Even if you don’t remember the old Nets NBA team, which hailed from New Jersey and had the unfortunate distinction of being the worst franchise in the league, you will appreciate the story of their reinvention. Because it all started with a brilliant, beautiful Russian émigré by the name of Irina Pavlova, who, incidentally, knew nothing about basketball.
As president of Onexim Sports & Entertainment, she moved the team to Brooklyn, changed their name to the New York Nets, built a new arena, transformed the team into a profitable business—and helped them become a damn good basketball team. She did everything from entertaining the royals to overseeing security detail. And though the phrase “being a woman in a man’s world” may feel threadbare nowadays, for Pavlova, it was a sharply accurate description of her job—every single day.
We caught up with her while on vacation in Miami from her home in London to find out more about how she went from googling “what is basketball” to becoming the most powerful female executive in U.S. sports. Though she prefaced our meeting with a text that said, “Are we meeting via Zoom? Because I look like shit,” Pavlova was as glamourous as ever—even dressed casually in shorts and tank top. Here’s what she had to say. (Listen to our interview on our Grit or Gift podcast here.)
Q: When you were growing up, you moved back and forth between the U.S. and Russia. What was it like to see two different cultures so intimately in your formative years?
Pavlova: I think it sounds more glamorous on paper than it was in real life. My father was a diplomat in the Soviet Union, which wasn’t exactly the James Bond story people expect. I remember the first time I came to the States when I was 10. Coming from Russia, where the shelves were empty, there were no restaurants, and the stores were obsolete, seeing the abundance in the typical American supermarkets blew me away.
And now it’s the other way: When I’m in Russia and I see the abundance in Russian supermarkets now—the selection is much greater than anything I’ve seen in the States—I wonder, “How the hell did we live like that?” It was so sad and gray and seemed like it would never end.
Miraflora: Did your mom work outside of the house?
Pavlova: She did when she could. But as a diplomat’s wife, there wasn’t that much she could do. She worked for the Soviet Consulate when we were in D.C., but she wasn’t able to build a career in today’s terms. She was mostly a wife and a mother.
Miraflora: You’ve had a lot of change in your life—you’ve lived in Russia, the U.S. and the U.K., where you now live. What’s your philosophy on getting out of your comfort zone?
Pavlova: Whenever I interview for a job, they love to ask me how I deal with uncertainty. And I’m like, “Really, I grew up in the Soviet Union. You really have to ask me how I deal with change?” I think part of it is the Russian approach. It is what it is, and you try to make the best of it. I never feel as bound by resume as my Western counterparts do. In Russia, especially when I was starting out right after perestroika, you could do anything. As long as you were smart and could figure things out and were good at connecting with people, no one really cared what you studied in college. (We all studied history of Communist party and Marxist-Leninist philosophy, so who cares?) I think that’s helped me in my adult life because I can look for opportunities that excite and challenge me. My career has been zig-zaggy. I’ve had fun along the way, but every time I look for a new job no one knows where to place me. It’s a blessing and a curse. But it works for me.
Miraflora: You were formerly the head of Google’s strategic partnerships in Russia, and the company’s first employee there. What was that like?
Pavlova: Oh it was fun. And challenging, to be honest. They opened the office without knowing what they wanted to do in Russia, and for the first six months it was me and the country manager manning the ship. Whatever we told our head office in London, they didn’t believe us. For instance, we told them we needed a finance director because if we sign financial documents, we could actually go to jail. They responded that a financial director was not in the head count for another five years.
Miraflora: You had no experience in sports management before becoming president of Onexim Sports and Entertainment. Was that a difficult decision, especially knowing how bad the Nets were at the time?
Pavlova: That actually made it better, because the only way was up. It’s funny because at that point, I had been unemployed for two years and I couldn’t find a job because of the crisis. Right when I got desperate enough to just go do data entry to pay the rent, this opportunity came up. I was hesitant because I don’t know anything about basketball, but I knew I could figure out the business. I read everything about basketball I could find on Wikipedia and Bill Simmons’s “The Book of Basketball,” which I have to confess I didn’t finish. But as Bill said himself, he doesn’t think anyone ever did.
Miraflora: Would you call yourself a risk-taker?
Pavlova: I think so, but this job was a job like any other. The business is not rocket science—it’s sponsorships, ticket sales, TV rights. It’s not overly complicated. I had to figure out the steel and aluminum industries as an equity analyst, and cover some pretty complex financial transactions, I didn’t have any doubt that I could figure out how the business of basketball runs. The more pressing thing was how to the team win games, and fortunately I wasn’t responsible for that.
