There is a groundswell of African-American women using their influence to reshape pro sports.
The most famous among them is National Basketball Players Association executive director, Michelle Roberts. Meanwhile, Liliahn Majeed is the NBA’s vice president for diversity and inclusion. Cynthia Marshall has been brought in as the Dallas Mavericks new CEO, tasked with cleaning up their culture following their workplace sexual harassment scandal.
Then there’s Kim Davis, perhaps the person in the most unlikely position given the historical demographics of the sport she works in– hockey. However, given the challenges facing the NHL, Davis’ role with the league as executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs makes perfect sense. Davis reports directly to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. The length of the title on her business card underscores the amount of work the NHL has to do to keep their business top of mind, due to rapidly changing demographics and sensibilities in North America.
I caught up with Davis while she was recently in Toronto for a screening of the Kwame Mason documentary, “Soul on Ice.” We discussed her impressive career and the unlikely turn of events that took her from consulting for the NHL to working there full-time helping to change and shape the culture of the league.
Sportsnet.ca: Essence magazine named you as one of the 20 most influential African American women in the United States. Given the love for the sport in this country, that by default makes you very influential in Canada as well. How cognizant are you of the fact that many people are watching your ascension in this role?
Kim Davis: I was raised to know that in anything that I do I have a high level of responsibility. First responsibility to myself and then responsibility to all the people that have been helpful to my career. And so, I don’t really think about it like that. I think about what can I do every day that’s going to be differentiating, that’s going to help move the needle, that’s going to help make lives better, that’s going to help make our business better? And if in doing that I’m recognized, that’s fine. But I’m not motivated by recognition, I’m motivated by action.
SN: Hockey has had two transgender athletes come out in the last few years. Where does the LGBTQ community fit in with the work you are doing?
KD: We know that when people are bringing their authentic selves that they perform better, that they are more comfortable and that that’s all that really should matter. A big goal for me is creating this environment, this culture where we are welcoming and welcoming means regardless of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation. That’s all we want is for people to feel welcome and we should create a culture and environment for that. And so, this is an exciting moment in the sport for this to happen. It takes a lot of courage because people are still struggling with differences and it’s going to take leadership. It says that there is probably many more that hopefully the leadership that they are showing will make others feel comfortable in coming out and that we as a sport have to make sure that when that happens, that we set the tone in the environment for people to still feel good and supported.
SN: You’re not just a woman, you’re a black woman. Do you feel like you have two different glass ceilings you are trying to break?
KD: I have been in one of the most conservative, male-dominated industries in the world. That’s financial services and investment banking. I spent over 20 years of my career navigating, surviving and thriving in that environment. Throughout my career I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been often the only one and the first. That is not an uncommon place for me. It is one that I feel like I was well prepared for. My grandmother was the first African-American, the second woman, to graduate from Harvard with a PhD in 1929. I feel like I’ve been groomed all my life to understand the responsibility of being first. To be humble about that and to not be scared of that. In many ways, I’m fearless. I always believed that my competency will overshine any other obstacles and I’ve proven that already. I don’t have a lot to prove at this at this juncture in my career except that I make a contribution to the league that’s going to be lasting.
SN: You’re becoming less of an anomaly. We’re seeing more women of colour becoming executives in sports. Why do you think that is?
KD: Ultimately when you put enough through the pipeline, you’re going to have to start seeing that cream rise. That’s why we often talk about making sure that we are attracting into organizations because if you don’t attract, and you don’t develop, then you really can’t create that pipeline of talent. If you look at the data, it shows that women of colour are graduating at higher rates at every level all the way up to PhD, so we continue to be highly educated and highly competent and that’s being recognized and being rewarded and that’s the manifestation of what we’re seeing in terms of women of colour in higher places.
SN: If there’s a fan of the sport what should they know about the future of the NHL with you helping to lead the way?
KD: That all of those great life skills that one learns from being part of hockey will be amplified and elevated and that hockey is going to continue to represent the population that we see in the world. Hockey should look like our society and that’s part of what I’m hoping to help us achieve.