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Publish date: Mar 30, 2011

From the Women's Final Four to the higher ed, business fields

By Michelle Smith
For NCAA.org

Kate Starbird might have been the best basketball player in the country in the 1996-97 season. But she’s always been a self-described computer “nerd.”

Kate Starbird in action. Photo courtesy College of Engineering and Applied Science at University of Colorado, Boulder.

Michelle Marciniak knew what it meant to play under the glare of legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, and she knew how to take those lessons to the bench in her own coaching career.

But she didn’t know, until the past couple of years, that the things she learned in basketball would also apply in business.

Starbird and Marciniak have Final Four basketball in their past. Starbird played in three for Stanford from 1995-97, and Marciniak won an NCAA title with the Lady Vols in 1996.

But the game they loved has taken them in different directions.

Starbird, who earned her degree in computer science from Stanford and played in both the American Basketball League and the WNBA, currently is a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

With a group of research partners, Starbird has helped to develop social media technology that aids workers and volunteers in a disaster.

Leysia Palen, associate professor at University of Colorado, Boulder.

The project is called “Tweak the Tweet.” It involves specifically coded Twitter messages that match people who need help in an emergency with people who can provide it.

Starbird began her research by analyzing more than 50,000 tweets sent during the Red River floods in North Dakota and Minnesota, and also Oklahoma grass fires in 2009.

“Tweak the Tweet” was first put into action last year following the devastating earthquake in Haiti. It’s since been deployed for more than 20 events, including the Haiti earthquake, the Gulf oil spill, the fires in Colorado last fall, several fall hurricanes, the cholera epidemic in Haiti, several winter storms 2010-11, the flooding in Australia and the New Zealand earthquake.

“We are still analyzing/evaluating different deployment techniques to try to figure out the best way to teach the format, get people using it and make it useful for them,” Starbird said. “I've developed a ton of software that allows us to collect ‘TtT’ tweets, parse them into records, and map them in real or near-real time.”

Michelle Marciniak cuts down the net in 1996.

Starbird’s academic advisor, Leysia Palen, did not know about Starbird’s background as an elite athlete when they first began to work together.

“I met her as a graduate student and was immediately impressed by her abilities,” Palen said last year. “I think what’s so impressive about her is she brings all of the discipline she must have had as an athlete to her academic research.”

Starbird has also branched out beyond “Tweak the Tweet” to work with other Crisis-Mapping efforts, including volunteering with a group called Humanity Road and the Standby Task Force. 

“My current research is focused still on how we can leverage all of this data that people generate during disasters (using tools like mobile phones, social media and specialized platforms) and make it useful for people and responders,” Starbird said. “We plan to continue supporting TtT until we can transition it into either the public domain or into the hands of other volunteer communities or responders.”

Kate Starbird.

Marciniak walked away from a coaching career at South Carolina to follow up on a good idea.

The result is a company called Sheex, which has turned athletics performance fabrics into bedding that is about to be sold from coast-to-coast.

Marciniak said she was wearing a pair of workout shorts that she loved and she bought a pair for then-South Carolina coach Susan Walvius. That was back in August of 2007.

“She said, I’d love to have bed sheets made out of this and that was pretty much it, we said ‘Let’s do it’,” Marciniak said.

Walvius and Marciniak contacted the dean of the business school at South Carolina and handed the project to a group of graduate students for a class research project.

“At that point, it was just a fun exercise for us, but when the research and the materials came back, we knew we had to take a hard look at it. Basically, we said ‘If we are ever going to do this, the time is now’.”

And Sheex was born.

For two and a half years, Marciniak and Walvius said they have “put our heart and souls” into the project.

“At first, it was a matter of looking at a pair of shorts and trying to figure out, how to make bed sheets out of it, but after that, you have to think about how you expand the product and how you make it a brand,” Marciniak said. ”I used my sports experience to connect with people. We’ve been able to cultivate relationships with a lot of people because of our sports background.

Marciniak said that Sheex products are about to be carried by a major national retailer and were featured in Oprah Winfrey’s “O” Magazine.

“We’re working on using athletes to help us tell our story,” Marciniak said.

In her view, the transition from athlete to coach and coach to businesswoman has made complete sense.

“A lot of coaches write about business and they refer to it in their coaching,” Marciniak said. “I’ve been both a coach and a player at a very high level and now I’ve gone out in the business world, and there are a lot of similarities.”

Michelle Smith is a freelance writer in the Bay Area who has covered women's basketball for the San Francisco Chronicle, AOL Fanhouse and espnW.