National Convention Keynote Speakers & Guests

Our keynote speakers are heavy-hitters in sports, business, politics, and more. Each one shares the same energy and passion as our members, and you'll leave their talks inspired! We host an opening keynote at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, October 13; a morning keynote at 8:45 a.m. on Monday, October 14; a morning keynote at 8:45 a.m. on Tuesday, October 15; and keynotes during our two celebratory award luncheons on Monday and Tuesday.

Ella L.J. Bell Smith, The Power Equation

Professor, Author
Sunday, October 13, 4:30-5:30 p.m.
Presented by Daktronics

Ella L.J. Edmonson Bell is a Professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. She is also an author, managerial consultant, national recognized researcher, and advocate on women’s workplace issues. She is the co-author of Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity. Her second book is Career GPS. As a nationally respected managerial consultant, Ella has shared her expertise and knowledge on discriminatory barriers in the workplace, strategic leadership, managing inclusion, and work-life balance with corporate leaders across the country.

Ella’s scholarly work has been reported in the Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Charlotte Business Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek, Working Women, Business Week, Black Enterprise and Essence Magazines. She is considered by industry and the academy to be one of the leading experts in organizational change, and the management of race, gender and class in organizational life. In addition, Ella appeared on CNN'S Democracy in America '96 as a nationally recognized expert of race relations in the workplace.

Crista Samaras

CEO and Founder of Brave Enterprises, Inventor, Businesswoman, Record-Setting Lacrosse Player, Coach, Writer, Actress, and Mother
Monday, October 14, 8:45-10 a.m.
Presented by Eastman

Crista Samaras is the CEO and founder of Brave Enterprises. She is an inventor, businesswoman, record-setting lacrosse player, coach, writer, actress and mother. At Princeton University, Samaras was Rookie of the Year, two-time Ivy League Player of the Year, and three-time All American. She was the first player—man or woman — to score 50 goals in a single season during her sophomore year. After graduating, Samaras went on to win a gold medal in the 2001 IFWLA World Cup and a silver medal in the 2005 IFWLA World Cup. In 2000, she founded XTEAM lacrosse, a national club for girls from non-traditional lacrosse areas who wanted to pursue playing in college, which she sold in 2014. In 2016, Samaras founded Brave Enterprises to help people do hard things. Brave’s mission is to craft practice-based programming that will inform brave-inspired behaviors for people who want to make a habit of taking action. 

Sage Steele

Monday, October 14, 12-1:20 p.m. (emcee of Nike Lifetime Achievement Awards Luncheon)
Presented by Nike


Sage Steele is one of ESPN’s most popular and respected commentators, currently serving as the anchor for the network’s flagship show, SportsCenter, at 6pm ET. Steele also has lead roles for SportsCenter on the Road which includes on-site, day-long and pre-event coverage for the biggest sporting events of the year, including the Super Bowl, the Masters Tournament, the NBA Finals, the World Series and many more. A fixture at ESPN since 2007, Steele previously hosted NBA Countdown on ESPN and ABC, First Take, and morning and daytime SportsCenter shows.  

Steele is a 1995 graduate of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.  She spent the first 3 years of her career as a producer and reporter at CBS affiliate television stations in South Bend, IN and Indianapolis, IN covering the likes of Notre Dame football, the Indiana Pacers, the Indianapolis Colts, the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400.  In 1998, Steele landed at WFTS-TV, the ABC affiliate in Tampa, FL covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lightning, Devil Rays, as well as the Orlando Magic and Florida Gators upon her move to Fox Sports Net Florida in 2000.  

In April 2001, Steele became the lead anchor for the debut of Comcast SportsNet, serving the Washington DC/Baltimore region. She anchored the flagship show SportsNite for six years and was also a beat reporter for the Baltimore Ravens from 2001-2005, hosting the team’s magazine show for all five seasons.  

Throughout her years at ESPN, Steele has hosted a variety of other ABC & ESPN shows, including The Miss America Pageant and The Scripps National Spelling Bee.  

