The Champion Mindset: Lessons from the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament

Marne Martin
Marne Martin
South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley Image supplied by Thien-An Truong/ISI Photos via Getty Images

Emburse's CEO Marne Martin looks at South Carolina's inspirational win, and what companies can learn from it to deliver a superior experience to their customers and partners

Like millions of people across the nation, and as someone who played basketball in the U.S. and UK during my school years, I tuned in to the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four and championship games last week, and wow– what a moment in history. On the heels of Women’s History Month, it was incredible to see young women so elevated for their talent, teamwork, and drive. I was drawn to the story of Caitlin Clark, whose athleticism, drive and resiliency led her to a record-breaking year and career, but it was the dominant teamwork and the chemistry that I saw on the court from South Carolina that stood out even more. 

Teamwork is as pivotal in business as it is on the basketball court. Watching Dawn Staley’s team move as a unit through their undefeated season when they hadn’t started together before reminded me in many ways of the teams of people, partners, and customers I get to interact with daily at Emburse.

Building Adaptable Teams

Part of South Carolina’s unforgettable story this season is that of Coach Dawn Staley. She is a legend in her own right, having had a successful WNBA career before transitioning to coaching. Coach Staley led the Gamecocks to the Final Four in 2021, won the championship in 2022, and again made it to the Final Four in 2023. But after a devastating loss last season, all five starters on her team graduated. For any college sports team, this would mean taking some time to rebuild and train the younger players to step into those leadership roles. For Coach Staley and the South Carolina team, it meant an undefeated season and a national championship. This team’s season is a testament to what can happen when your team is able to adapt and you have both talent and strong leadership. 

It’s something I see at Emburse. This company is focused on helping our customers stay ahead in an ever-changing game. Yes, we build top-of-the-line products for travel and expense management to enable our customers to reach their highest success. But, beyond that, we help them get the best from our products, no matter their unique goals and challenges. Likewise, we approach our technology and banking partnerships with a great deal of flexibility so both parties can continually play to their unique strengths. Building a strong ecosystem where every player excels extends to the finance community as a whole. I think of our CFO Adriana Carpenter and her commitment to mentoring emerging finance leaders, helping them, in turn, to lead great finance teams in their own distinctive way. And I think of what I and others do to champion women in business and STEM. When I went to college, there was no Title IX in the U.S. for female athletes. There also weren’t many, if any, business or STEM mentors at the international level as I started my career.   

Making the Team the Star

Each year, Emburse recognizes leaders in travel and expense management through our Emburse Champions awards program. These awards give us an opportunity to hear and recognize the stories of people and teams making a difference in their company. Winners are those who go above and beyond to reduce administrative burden, relieving employees, approvers, and finance teams from time-consuming tasks. In doing so, they put their teams first and drive organizational value, looking beyond themselves to impact the entire business. 

The Gamecocks worked seamlessly as a team, but there was a champion among them who seemed to take a lot of the burden away from her teammates– Kamilla Cardoso. Standing at an incredible 6’7”, whenever she was on the court, you saw her making calls to support her teammates. She particularly helped with rebounds, getting the ball back to where her team needed it to be to drive scoring. Kamilla reminded me of the Emburse Champions in that way, always in the thick of the action, helping get things back to where they need to be so others can shine where they work best. 

Never Losing Focus

By halftime of the National Championship game, no one knew how the season would end, but South Carolina was in the lead and the competition was fierce. Both Iowa and South Carolina had put up basket after basket. You could see the effort of both teams never waned, even as players grew more exhausted. That is the difference between true athletes and backyard players– the grit and determination to drive one more play. South Carolina never got tight, kept playing to win, and Iowa never gave up.

Like the players on both teams, finance and travel leaders recognize the ways their field is changing, make a plan, and adapt. In fact, as almost every finance department today is undergoing massive change and modernization, travel and expense management, spend management strategy and execution are business imperatives to drive company performance and ESG goals. Champions know this, and the same leadership, teamwork and consistency are how our Emburse Champions, customers, partners and employees deliver. Finance and travel leaders come to us to keep their departments running in a way that is modern, growing and making the best use of their resources - never settling for “good enough” on their way to being at the top in their segment, winning their national championship.  

My guess is that, of the nearly 19 million people who tuned in to watch the NCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship Finals, many of them came away with more than joy (or dismay) about the result. Anyone watching can’t help but have been inspired by the teamwork and chemistry of the players and coaches. For my part, I was never tall enough to be at the elite level of women’s basketball, but what we can accomplish for the business world in terms of driving business performance via expense and spend management, the reality of efficient and enjoyable business travel and how we bring the best of AI, machine learning, and industry-leading software for our customers enables me and all of us here at Emburse to make an impact where height is no object.  

Let us work together with our incredible partners and customers to showcase what is possible like the Gamecocks did this year!

Image supplied by Thien-An Truong/ISI Photos via Getty Images

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