What It Takes To Make Tennis Look Like America

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This post is the first installment of Jopwell’s new “From The Desk Of” series featuring the leading voices in corporate America sharing their thoughts, insights, and experiences around building more diverse and inclusive workforces.

I didn’t think much of tennis growing up in North Philadelphia until one particularly hot summer day. I was home watching television, PBS to be exact, and I saw a young, African-American man sporting an afro. His name was Arthur Ashe. He made tennis look so easy – and so fun – that I almost immediately called a friend who had, earlier that year, suggested I join the National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) network of Philadelphia. A few days later, I picked up a borrowed tennis racquet, finally made contact with the tennis ball after missing 20 or so times, and fell in love with the sport.

NJTL did and still does provide youngsters who would not otherwise have the opportunity to learn tennis with the chance to do so by taking the sport to people where they live. And it changed my life.

I went on to play tennis in high school and college. Yet as immersed in the sport as I was, I had no idea there was an administrative, growing-the-game aspect of it. So although tennis was my passion, after I graduated from college, I began working as an accountant, and teaching tennis on the side. It took my learning about, and landing, a full-time job as a coordinator for NJTL for me to realize that there are opportunities outside of going pro to turn your love of sport into a career, thus doing what love while making a difference.

Today, as the chief diversity and inclusion officer at the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the national governing body of the sport, I work to make sure that tennis reaches as many people as possible. I’m one of six staff members exclusively focused on diversity and inclusion, and I report to Gordon Smith, our Executive Director and COO. It is our job to ensure diversity at every level of the USTA, from the board president to council chairs and committees; from the C-suite on down through the directors; from the service providers and suppliers to program promoters to umpires, officials, fans, and more. We strive to serve each of these groups with the hope that they will reach back into the community, continuing the cycle. Here’s how we’re doing it.

1. We show students that the sport they love makes a great career.

I was lucky enough to be an intern one summer during college, and that internship led to my first full-time job. So I understand the important exposure these experiences provide. We recently wrapped up the fifth year of USTA’s Diversity & Inclusion summer internship program, which was established to build our pipeline of diverse talent. Though we launched with a focus on undergraduates, we added a graduate student component to the program in 2016 to more effectively fill our applicant pipeline for higher-level roles. The program has been a success — we get around 400 applicants to work in about a dozen departments, and each department carefully interviews candidates to decide who best fits its needs. Our interns don’t just perform administrative tasks. They work on projects and make presentations from which we often take recommendations and use to implement changes. They are also essential brand ambassadors — representing the future of tennis — at recruiting and networking events.

To date, we’ve made four full-time hires out of our internship program, and an additional intern was hired by one of USTA sections (our regional affiliates). We’ve also hired about 20 former interns to work as seasonal employees supporting the US Open. And this is just the beginning: When handled correctly, internship programs can and do make a long-term difference to hiring pools and businesses.

2. We include diverse voices in key decisions at every level.

The USTA looked very different when I arrived in 1993. To start, there had never been a person of color on the board. Today, Katrina M. Adams, who is serving her second term as the USTA’s Chair, CEO, and President, leads a board that is 26 percent people of color and 42 percent women. POCs represent 36 percent of our workforce, and women represent 47 percent of it. And in 2015, Adams developed the organization’s first Hispanic Engagement Advisory Group (HEAG) with the mission of developing strategies to promote and develop the growth of tennis among Hispanics in the U.S. Adams has ensured a renewed focus on leveraging our diversity and inclusion efforts to drive positive business impact.

At the same time, employee resource groups such as ACE Network BRG (African American and Caribbean Employees Business Resource Group) and the Latino Hispanic Business Resource Group provide the USTA with needed business insights regarding the diverse audiences with whom the organization wants to connect and serve as ambassadors who create community goodwill. Each of our seven BRGs is assigned two senior leaders who help develop plans, all of which must connect back to something that matters to the USTA — like open, increased participation in tennis by youth or community engagement.

3. We build community by creating opportunities to give back.

The USTA’s mission is to promote the development and growth of tennis — and you can’t do that without going back into communities. The idea of purpose is a key component of employee engagement, especially for those just joining the workforce. Our staff, who tend to be tennis enthusiasts or former players themselves, value the fact that the USTA puts its money and efforts where its mouth is.

It certainly made a difference to me: At the site of my very first lesson at Mander Playground, in North Philly, NJTL (which is now sponsored by the USTA’s charitable arm, the USTA Foundation) offered programming for all levels of play. And because there were more than 70 sites throughout the city, my friends and I were able to explore neighborhoods in which we’d never otherwise find ourselves. As part of the tournament team, my teammates and I were able to play district-, section-, and national-level tournaments, because they came at little or no expense to our families.

Now, my colleagues and I are extending this community engagement all the way up to the “big show,” the US Open, where, over the course of the next two weeks, we will offer a series of community events connected with the tournament, including youth clinics, photo opps, musical performances, and health and activity tips. So, in addition to cheering on the top players, we're offering ways to bring tennis into the lives of those who may have otherwise never known its power.

The United States Tennis Association is a Jopwell partner company.

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