Miraflora: With the Nets having Russian ownership, one of your roles was to bridge the gap between Russia and America. What were the challenges there?
Pavlova: The biggest challenge there was the Russian business culture and me being a girl and not a basketball person. Whatever I relayed to my bosses in Moscow wasn’t taken seriously unless it was repeated by a man with basketball knowledge. It was frustrating at times. But that happens in a lot of industries. We’ve come a long way, but not far enough. And especially not in Russia.
Miraflora: Somehow you’ve managed to use your femininity to your advantage. Almost in a Gloria Steinem kind of way. What’s your feminist philosophy?
Pavlova: I never really saw any reason to become one of the men. I think we’re different, and that doesn’t mean we’re better or worse. Women bring a different perspective. I went to NBA Board of Governors meetings with 29 male billionaires and me. Male minds are more structured, and it prevents them from seeing outside of the box sometimes. I think they actually listened because they were curious to see what came out of my mouth. When I got past the stage of having to prove myself, they were actually more interested in hearing what I had to say than the other men because they’d heard it all before. Men treated me as an equal in the U.S. It was the Russian side that was more challenging for me.
Miraflora: You call yourself a fatalist, yet you completely turned around the worst team in the NBA. Explain.
Pavlova: My version of fatalism is if you’re given lemons, make lemonade. Being Russian, you deal with whatever is happening. If the Universe is bringing me something, it’s for a reason, and I have to deal with it. I do have free will, but the things that come to you are to a certain sense predetermined by your entire life and how you live it. Every job I’ve ever had has come from someone in my network, for instance.
Miraflora: Has basketball taught you anything new about business?
Pavlova: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started valuing the intangibles of any business more than just the financials. I think being a part of an organization that is based on teamwork taught me how to build culture. It’s paramount in every business. With culture, people either get it or they don’t. If you build the right culture, a lot of the other successes will follow. If people feel invested and that you’re all in the same boat, everyone makes an extra push.
Miraflora: It’s kind of shocking that more employers don’t recognize the value of that. Statistics say that people would rather have praise than financial compensation
Pavlova: It’s so simple, right? It doesn’t cost you anything. For me it comes naturally to say, “Hey you’re doing a great job.” That also means when they’re not doing a great job, you can also tell them that. You can’t teach someone those skills. How to treat people is not something you can learn from a seminar. So hiring the right people becomes more important.
Miraflora: I was stalking you on your twitter feed and you recently tweeted about struggle and loss in basketball making victory sweeter. Is this the case in life, too?
Pavlova: You wouldn’t know the highs of victory unless you know the lows of defeat. I never trust people who smile all the time. I think there’s something wrong with them. You have to have one to appreciate the other.
Miraflora: It takes both natural talent and hard work to succeed. Where do you land on that spectrum?
Pavlova: I think it’s probably 50/50. I know I’m definitely smart, and if given a task I will figure it out. I also know that I don’t know everything so I have an amazing network of people that I can turn to for advice. I’m not intimidated by a problem that I’ve never faced before because I know I have someone I can call. I think that took some years to arrive at and get comfortable with.
Miraflora: People tend to comment on your directness. Is this a “you thing” or is it a Russian thing?
Pavlova: It’s a Russian thing. We don’t bullshit as much as Americans. Who has the time for that? I see how it sometimes hinders my relationships because I tend to be impatient, but it’s a part of my culture. I can’t stand endless meetings where people are afraid to take responsibility and say, “This is how we’re going to do it and if I’m wrong, I’ll deal with the consequences.” I prefer my way, but unfortunately, not everyone else does.
Miraflora: What about your personal life? Have you ever been married or wanted children?
Pavlova: Oh absolutely, I always thought I’d be married and have a family. Life hasn’t worked out that way, but I find also that I’m very fortunate and I’ve been blessed with so many other things. I appreciate what it’s allowed me to do. If I want to move to London, I move to London. There’s a lot to be said for that.
Miraflora: As a fatalist, do you have any regrets?
Pavlova: I’m fatalistic but also very introspective. There are a few things I need to work on. One of them is being more flexible. Once I think I know the right thing, I can be deaf to other ideas. I know sometimes I need to keep my mouth shut a little more or time my responses better. I also tend to care about what I do, so I get invested emotionally. And when dealing with men, that definitely plays against you. I do give a shit, for lack of a better word, and sometimes it backfires.
Miraflora: Changing yourself is hard…
Pavlova: Yeah, but everyone says it’s easier than changing everyone else. There’s gotta be an app for that.