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.

Diana Nyad, Award of Distinction honoree: The Courage to Fail

Author, journalist, motivational speaker, and long-distance swimmer
Sunday, October 14, 4:30-5:30 p.m.
Presented by Daktronics

Twenty-five million people worldwide rooted for Diana Nyad as she approached the Florida shore, at long last achieving her 35-year-old dream of becoming the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida.

Diana is not one to quit. On her fifth attempt, speaking the words "Never Ever Give Up" to the wildly cheering crowd on a Key West beach on September 2, 2013, Diana may have been dazed and physically spent, but she showed the world what persistence and belief can manifest. Diana stroked the amazing 110.86 miles in 52 hours, 54 minutes, 18 seconds. A worldwide response of inspiration came flooding toward Diana, from personal messages from President Obama and Hillary Clinton to literally millions of people who felt their own lives lifted with Diana's "Find a Way" philosophy.

Daring to reach for the stars, this swim beginning to seem impossible (after her four attempts over 35 years and other strong swimmers trying and failing since 1950), Diana has motivated the world at large to be bold, to live fearlessly, to chase one’s dreams with unwavering commitment.

The second statement the victorious 64-year-old made on that Key West beach? “You’re never too old to chase your dreams.” And her third statement on that historic day: "It looks a solitary sport, but it’s a TEAM." Courage, bold vision, and the ability to articulate her life philosophies have propelled Diana through an inspiring life.

A prominent sports journalist, filing for National Public Radio, ABC’s Wide World of Sports, The New York Times, the Huffington Post and others, Diana has carved her place as one of our compelling storytellers.

Her memoir, Find a Way, is now in bookstores and available on She has written three other books and speaks French and Spanish fluently. Diana has also earned the reputation of a uniquely entertaining and inspiring public speaker and has taken her one-woman stage show “ONWARD!” to a theatrical performance.

Diana’s Cuba swim head handler and best friend Bonnie Stoll, are on a mission called EverWalk, to lead us walking along the epic outdoor corridors of America. Diana and Bonnie intend to turn us into a nation of millions of walkers.

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. 

Ibtihaj Muhammad

U.S. Olympian and first Muslim-American woman medalist
Monday, October 15, 12-1:20 p.m. (featured speaker during the Nike Lifetime Achievement Awards Luncheon)
Presented by Nike

Ibtihaj Muhammad, an American sabre fencer, is a 2016 Olympic medalist, 5-time Senior World medalist and World Champion in the sport of fencing. In August 2016, she became the first American woman to compete in the Olympics in hijab and is also the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal for the United States. Ibtihaj is a 3-time All American from Duke University, with a dual degree in International Relations and African Studies. In 2014, Ibtihaj launched her own clothing company, Louella, which aims to bring affordable modest fashion to the United States market. This summer, Mattel will release their first hijabi Barbie doll, modeled in Ibtihaj’s likeness, as part of Barbie’s “Shero” line of dolls. Ibtihaj’s memoir, PROUD: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream, will also be released in July.

Ibtihaj is a sports ambassador with the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls through Sport Initiative, and works closely with organizations like Athletes for Impact and the Special Olympics. Named to Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential list, Ibtihaj is an important figure in a larger global discussion on equality and the importance of sport. Her voice continues to unite both the sports and non-sports world.

LaChina Robinson

ESPN basketball analyst
Monday, October 15, 12-1:20 p.m. (emcee of Nike Lifetime Achievement Awards Luncheon)
Presented by Nike

LaChina Robinson, college basketball and WNBA analyst and reporter for ESPN, takes the lessons she’s learned on the court to the game of life: she successfully transitioned from a star athlete to a respected broadcaster in a male-dominated field. Today, Robinson is passionate about helping others make and build their own successes.

A sought-after keynote speaker, moderator and host, Robinson has been featured in Black Enterprise Magazine, recognized with the 2009 Atlanta Dream Women of Inspiration Award and previously named the H.A.U.T.E Power Woman of the Month. After establishing herself as a dominant voice in basketball analysis and broadcasting, Robinson followed her passion and founded her own company in 2008: Stretch Beyond. Stretch Beyond mentors and empowers student-athletes to be intentional in developing their career, character and community brand. To further Stretch Beyond’s mission of empowerment, Robinson frequently serves as a facilitator, moderator, curriculum builder and host for a number of professional and non-profit organizations.

She’s served as a moderator for the WNBA Draft Rookie Orientation Program, NABJ Conferences (National Association of Black Journalists) and at the “A Step Up’ Assistant Coaches Symposium for 5 of the last 6 years. Robinson has been an integral part of several NCAA development and leadership forums, including: the NCAA Leadership Institute for Ethnic Minority Females, from which she graduated in 2007; several NCAA Regional Leadership Conferences; NCAA National Student- Athlete Development Conference; and presided over the WBCA (Women’s Basketball Coaches Association) and NCAA “So You Want to be a Coach” program.

Over the course of her broadcasting career, Robinson has celebrated many triumphs. During the 2014- 15 season, Robinson was an analyst on ESPN2’s women’s college basketball Sunday telecasts, and she made her sixth consecutive appearance as a game analyst during ESPN’s coverage of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship first and second rounds. The 2015 national tournament marked Robinson’s third year as a reporter in the regional round: since 2012 she has served as a reporter covering the Women’s Final Four for espnW and

In 2013, Robinson made her debut as the primary analyst for Fox Sports 1’s Big East Women’s Basketball package. Robinson has covered the WNBA Draft for ESPN and espnW, as well  as serving as a reporter for ESPN during the WNBA Playoffs.

In addition, Robinson has served as a social media correspondent during the NBA Playoffs, NBA Draft and a reporter at select NBA Media Days.

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)

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)

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.

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.

Maria Taylor

Analyst, host, and reporter for ESPN
Tuesday, October 16, 12:30-2:15 p.m. (emcee for the Jostens Administrator of the Year Awards Luncheon)

Maria Taylor is in her sixth season as an analyst, host, and reporter for ESPN. In 2017, Taylor became the first black female to co-host College GameDay Built by The Home Depot. Taylor was also tabbed as the sideline reporter for ABC Saturday Night Football and patrolled the sidelines for the 2018 College Football Playoff and National Championship Game. She previously served as the first female host of SEC Network’s traveling college football show SEC Nation, alongside analysts Tim Tebow, Marcus Spears and Paul Finebaum. In addition to her football duties, Taylor is a host of Big Monday and NCAA Women’s Final Four and National Championship coverage. Prior to her role on SEC Nation, she helped launch the SEC Network as one of 3 studio hosts and worked as the SEC Primetime Saturday Night college football reporter with commentators Brent Musburger and Jesse Palmer.

Prior to 2012, Taylor was a reporter and host for IMG College at the University of Georgia. She also appeared on various Comcast Sports South studio shows.

In 2015, Maria co-founded a non-profit organization called The Winning Edge Leadership Academy. The mission of the Winning Edge is develop the next generation of women and minority leaders in sports business by providing mentors, financial and cognitive resources. Since 2015, the academy has developed more than 40 students and young professional to become the next generation of leaders in sports business.

Taylor attended the University of Georgia where she played volleyball and basketball. She was named to the All-SEC volleyball team three times and was also a member of the USA A2 National Volleyball team. She graduated from Georgia in 2009 with a degree in broadcast news and returned to pursue her Master of Business Administration which she completed in May of 2013. She is a native of Alpharetta, Georgia.