Home

Hawks address diversity from employee, fan, sponsor perspectives

Hawks address diversity from employee, fan, sponsor perspectives

By John Lombardo, Staff Writer

Published

Born out of a racially tinged crisis under previous ownership, the role of the Atlanta Hawks’ chief diversity and inclusion officer has grown in scope over the past three years under Nzinga Shaw. The Hawks also are the only one of the NBA’s 30 teams to have such a position.

Nzinga Shaw’s role with Hawks has grown to include fan outreach and sponsorship.
Photo by: COURTESY OF NZINGA SHAW
Shaw, who was hired in December 2014, is responsible for leading diversity efforts within the franchise and deepening the team’s relationships within the Atlanta community. Her appointment came as the franchise was mired in a racial controversy stemming from player-free agency recruitment, which led to the sale of the team to a group led by venture capitalist Tony Ressler.

In the three years since the position was created, the Hawks have taken a leading role in diversity in sports, an effort that initially was met by some skepticism.

“After I started, I was not necessarily welcome with open arms,” said Shaw, who before joining the Hawks worked as senior vice president of diversity and inclusion for the Edelman public relations agency and previously worked for the NFL and YES Network. “People were skeptical specifically because the role has never been done before. It was ‘who is this person and what is she here to do.’”

To quell the doubts and show just how committed the Hawks were about changing the team’s approach, Shaw quickly created a 20-member diversity council that included 10 Hawks employees and 10 members from the community.

The goal not only was to address diversity efforts within the Hawks front office, but also to broaden outside support.

“There was a lot of ambiguity as to what I was going to be doing, and I realized that in order to be successful, I couldn’t do it alone,” Shaw said.

A major buy-in from Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, who as a former longtime Turner senior executive was deeply ingrained in the local business community, also helped shift the team’s culture.

“There was legitimate wait-and-see,” said David Lee, senior vice president of external affairs for the Hawks. “It also helped to have a full endorsement from Steve.”

The Hawks, under Shaw’s direction and Koonin’s strong support, established a three-pronged diversity effort that included an emphasis on employee experiences, fan experiences and strategic partnerships.

The team examined how it looked at talent, how it treated employees, and its hiring practices. “It was how are we treating employee experiences to allow them to reach their maximum potential,” Shaw said.

The Hawks also made new efforts to reach out to the local LGBT and Hispanic communities that were underrepresented within the Hawks fan base. The team has participated in the local Pride parade, it hired bilingual ushers and guest relations employees, and it continues to deepen engagement in those communities.

“It is reaching new demographics and exposing new communities to the game of basketball,” Shaw said. “We are deeper and more organic. It is not pushing out our own agenda to make them fans, but finding out what the community needs.”

On the sponsorship side, the Hawks re-examined their sponsorship roster to be more inclusive.

“We traditionally reached out to large organizations and traditional corporate America like Coca-Cola, and we hadn’t done a good job in partnering with women and minorities,” Shaw said. “We developed a strategy to reach out in the right way.”

When the team and Emory Healthcare this year announced a partnership to build a new practice facility, the Hawks chose Atlanta-based construction and management firm H.J. Russell & Co., one of the largest minority-owned real estate firms in the country, as project manager.

On the community side, the Hawks last year created their inaugural Unity Weekend that included a day of service by team employees. The event included the first Unity Game between the Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Before the contest began, the starting lineup of each team was introduced in alternating fashion, not usually done in the NBA, and during the national anthem players and coaches stood with locked arms. The team also asked fans inside Philips Arena to link arms and stand united with the players.

The efforts have worked to increase diversity and inclusion inside and outside of the franchise, while dispelling many initial doubts of the program.

“It is the organization showing up and taking time — as opposed to taking a stop-gap measure — that has served us well to build the right way and go further upstream,” Lee said. “In general, we have won over folks. It’s getting to the point where it is getting into our DNA.”


Home