Today’s guest columnist is Terése Whitehead, the NFL Players Association’s vice president of consumer products and strategy.
“If three people in a room have the same idea, two can leave.”
NASA senior adviser Dr. Roosevelt Johnson’s message calls for creativity and problem-solving and, bluntly, for doing a lot more to promote diversity and inclusion in business.
That diversity gap is rooted in what the NFLPA defines as the inequitable reality of “sideline culture,” which means individuals who are people of color, women and individuals from other underrepresented groups have been sidelined from mentorship, resources and the rooms where ideas are developed and decisions are made. Sideline culture is the antithesis of inclusion.
It’s Dr. Johnson’s quote and the diversity gap that makes me think, How do we get these sidelined leaders into more rooms that are powering all of these diverse ideas?
In sports licensing, and likely across other parts of our industry, we’ve discovered too many rooms with just one mindset. According to a Crunchbase study, a paltry 2.3% of funding went to women-led startups in 2020, and Black and Latinx founders raised just 2.6% of the entire $87.3 billion in funding that went to all founders last year. All that money everyone is talking about is going to the same homogeneous group of founders.
Those numbers don’t add up, and brought to mind my mother, Paulette Van-Lowe, and her inspiring journey. As a 15-year-old from Jamaica studying at Oxford in the 1960s, she faced unfair pressures. On the surface, it appeared she was allowed access, attending a school entrenched in male-dominated attitudes despite going co-ed in 1920. But she hit obstacles, struggling to garner acceptance for her differing views from her British male counterparts. However, she banded together with other international students, persevered and graduated.
So what’s happening today? Does the sideline culture my mother experienced 60 years ago still exist, and if so, then how do we break down those barriers?
To break through, it is incumbent upon those with power to step back and provide ground to others with different backgrounds. I’m fascinated by NASA’s ability to create pathways to possibility. There’s a scene in Hidden Figures where Mary Jackson must convince a judge to allow her to attend classes at an all-white school. Well, she delivers one of the best sales pitches ever: “I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can’t do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can’t change the color of my skin. So I have no choice but to be the first, which I can’t do without you, sir.“
Mary Jackson went on to become NASA’s first black female engineer. Talent exists—but it’s about giving talent the support and access. The trouble is that the door to the room wasn’t open to walk through to even share the brilliance. But that judge—and NASA—opening the door for Mary was pivotal, because sometimes diversity of thought has chain reactions that allow us to literally shoot for the stars.
As I reflect on my career, I recall instances when I was the only woman or person of color represented. My views and ideas were defeated by groupthink, and I was silenced and outcast for suggesting alternatives. This was difficult to navigate, and I’m grateful for leaders, both male and female from various backgrounds, who shared their corner of the stage and continued inviting me into the rooms. Inclusivity is just as important as representation when fostering diversity of thought. Advocating for honest conversations allows individuals to learn from one another and creates safe places for expression, no matter how different they may feel in other areas of their lives.
Now, in my role at the NFLPA, I’m looking at opportunity and access through a new lens. I oversee a large base of our licensed partnerships, and there’s a gap in diversity among founders. It’s not intentional, but the gap will remain if left unaddressed. This prompted the need for a solution. How can we be sure our business represents a large, diverse fan base? Do we have enough people in the room with different ways of thinking? Because to me, it’s more than just diverse leadership—the power also comes from a diversity of ideas. True performance cannot be measured without acknowledging that unique perspectives, and a culture that reflects the multiplicity of your customers, drive success.
Our responsibility is to support inclusion of diverse entrepreneurs, their products and ideas. The NFLPA recently launched Driven, a business accelerator designed to provide amazing innovators with the resources to break into the licensing business and position their companies for success through investment, mentorship and access to our assets. The first step in addressing sideline culture and turning an idea into a new product is sharing it with the world. Three people in a room with one idea isn’t enough.
Changing the “way things are” is not easy. But it can thrust new talent from the sidelines and into business. Let’s write a new playbook focused on building our own pathways to possibility and get more people like Paulette Van-Lowe and Mary Jackson into the room.
The next time you’re in a room, look around and listen. Are there too many of you with the same idea? Is it time to invite someone else in?
Whitehead spearheads strategic player solutions for the NFLPA’s roster of more than 80 licensing partners. A graduate of the University of Michigan, she has spent her 20-year career in sports and entertainment marketing, branding, and athlete relations and representation.