Sarah Mensah on Being the First Black Woman to Head Up Nike North America

In our May “Women in Power” issue, six of Nike’s trailblazing execs at the center of the brand’s ambitious strategy sat down with FN for exclusive interviews to discuss their unique career paths, Nike’s 50th anniversary and lighting the path for the next generation. 

Last year, Sarah Mensah made history at Nike when she became the first Black women to take the reins of North America, the company’s biggest geography and the place where it all started for the Swoosh in 1972.

For Nike, the move sent a powerful message about the brand’s commitment to elevating women — and specifically women of color — into top positions.

“It’s important to me personally and to our athletes, our employees, our consumers. We talk a lot about listening to them, and the best way to listen is to reflect them,” said Mensah. “I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility because Nike means so much to the Black community. To be the first Black women leading this geography is an incredible mandate.”

The former Portland Trail Blazers executive, who arrived at Nike in 2013 and initially spent about five years at Jordan Brand, most recently helmed the Asia Pacific and Latin America (APLA) region.

Now she’s steering North America at a time when a surge in consumer spending is propelling demand for the brand on its home turf. Overall sales increased 9% in Q3, and digital revenue jumped 33%, fueled by Nike’s Consumer Direct Acceleration strategy.

“While we are the largest geography and one of the largest revenue drivers at Nike, I’ve been surprised at the capacity for growth. It’s continuing to materialize in every dimension of our business,” she said.

As the company continued to work through supply chain pressures in Q3, Nike-owned inventory increased 22% versus the prior year, and that was good news as consumers drove more full-price selling and fewer markdowns.

Longer transit times continue to be a sizable issue for Nike and across the entire industry — and Mensah said the supply chain conundrum is just one part of the puzzle. Every part of the business, she noted, is experiencing intense change, from retail development, operations and staffing in the U.S. and Canada to the corporate side.

“It’s a challenge every day, the largeness of it. Part of the surprise is that we’re navigating it,” Mensah said. “The secret sauce is a tremendous amount of empathy and communication.”

Authentically communicating and connecting with her team — and giving them a forum to be open about their challenges — has been a priority for the executive, particularly since she started her role during the pandemic. “I have an open-door policy. As a leader, it’s so important to create those spaces,” Mensah said.

She’s also secure in the fact she doesn’t have all the answers. “I’m comfortable listening and allowing my team — many of whom are very senior female leaders — to help with the solution. These are the future leaders at Nike and they’re coming up with a lot of the strategies that will define the future.” 

As she works to empower the next generation, Mensah reflects on her own personal experiences, and the lessons her mother taught her at an early age.

“My mother is white, and my father is Black. My mother was a trailblazer — she was willing to step into this place of diversity before interracial marriage was a norm,” Mensah recalled. “She instilled in my sister and me to trust our gut and what we know.”

Mensah wishes she would have done more of that along the way. “So many of us, especially in my generation, spent a good portion of our time in business trying to emulate what the guys were doing, thinking there would be some reward at the end,” she said. “The best way to unlocking success is to trust that gut and know that your voice matters.”

AGL Sponsored By AGL

Differentiating Through Data and Design

Footwear brand AGL puts forth a contemporary and cool aesthetic rooted in quality and Italian craftsmanship.
Learn More

Access exclusive content