How Nike’s Tanya Hvizdak Is Bringing Serena Williams + More Top Athletes Together to Chart the Future of Sport

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. 

In 2019, then-Nike CEO Mark Parker approached Tanya Hvizdak, a longtime sales and business executive at Nike, with an intriguing opportunity.

At a pivotal time, the company had pledged to invest more resources into women’s sports marketing as part of its mission to build stronger and more meaningful relationships with athletes. The team thought Hvizdak was a strong candidate to help lead that effort.

“This wasn’t the path I set out on. I was on the business side for more than 18 years and truly enjoyed that aspect of it,” she said. “But I’m super passionate about sports, and I knew this would give me the opportunity to push the company through the voices of our athletes.”

A year later, Hvizdak officially took the reins as Nike’s first VP of global women’s sports marketing just as the coronavirus took hold and the world shut down.

While much of her initial work became virtual, Hvizdak’s mandate was to focus on several key areas laid out by Parker.

The company’s accelerated focus on getting closer to its top athletes came after a difficult period for Nike, when several big names came forward to allege mistreatment. Some called out what they deemed were unfair policies around pregnancy. (Nike has since changed its maternity policies.)

At a time when sports went dark during the pandemic, Hvizdak and her team got to work, talking to 200 of Nike’s female athletes about what they needed from the brand. “Listening to the voice of the athlete fuels this organization,” she said. “If we can get it right for them, we’re probably going to get it right from a broader perspective.”

Those initial conversations set the stage for the launch of one of Nike’s most far-reaching marketing platforms in years, The Nike Athlete Think Tank.

For much of 2021, the Think Tank’s diverse group of 13 founding members —including Serena Williams, sprinters Dina Asher-Smith and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and WNBA star Sabrina Ionescu — met with the brand virtually to provide unfiltered feedback about their unique journeys and the changes they wanted to see. (Other athletes on the roster include Ada Hegerberg, Angela Davis, Bebe Vio, Deyna Castellanos, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Nafissatou Thiam, Scout Bassett, Shalane Flanagan and Simone Manuel.)

During the conversations — which culminated with a special in-person moment in November — the athletes zeroed in on inclusivity, emphasizing the financial barriers to sports, especially for athletes with disabilities. They spoke about valuing their purpose and ability to create change inside their communities. And many of them reflected on their challenges along the way.

One of the big actions that stemmed from the conversations was Nike’s partnership with Charities Aid Foundation America (CAF) to fund $1.3 million for 20 grants to community organizations identified by each athlete.

“It’s not just about winning medals and breaking records; it’s about the things that get put in place because of these partnerships to benefit others,” said Fraser-Pryce.

Now Hvizdak and team plan to expand the Think Tank, inviting more women to participate in the years to come. “We might talk about pushing more women in sports, but the athletes are authentically speaking to the changes they’re seeing. That means so much more than what we’re sharing. It’s their personal experience,” Hvizdak said.

Encouraging mental health awareness has also been a priority for Nike, both internally and with its athletes (male and female), through partnerships with Headspace and Crisis Text Line. Last week, the brand debuted a podcast that will feature conversations with several notable Nike athletes who have confronted mental health issues.

Those kinds of efforts will be critical for both the company and the broader community of women’s sports.

And the brand also is investing on an even bigger scale. In February, the company revealed its equity investment in the WNBA, an extension of its partnership with the burgeoning league. “There’s a lot of talk about investing in women — not just here, but broadly. I’m most proud that we have examples and our athletes feel them,”Hvizdak said.

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