thought it seemed kind of cool.

Elizabeth Williams of the Atlanta Dream shoots a free throw against the Connecticut Sun on Aug. 28, 2016, at Philips Arena in Atlanta.

Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

“And so I applied and got in, and for me, I enjoy learning in general, so I did want to learn about something that I didn’t know a lot about. So that prompted me to do it.”

The Crossover Into Business program helps professional athletes better prepare themselves for business activities during and after their active sports careers.

“It’s definitely something I’m going to have in my back pocket, because I’m going to have to use this one day,” Latta said.

The Crossover Into Business program for Williams can be used for any field of interest. She has always loved medicine, which may be in her plans.

“I think regardless of what field you want to go into after you play, having some kind of business knowledge [helps],” Williams said. “I think a lot of people in their fields don’t really know how the money works in relation to what they’re doing, and that makes it challenging if there are certain things you’re trying to get done. So it definitely opened my eyes to the importance of understanding some more of the numbers, and even how to get to some of the numbers.”

The infrastructure of the program includes matching athletes with a pair of Harvard Business School’s MBA student mentors. These mentors help empower the athletes to make smart business decisions. The program is tailored to their interests and leverages the acclaimed Harvard Business School case method.

“They made me feel really comfortable,” Latta said of the mentors. “When I was talking to them, they were like, ‘You know, when you’re at Harvard Business School they have their side of things. And then as an athlete, you have your side.’ So they were able to see both sides. We both were able to see both sides of the case and story.”

After a kickoff day on campus, the athletes work with their mentors throughout the semester, mostly through voice and video calls. They analyze a set of cases and learn about any other topics of interest. At the end of the semester, the athletes deliver a case analysis to their professor and a panel of student judges and answer their questions, all for a chance to be crowned the Crossover champion.

Washington Mystics guard Ivory Latta during a WNBA game between the Washington Mystics and the Chicago Sky on May 26, 2017, at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire

“We had to do three cases before our final case, and you really have to do a lot of reading,” Latta said. “Then we’ll pick a date to talk about the cases with our students that we picked. One of my favorite ones was the Beyoncé case. I really learned a lot about her, like she self-published her CD that year.”

The biggest takeaway for Williams is how other athletes or entertainment veterans use their business sense to invest in things that feel authentic to them.

“That’s how a lot of these people are able to be so successful,” Williams said. “… These people at the top, they just think differently than most people. The case studies that we read were about sports and entertainment. We read case studies on LeBron James, Beyoncé, Shonda Rhimes, people that are at the top of whatever field they’re in. We read about these athletes, like [Dwyane] Wade and LeBron, and their business sense.”

The program was not rigorous for Williams, but it requires time and effort.

“We’re analyzing these case studies that the professor had done, and some of them are longer, like 20 pages or so, so there is a lot of analysis that goes into it. So you had to put the time in. But it was kind of nice. I feel like I’m in school again, analyzing some of the papers and talking to my mentors about them.”

Although Williams, 24, is a long way from her life after basketball, the program aids in her plans for the future.

“I would encourage any players that have even a little bit of interest to do it. I know some players wanted to do it because they want to start franchises, or they have their own franchises, and they wanted to be set up with some mentors to see how they could possibly grow that.”

The two joined fellow WNBA players Alana Beard, Kayla Alexander, Marissa Coleman, Seimone Augustus and Tina Charles. Included in the cohort were NBA players Damien Wilkins, Festus Ezeli and Tiago Splitter.

Chris Bosh previously completed the program.

“I stepped back and said, 
‘Why don’t I just take this time to educate myself and really, really learn about and get 
at the core of what business is, how business works, and see what it is I like? Let me try
 to connect the dots and educate myself before I even think about getting in the [business] game,” Bosh said.

For Latta, 33, the workload wasn’t that bad.

“It was a great experience,” Latta said. “Just being able to go to Harvard and just be on campus, it was surreal. I’m not gonna lie, I was nervous at first. When you think about Harvard, you’re like, ‘God, you know that’s a tough school.’ It was time for me to get out of my comfort zone and just do it.”

Latta has published a children’s book, Despite the Height, an inspiring true story of how she learned to play basketball as a child despite being 5 feet 6 inches tall. She wants to write more stories and inspire other children.

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.