Storm owner Dawn Trudeau, a former Microsoft employee, has made a career of learning on the job. Now she's the Storm owner who takes the closest look at the team's business.

Thirty-six years ago, Storm owner Dawn Trudeau left Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with two suitcases and $200 to pursue an education she never received.

She had a crystallized plan: Work for a year, gain in-state status for cheaper tuition and enroll at the University of Michigan. It was a solid plan, except for one problem.

She excelled at work.

She worked so hard that she was carving her own path. The grind kept delaying her college education. Trudeau, the daughter of a schoolteacher mother and a truck-driver father, had been working since she took a job busing tables and washing dishes at age 14. When she first arrived in Michigan, she didn’t have a car, so she paid someone to drive her to work.

Today, Trudeau is retired at 54 and lives in a way she couldn’t during all those years of deferring a dream and making a career out of learning on the job. She resides in a sky-high Belltown condo adorned in glass, with views that make her seem like Seattle’s lifeguard. Her grocery store is Pike Place Market, which is an easy walk away. She sips beverages in coffeehouses blaring music that pleases her eclectic tastes. The woman who grew up on an Iowa farm basks in city living.

Her life isn’t all high rises and leisure, however. As the chairwoman and managing partner of Force 10 Hoops LLC, Trudeau sets the metrics for judging the Storm’s business, and she’s the part-owner who takes the closest look at how the franchise functions from end to end. The former Microsoft executive is learning the nuances of sports business, and she’s doing it in her typical fashion: feeding the expectations of instant gratification in a competitive arena while absorbing practical lessons.

Trudeau has been successful in spite of not having a college degree. In truth, she never stopped learning. She created her own diploma, which certifies that education can be more versatile and fluid than advertised.

She climbed from testing keyboards for an “awful” company in Michigan to managing Ivy Leaguers at the world’s largest software maker. And she did it in incremental steps, taking jobs in Michigan, Florida and New York before settling in Washington, learning about computers from their most fundamental functions to the most complex ways they can assist people. It helped her develop an understanding of consumers that enabled her to thrive at Microsoft.

“I just love learning,” Trudeau said.

She doesn’t need a degree to prove it.

“In its own weird way, it has been an asset for me,” Trudeau said of not attending college. “For me, I’ve always had to blaze my own trail. That’s what innovation is all about. You don’t have to operate within the pie chart you’ve been given. You can create your own pies.”

Lisa Tiedt, Trudeau’s niece, works at Microsoft. Her aunt is also her mentor, and for the past eight years, they have met monthly for lunch to discuss her career. Trudeau simply listens to her niece and helps Tiedt frame her challenges to achieve success.

“I don’t know anybody who has a mentor that goes so above and beyond,” Tiedt said. “What she means to me, it’s amazing. I feel truly blessed to have her in my life.

“I’ve always thought of her story as being against all odds. She inherently has everything she needs. She’s smart and driven, and though she didn’t have the financial support to go to college, she’s made herself into more than just a girl from a small town in the Midwest without a college education. She has really enriched the lives of people around her.”

Trudeau has a passion for philanthropy, and she focuses most of that energy on causes for education. She’s on the board of several organizations: the Economic Opportunity Institute, the University of Washington Women’s Center, the Microsoft Alumni Foundation, the Business Partnership for Early Learning and Social Venture Partners International. She spent three years on the Seattle Girls’ School board.

More than anything, Trudeau believes the nation should focus more on early childhood learning. Trudeau visited the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences recently, observing its revolutionary research about how infants learn. She was nearly moved to tears.

She never had a child of her own, though she has stepchildren and grandchildren from a previous marriage. But you should know by now that Trudeau doesn’t need traditional experience to stir a passion.

“It’s my dream that, at some point as a society, we invest in the youngest children,” Trudeau said. “We need to realize how much that will pay off down the road. We shouldn’t just look at it from a social justice standpoint. It’s powerful from an economic standpoint, too. It’s crazy that we don’t make that kind of investment in society.”

Paul Shoemaker, the executive director of Social Venture Partners Seattle, once worked for Trudeau at Microsoft. He liked her management style because “she could tell you that you screwed up, but not make you feel like you got the crap beat out of you.” Their relationship is different now that Trudeau works to help Shoemaker’s nonprofit organization assist a network of philanthropists, but his admiration remains.

“When Dawn is interested in something, she doesn’t dabble in it,” said Shoemaker, who is also the founding president of his organization. “She’s all in. By the time she leaves this world, she will have given so much more to this world than she took from it.”

The self-education of Dawn Trudeau is a never-ending process. If she figures out how to make the Storm a financial success, it just might be her capstone achievement. She’ll attempt to do it her way, by diving into the work and soaking up lessons along the way.

“I haven’t had a grand plan,” Trudeau said. “I’ve been very opportunistic. And I’ve always had a good gut that I can trust.”

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.