Nike CEO John Donahoe on How Serena Williams Changed the Swoosh and Improving Hispanic Representation

As the greater footwear industry looks to improve racial equity in the workplace, Nike has not shied away from sharing its efforts and learnings.

Yesterday, Nike Inc. president and CEO John Donahoe participated in a fireside chat during the American culture-focused media event L’Attitude, alongside its co-founder, Sol Trujillo. Throughout the discussion, Donahoe revealed Nike’s recent equity-focused efforts, including both external storytelling and internal initiatives, also addressing the company’s shortcomings.

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However, the most compelling narrative shared was how tennis icon Serena Williams, through her recently-formed Serena Williams Design Crew, has helped change the way Nike approaches recruiting and training designers.

Below are four key points Donahoe made during today’s fireside chat with Trujillo.

Serena Williams: An Agent of Change

Serena Williams in selections from the first-ever Nike x Serena Williams Design Crew range. - Credit: Courtesy of Nike
Serena Williams in selections from the first-ever Nike x Serena Williams Design Crew range. - Credit: Courtesy of Nike

Courtesy of Nike

“Serena Williams is obviously one of the greatest tennis players in history and been a long-term Nike athlete. About five years ago before I joined full time, [Serena] came to our campus and said, ‘You know what? I would like to see more footwear and apparel designers that look like me, I would like to see more Black and brown designers that create the product that you put my name on.’ It was a wonderful challenge and a very appropriate challenge because the footwear and apparel design community is not particularly diverse. So we created the Serena Williams Design Crew where we’re young Black and brown designers could apply, show their work and join Nike as a designer. I’ll tell a small story of a wonderful individual, Juan Huerta, who joined Nike retail in New York five years ago, has worked in our retail stores in New York for five years, and his goal was to become a Nike designer — he was a wonderful graphics designer. Two years ago, he submitted his portfolio to become part of the Serena Williams Design Crew, and out of hundreds of applicants, he was one of the 10 selected, and today is a graphic designer for the footwear team. And earlier this summer, that design crew launched the first Serena Williams collection. It’s a wonderful example of how one of our elite athletes has made us better, challenged us in a completely appropriate way, and by listening to the athlete, it’s made us rethink how we recruit and apprentice and train designers.”

Hispanic Representation at Nike

“We have the Latino and Friends Network, which is our employee network, [but] the truth is there’s some good news and some opportunity for us. You look at it in aggregate, 18% of our U.S. employees identify as Latino or Latina, and that’s a reasonable start. That includes our store athletes, our distribution center athletes and others who work in our headquarters. But if you look at director or above, that’s only 6%, so we have opportunity. And that’s an important priority for us, to grow both representation and career development — how we increase our focus on mentoring, coaching, career development, creating wonderful career opportunities for our Latino and Latina teammates. And by the way, that applies to everyone, it’s not like that’s only good for one community. We had a career summit this year so that people can understand the career path opportunities that are available to them. In some cases, some of our Latino and Latina colleagues didn’t really understand the career options that they have. We also talked about how sponsorship and mentoring is one thing to teach a manager how to do it, but it’s another thing to train a teammate how to embrace it. How do you embrace sponsorship? How do you embrace mentoring? We’re in the very hard work of making sure that our incredible Latino and Latina teammates are developing and growing, while at the same time increasing representation both at beginning and senior levels.”

Impact of Storytelling

Marlen Esparza. - Credit: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Marlen Esparza. - Credit: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

“I was in our East Los store — we have a community store in East Los Angeles — and these community doors are of the community. They’re wonderful. There are 50 Nike store athletes, 80% of whom live within five miles, which is a requirement. Not only do they bring Nike and Jordan and Converse product to life for the local community, but they’re also deeply involved in community volunteering. We have a Nike ambassador program, we have a basketball court right outside the store and we bring people together there. When I went in I was struck by the imagery on the outside and the inside of the door. [Pro boxer] Marlen Esparza was there, and we have a campaign with her profiling our sports bras — she’s one of our elite athletes who we look up to, who the community looks up to. And then on the front of the store was a local high school young lady who was the only girl on her high school football team — and in fact, she played five varsity sports at her high school. We were putting up a local high school girl as one of our heroes so the whole community could celebrate one of their own. It goes back to connecting with the local consumer in this Latino neighborhood that sees both a celebration of an elite athlete what we call an everyday athlete, and I think you have to connect on both, really understanding who your consumer is and then connect with them on their terms, looking into their hopes, aspirations and dreams. And not every consumer is the same — the East Los story is different than the south side of Chicago door, which is different than the MLK door in Portland [Oregon].”

The Power of Sport

“I think sports is becoming more inclusive because the definition of sport is changing. It used to be that you had to have a basketball court or a soccer pitch or a baseball diamond or a tennis court. And it was getting a little bit to be that if you weren’t really good at it at a very young age, people drop out. That’s a problem we have, the decline in youth participation in traditional sports in this country. At the very same time, people are embracing new sports: yoga, skateboarding, any kind of movement. The pandemic has taught us you don’t have to have a great facility to do that. Movement helps your physical health, movement helps your psychological and emotional and spiritual health. One of the things that we believe deeply is sport has an opportunity to change the world. Sports also brings people together in a world that’s very, very polarized. The definition of sports allows all of us to participate, whether you’re going for a brisk walk, whether you’re doing a yoga or a pilates workout or you’re going to the tennis court. Sport brings us together and we’re deeply committed to promoting everything we can around sport to help people in teams and communities reach their potential.”

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