Basketball’s Grip on Diversity is Managed by Her: Nzinga Shaw
As the first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the Atlanta Hawks, as well as the entire NBA, Nzinga Shaw immediately understood three significant things that could affect her job performance. Prior to her, there had been no such position. Because of how she landed the position, there was not much preparation. Most importantly, there was no clear path forward. She would have to create it.
In September 2014, audio from a conference call emerged of the Hawks general manager Danny Ferry making racist comments about free agent Luol Deng. Then came the discovery of a racially inflammatory email written by the team’s controlling owner Bruce Levenson. According to his own admission, he suggested that the Hawk’s fan base was too heavily African-American.
Three years later, under her guidance, the Hawks have many successful inclusion outreach initiatives, including local neighborhood basketball court renovations in communities where crime has reportedly dropped since. Phillips Arena now has a sensory inclusion room for people who are on the spectrum or have autism.
Of all the Hawks inclusion initiatives, she said she would like to see more impact in the LGBT community. She recounted how the Hawks organization made its evolution in this regard. “Three years ago when we were on our journey, we decided to march in the [Gay] Pride Parade. People were scared to participate. We had 19 employees show up out of 275. We did not have a float. We were just walking, showing our support. Three years later, we made our own float. We had 150 people walk with us, and we placed number two in the overall contest for our float in Pride. Georgia Aquarium beat us. To beat companies like Mercedes Benz, UPS, Coca Cola, Turner – these big companies who all showed up – and for us to emerge as the number two best presentation at Pride, when three years ago no one even wanted to walk with us. That right there shows me that if we continue on this journey, we can connect with this community in an immense way.”
She admitted that being in a predominately male organization can be a challenging situation but also equally rewarding. Her advice for surviving much less thriving in such an environment is to be purposely different. “My male counterparts are very A type personalities, very strong-minded, loud, vocal, like to speak a lot, and so if you have that same level of energy in the room or show up in a conversation that way, it’s easy for your words and thoughts to be lost. So I’ve learned over time to be more assertive. If I want to be heard, I have to exercise my voice in a way that I had not been used to. That’s the only way to survive in a male dominated culture, unfortunately.”
As a woman, she has also influenced how her male counterparts perceive female fans and understand their economic impact. She says she has been able to show the organization that business can thrive and be extended if it starts to reach out to female fans in a “very different way.” She explained, “Our female fans make up the majority of bread winners in our households. They’re also the decision-makers on if kids get involved in basketball clinics during the summer. They’re making decisions for the household, and they’re making decisions about how discretionary funds in the house get spent, such as going to a basketball game versus a football game.”
In fact, she sees women as pivotal to the success and growth of the Hawks franchise. “We are going to be fragile if we only interact with men, and we are not going to be positioned for success because they’re just too many women in this world.”
In guiding the organization’s evolution to greater inclusion, she has also had her own evolution. “I think that I am now way more confident than I was before stepping into this role. I’ve had to defend myself, defend my team. I’ve had to be vocal about positions that were nontraditional and to own them. I’ve had to explain why we were headed in directions that people didn’t understand, why they were applicable in mainstream society or why I was fighting for people without voices. And so I think when you start to go against the grain and do things that are different than mainstream, you have to be confident in order to convince people that what you are saying is true and correct and to convince people to come along for the ride. If you are not confident, if you are not self-assured and you are also talking about tough topics, people will be scared to follow, and people will not want to get involved in the work.”
Recalling the unlikely political rise of Barack Obama, she credited his confidence. Like him, she said she didn’t have all the answers when she first took the position. “I really didn’t have all of the answers when I started this role. I didn’t have a path forward, but I believed in myself. I believed in the work. And now I feel like I can tackle anything.”
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