Steele’s involvement outside of work includes The Pat Tillman Foundation, with whom she is a board member, as well as volunteering with the Alzheimer’s Association. Sage and her husband live in Connecticut with their three teenage children

Mark Emmert

President, NCAA
Tuesday, October 15, 8:45 a.m.-10:45 a.m. (featured guest speaker at the Women Leaders Business Session & Celebration of Advancement)
Presented by the Phoenix Final Four LOC

Mark A. Emmert became the fifth president of the NCAA in October 2010. During his tenure, Emmert has championed greater support and opportunity for student-athletes in all divisions and sports. His commitment to academic success, well-being and fairness has resulted in several initiatives, such as the creation of the NCAA Sport Science Institute, the Commission on College Basketball and increasing student voices throughout the governance process. 

Before the NCAA, Emmert was president of his alma mater, the University of Washington. Under his leadership, the university rose to second among all public and private institutions in research funding. Emmert previously served in many higher education capacities. He has been the chancellor at Louisiana State University and provost and chancellor at the University of Connecticut, and has held various academic administrative positions at Montana State University-Bozeman and the University of Colorado.

Emmert is also a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the former chair of the executive group of the Worldwide Universities Network and served on the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board among others. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and was previously an American Council on Education Fellow and J.W. Fulbright Administrative Fellow.

Emmert graduated from Washington with a degree in political science and has both a master’s degree and Ph.D. in public administration from Syracuse University. 

Violet Palmer

Coordinator of Women's Basketball Officiating: Pac-12, WCC, WAC | First Female NBA Referee
Tuesday, October 15, 8:45 a.m.-10:45 a.m. (featured guest on the Women Leaders Podcast, LIVE! at the Women Leaders Business Session & Celebration of Advancement)
Presented by the Phoenix Final Four LOC

Violet Palmer has achieved much in her basketball career, but is best known for being the only female to reach the highest competitive tier as a referee in a major USA professional sport, the National Basketball Association (NBA). Violet was the first female referee to officiate an NBA game. She has also been recognized as a MAKER for her inspiring career journey and for blazing a path for women to work in the NBA. 

In 2016, after a stellar 19-year career, Violet retired from active officiating. However, she continues to consult for the NBA and train new referees.

Success did not come easy for Violet. Early in her career, she worked tenaciously to topple gender barriers in professional sports and earned the respect of her peers. In nearly two decades as an NBA official, Violet has officiated 930 regular season games and 9 playoff games, and the 2014 All-Star game in New Orleans. Before joining the NBA, Palmer officiated in the WNBA during the league’s inaugural season, including the 1997 WNBA Championship. In 1999, Violet won the Naismith Award for official of the year.

Violet Palmer is the Coordinator of Women's Basketball Officials for the Pac 12 Conference, the West Coast Conference (WCC) and the Western Athletic Conference. The West Coast Conference (WCC) is an NCAA collegiate athletics conference consisting of 30 member schools across the states of Arizona, California, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Additionally, she has three years of CBA officiating experience and 8 years of collegiate officiating women’s games in the Pac-12, Western Athletic, West Coast, Big Sky, and Big West Conferences, as well as five NCAA Final Fours and two NCAA Championship games. Palmer also has five years of high school officiating experience in California and seven years of USA basketball officiating experience.

Before becoming an official, Palmer was a successful basketball player both at the collegiate and high school levels. She was a four-year letter winner at California Polytechnic University at Pomona, where her team won the NCAA Division II Finals in 1985 and 1986. In addition, she was played for the varsity girls’ basketball team at Compton High School for 4 years and was captain for the last 3 years. She was named “Team Most Valuable Player” her senior year and named “All League” her junior and senior years at CHS.

Violet devotes much of her non-officiating time with the City of Los Angeles Youth Referee Clinic in her hometown of Los Angeles. She is a former member of the Board of Directors for the National Association of Sports Officials and currently sits on the NCAA Mechanics Committee. She currently operates the Basics Referee School which offers basketball officials instruction using the 3-person California Collegiate Association (CCA) Women’s Basketball concept, as well as officiating mechanics, daily classroom sessions on topics such as game management, partnering, and on-court communication.