Sweet spot: UConn basketball alum nabs role as sugar group’s first female CEO | Crain's Connecticut

Sweet spot: UConn basketball alum nabs role as sugar group’s first female CEO

  • Courtney Gaine was a shooting guard for the UConn women's basketball team. | Photo courtesy of The University of Connecticut

    Courtney Gaine was a shooting guard for the UConn women's basketball team. | Photo courtesy of The University of Connecticut

  • Courtney Gaine officially became the first female CEO of the Sugar Association in February. | Photo courtesy of The Sugar Association

    Courtney Gaine officially became the first female CEO of the Sugar Association in February. | Photo courtesy of The Sugar Association

  • Courtney Gaine was a shooting guard for the UConn women's basketball team.  | Photo courtesy of The University of Connecticut

    Courtney Gaine was a shooting guard for the UConn women's basketball team. | Photo courtesy of The University of Connecticut

Courtney Gaine spent four years learning from UConn’s legendary basketball coach Geno Auriemma. Today, that experience has helped put her in a league of her own.

Gaine, who played 85 games at the University of Connecticut under Auriemma, became the first women to serve as president and CEO of The Sugar Association Inc. when she formally took over the top spot last month. The 74-year-old organization represents the sugar industry, including major corporations like Domino Sugar and American Crystal Sugar.

Gaine said Auriemma’s teachings have been a great inspiration to her as she climbed the ladder since earning her bachelor’s degree in dietetics and doctorate in nutritional sciences and biochemistry from UConn.

“Attention to detail and getting it right every time are things he taught me," said Gaine, who was co-captain of the Huskies in her senior year of 1998-99. "It goes beyond the idea of making the great pass or right play at the right time.”

Auriemma, whose teams have won 11 national titles and whose current squad is ranked No. 1 in the nation, also prepares his players for the long game of life, Gaine said. 

“It’s not just that he’s probably the best women’s basketball coach of all time,” she said. “Geno has this absolute genius for keeping everyone together, working on a shared vision and a common goal. Basketball is a long season and through it you get prepared for the long haul of a career.”

The coach says he's not surprised that his 5-foot-9 former shooting guard has ascended to leadership.

“No. 1, she’s incredibly intelligent,” Auriemma said in a statement provided by the UConn sports information office. “She works really hard and I’m not surprised that she’s in that position. There was always a very serious side to Courtney that allowed her to handle things and handle projects. What more do you need to be successful?”

Gaine’s faculty advisor at Storrs, Nancy Rodriguez, said Gaine rang up some pretty impressive academic credentials, too. Gaine worked for Rodriguez as the sports nutritionist in the UConn athletics department during her first two years as a graduate student.

“She was a tremendous student; extremely capable and diligent,” said Rodriguez, who plans to attend Gaine’s March 17 wedding. “She was an exceptional team player in my research laboratory. Courtney is great at balancing work and play, and extremely talented as a writer and presenter.”

The Sugar Association named Gaine interim president and CEO in January and gave her the job permanently in February. She replaces Andy Briscoe, who resigned after 13 years leading the Washington, D.C.-based trade group.

“The guiding principle of The Sugar Association has always been centered on making informed decisions based on sound scientific research and Courtney Gaine, with her strong credentials in food nutrition, reinforces this continued commitment,” association Chairman Brian O’Malley said in announcing Gaine’s appointment. O’Malley is also president and CEO of Domino Foods Inc., the company that owns the famous-name sugar.

Gaine, 39, who joined The Sugar Association in 2014, served as vice president of scientific affairs prior to her promotion. Previously, she was an assistant professor at East Carolina University as well as senior science program manager at the North American branch of the International Life Sciences Institute. Other career highlights include project director of nutrition and wellness at a nonprofit known as Convergence and science manager at the public relations firm FoodMinds.

The Bethesda, Md., native said she is looking forward to talking to the scientific community as well as the public and their representatives about such areas of concern as obesity.

“Sugar is a media darling right now,” said Gaine, who lives in Washington, D.C. “I’m looking forward to bringing back some balance to the discussions about sugar. A lot of people don’t understand its important place in the diet. We will continue to openly support new research and to share reliable information with consumers.”

The association, which represents nearly 12,000 beet and cane sugar growers, processors, and refiners, hired two executives to assist Gaine, naming Christina Hartman as vice president of public affairs and Catherine Nnoka as director of operations.

The U.S. sugar industry consists of 142,000 jobs in 22 states and contributes $20 billion annually to the economy, the association says.

She may well draw on her previous experience handling adversity while playing for Auriemma. Gaine's freshman year at UConn, the 1995-96 season, came on the heels of a 35-0 season that culminated with Auriemma’s first NCAA championship. The team lost the first game of Gaine's freshman year, breaking the impressive winning streak.

“Now we hadn’t won 107 in a row (like the current team) but losing after 35 straight still hurt,” she said. “Geno taught us that you keep playing the same way, striving for perfection, whether you’re losing or winning. And, if you do, you’ll eventually get back to winning.”            

March 8, 2017 - 12:24pm