For the past three years, in honor of Black History Month, FN has celebrated African Americans in footwear and fashion with our ‘Spotlight’ series. For 2020 we’ve added a theme: Diversity as a Superpower. This year, we’ll highlight movers and shakers who’ve used their voice to drive change and create access for others. Also new for 2020, FN commissioned New Jersey-based artist, Briana Woodberry-Spencer, to design the series’ logo.
For as long as he can remember, KeJuan Wilkins has always had his sights set on sports.
The Nike executive grew up in Flint, Mich. during a time when the city was in the throes of violent crime and many other social and economic challenges that have lingered on and are only amplified today by the water crisis.
But, Wilkins is a decade and a half into his career at the Swoosh, where he’s now the VP of North America communications. Before that, he spent time at Reebok and worked on the communications arm of the New York Knicks. And while Wilkins’ resumé is lined with accomplishments he’s proud of — especially since they’ve brought to life the career in sports he long dreamed of — he’s also keenly aware that his success story is all too rare.
“[Growing up], I was no different that [many of my peers] in wanting to pursue a career as a professional athlete,” he explained. “But fortunately for me, I was able to recognize fairly early on that the likelihood of that happening was slim. So I started looking at the ways in which I could still be connected to something I have such a strong passion for — sports — but be able to make a living.”
Wilkins majored in sports management at the University of Michigan and, from there, charted his path into the industry via his work on the communications team for the school’s athletic department. He followed that up with internships at several NFL teams, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Detroit Lions.
In addition to the critical lessons he gleaned about effective sports management during his formative college years, Wilkins also developed an awareness of the powerful perspective he carried with him as a person of color.
“[Before] I stepped on to campus at the University of Michigan, which was predominantly white and affluent, my engagement on a day-to-day basis was mostly with black people,” he said. “But when I got there, I recognized that I had a different experience, and that sometimes people responded with curiosity to what I had to say about that experience. I started to recognize that the different mindset I brought to the table matters.”
What’s more, he started to become aware of the responsibility he’d someday have to make sure others like him have the spaces and opportunities for similar advancement and success.
Here, he talks paying it forward and finding “community” at work.
How did you make the shift from working with professional sports teams to the brand side of the footwear industry?
“I started my full-time career with the New York Knicks and was there for five seasons in the communications department. At that time, I really started to see the influence of communications. From there, I moved on to Reebok. I went there for two years. That was the first time I experienced communications in ways I was completely unfamiliar with. The experience up to that point was with athletes and events. At Reebok, this was dealing directly with consumers and talking about product and looking at things from a business perspective and at a global level. That made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t as confident in my decision and my ability to rise to that occasion. When I look back on it, that was the best thing that could have happened because it got me out of my comfort zone. From there, I got recruited by Nike where I got to see the [massive] impact the brand has but also see the impact sport has around the world.”
How did you come to learn that your diverse background can actually enhance your work as a professional in this industry?
“Often, we underestimate the value of the perspective we bring to the table because we assume or take for granted that our value is so obvious. But there are people who don’t have the same experience or perspective that we have. I started to realize that when there started to be conversations where I was asked for my point of view. I couldn’t imagine working at a company that didn’t solicit or make room for those perspectives. I’ve been very fortunate. I’m happy to have been in environment that both sought out that perspective of mine and also allowed me to contribute. Where Nike sits in the world of sport and with who [constitutes] our consumer base is: It’s youth culture, it’s different nationalities, it’s different ethnic groups. We wouldn’t be who we are if we didn’t allow for those different perspectives. I was fortunate to be in environments early on where I recognized what I brought to the table.”
Do you consider it a part of your responsibility to help people of color gain access to the footwear industry?
“It’s all of our responsibility. It’s every person’s responsibility and I don’t say that to pass the buck or to [imply] that I don’t have a greater responsibility. A lot of what minorities — and black people in particular face — are issues that weren’t created by us. While it’s our responsibility — it’s everyone’s responsibility to [remedy] these issues. For me, having the background and career path I’ve had and coming from where I’m from, yes of course I feel like I have responsibility to provide resources and make myself accessible, to connect with people and pass down whatever I can to those who don’t have the resources and visibility.”
How do you do that?
“One of the ways I [fulfill my responsibility] is through an organization called The LAGRANT Foundation. It works with ethnic-minority undergraduate and graduate students across a number of fields whether its marketing, advertising, communications — it’s a resource-based organization that gives scholarships, development, training, workshops, mentorships and internships. For me, it’s such a great organization to be connected to because you see the talent there. There’s talent that’s out there, they just need the visibility and opportunity.”
What are some of the persistent barriers in expanding opportunities for people of color in the footwear industry? Did you face any of them?
“I experienced obstacles but not in the sense that there weren’t opportunities. But, my story isn’t everyone else’s. I recognize that I’ve been in the right place at the right time and I’ve done the work to put myself in position [to be successful]. My obstacles have come with the lack of community. It can be isolating when you feel like you’re an ‘only’ and you don’t feel like you have someone you can be vulnerable around and ask certain questions. Those were the obstacles. Not having the opportunity or [being] aware of it, however, is an obstacle many people face.”
How can those issues be overcome?
“For [those of us in positions of power], we can’t get the opportunity and stop there. I didn’t grow up in a household where my parents worked consistently, I didn’t have someone to call up and ask ‘what’s a 401K?’ But I’ve realized [now] that there’s nothing wrong with being vulnerable or asking for help. But I also realized it’s important to tap into your community. In order to succeed in life, you have to do it in partnership with people. It’s tough to try to do it alone. It ties back to the responsibility I have. None of us can do anything alone, we can only get so far. We have to [help others].”
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