By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Mari Horita met Tod Leiweke, a position with the new NHL hockey franchise in Seattle was not on her mind. Instead, Leiweke’s offer to Horita was organic and based on her accomplishments with ArtsFund in creating a sense of inclusion for the arts community. Starting this past February, Horita became the vice president of community engagement and philanthropy for Seattle’s NHL hockey team, which begins play in 2021.
Horita was brought on board early to build a community around the game and the new franchise.
Horita previously spearheaded ArtsFund as its president and CEO. The organization has dedicated its existence to build community through support of the arts.
Growing up in the Seattle area, Horita was familiar with the University of Washington campus, as her father was a professor, and she would frequently swing by to visit. In high school, she studied at Odegaard Library and went to Husky football games in the fall.
She went to school at Pomona College in Southern California. Wanting to learn Japanese, she spent a semester in Japan. Her mother grew up in an internment camp. Her father moved to Central Washington during the voluntary relocation period for Japanese Americans during World War II; which may account for her parents not speaking Japanese when she grew up. She graduated with a degree in Asian Studies with an eye to work in International Relations.
After undergrad, Horita knew she wanted to go to graduate school, but could not decide which one at the time. She chose law school over getting an MBA or attending medical school.
“I decided that I had the best temperament to go to law school and enjoyed the social justice element of the law.” Her parents’ experience in the internment camps affected that decision. “If people don’t understand the laws, a lot of injustice can go on.”
After law school, Horita worked at the Seattle law firm of Bogle and Gates, where she worked in the commercial real estate division. Perhaps a tipping point in her legal career occurred when she recalls going through a huge stack of loan documents and a fellow colleague walked into her office and asked her what she was doing. Her colleague noted that she didn’t think that Horita was suited to review loan documents. While she enjoyed the law, Horita knew that there were other things she could do to put her skills to better use.
In addition to working with the firm, Horita became involved in the arts community. A violinist, Horita had a passion for the arts. She was also a volunteer with the Asian Bar Association of Washington, Youthcare, and the Japan-America Society of Washington.
Horita took time away from the law after having children and rather than go back to law, she decided to apply for a position at ArtsFund. She had experience in nonprofits as she had served on various boards, including the United Way of King County, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and Washington
Appleseed. She was unsure of her prospects about getting the job.
“The people before me in this position were 70-year-old white guys,” Horita explained. “I had no connection to ‘old’ Seattle.”
Yet, Horita was selected for the position. “You have to learn to just put yourself out there and give it a shot.” Horita is proud of her work at ArtsFund and the steps moving the organization forward.
“It’s a really important organization,” Horita said. “We really made important changes, including shifting focus to be a more community-wide organization.” As part of her job with ArtsFund, Horita oversaw operations, governance, fundraising, external relations, and programs.
While Horita modestly points to luck in switching careers from loans to the arts, then to the ice, she also accounts creating opportunities, forging relationships, and having great mentors as part of her success.
With the NHL, Horita hopes to lay groundwork for the community and grow support of the new franchise in 2021. She has met with officials of the NHL in seeking to make the game more inclusive and ensure that there are no unforeseen barriers to the sport for all to engage and enjoy.
“We would like to make a commitment to community service,” said Horita of her general plans with the NHL franchise. “We will focus on community and emphasize that hockey is for everyone.”
Horita is working with Youthcare in a long-term partnership that will include a monetary donation from the team, as well as in-kind support and some workforce partnerships. The hope is to foster job development and training opportunities, which addresses one of the missions of the organization in combating youth homelessness.
She also will work on a youth hockey program.
“The big focus will be on increasing access and breaking down barriers.” She added, “Whether it is socio-economic, gender, or race, we would like everyone to know that they are included.”
Not only will Horita be leading the charge on these initiatives, she is working with other teams in the NHL to learn from their experiences.
“This is not a competition,” Horita said about how other clubs assist in collaborating on programs.
Horita admits that she was not the most knowledgeable hockey fan when she agreed to take the position. As a parting gift, her friends at ArtsFund gave her a “Hockey for Dummies” book so that she could get up to speed before the first puck drops in the fall of 2021.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.