‘We’re not done yet’: How Cynthia Marshall has helped transform the Mavericks
The first Black female CEO of an NBA franchise talks about Dallas’ organizational diversity and inspiring people of color and women through her role
PHOENIX — Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynthia Marshall was sitting in a suite at Footprint Center before a playoff game last week when she proudly turned around and said, “Take a look at my team.”
Standing nearby and smiling brightly weren’t members of the Mavericks’ roster. Rather, a large, diverse group of people of color who now work for the Mavericks in business operations. This moment was four years removed from Marshall being hired as the Mavericks’ CEO a week after a report detailed owner Mark Cuban’s franchise as a hostile workplace for women. Marshall was the first African American female CEO hired by an NBA team.
“Mark was trying to make a difference for the team,” Marshall told Andscape before the Mavericks lost 129-109 to the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 (Dallas rallied to win Games 3 and 4 to tie the best-of-seven series at two games apiece heading into Tuesday’s Game 5 in Phoenix). “He wasn’t trying to make history. He just picked the person that was qualified.”
Marshall, 62, took part in a Q&A with Andscape and reflected on why she took the Mavs’ CEO job amid controversy, how the franchise is now known as an award-winning one in diversity, working with Black team leadership such as coach Jason Kidd, president of basketball operations Nico Harrison and vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley, the challenges and lessons of her abusive upbringing in Richmond, California, and her belief that there will be a female NBA coach one day.
Do you often reflect on where you came from, how you got here and who you need to thank for it?
That’s one of the things I always talk about. I have these life lessons. Actually, the first one is always remember where you came from, because you might forget where you’re going. Richmond, California, is where it all started with three teachers and a principal who really, really embraced me when all of this stuff happened in my family. They knew my mom had a desire for her kids to go to college, so I always joke about my mother putting two books in my hand at an early age: a math book in one hand and a Bible in the other. And just saying, ‘Keep your head in these books, and you’ll come out [of Richmond].’
I always go back to my start. To all the things that I went through … that some people would say, ‘Oh, my gosh, you did that?’ or ‘You saw that?’ But it’s just what you’ve been through because it’s just part of growing up. I lived in the public housing projects, but it was a village. It was a village there for me, there for my mom, and I ended up on [the University of California] Berkeley’s campus.
“Here was an opportunity to impact the sisterhood. Once I got there, I saw it was bigger than that, but I said, ‘This is an opportunity to really jump in here and help create a great place to work for these women, and everybody else around them.’ “— Cynthia Marshall on becoming CEO of the Dallas Mavericks
When you got offered this job, a lot was going on at the time with the Mavericks. Why were you comfortable taking the job at that time?
By the time I made it to Mark’s office, before I walked in, I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this.’ But then I had a wonderful conversation with Mark Cuban. Very genuine, very transparent, and just serious about wanting to change the culture and make a change for his organization. I worked for AT&T for 36 years, so I know leadership and I know genuine people. He knew he wanted a change for this group of people. And so that touched me, right?
But then I thought, OK. I had just written a blog post that morning called Impact and it was about these teenagers who were protesting in Parkland, Florida. But then the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham had passed away and I found myself, agewise, smack dab in the middle of it. So, I wrote this blog post that morning about impact and being at a point in my life, and [asking] what kind of impact am I going to have. I know what I had done at AT&T. And then I posted it and that was it.
So, here it is a few hours later, I have the opportunity to have an impact. And two women actually stopped me as I was leaving his office and started telling me their stories and what they felt was needed. They said, ‘We want you to come here. Mark Cuban said you got to come in and help us. We want you.’ Because apparently, he was talking about me. I told Mark I was going to pray about it and the word ‘impact’ just kept coming back to me. Here was an opportunity to impact the sisterhood. Now, once I got there, I saw it was bigger than that, but I said, ‘This is an opportunity to really jump in here and help create a great place to work for these women, and everybody else around them.’ And that’s what I did.
And I said I took the job for the sisterhood but actually, I did it because it was an opportunity for impact. And for some reason — by the grace of God, just with what had happened in my life before in terms of overcoming adversity, but also being successful at AT&T — I was kind of uniquely qualified to come in and lead the effort. Obviously, I didn’t do it by myself, but to at least lead the transformation effort en masse.
For people unfamiliar, what were some of those things from your past growing up in Richmond, California, that impacted you then and now?
I grew up in public housing projects. My mother was the victim of domestic violence, as were we, her kids. When I was 15 years old, my father broke my nose. The whole domestic violence thing is just kind of important to me. And so, just the treatment of women is important. I grew up in the AT&T business. I grew up watching different career things happen for people, and not always women or people of color getting the things that they needed or deserved in the workplace.
In terms of the adversity part of my life — growing up poor, having that resilience, having to work very hard and not being afraid of a challenge — those are things just in my nature that will make me take on a challenge. And then wanting good things for everybody. A genuine love for people. I wanted to see communities and people and children survive things.
So, I’m just naturally a person that wants to help and I would take it on. I had the courage to take it on. I saw my father shoot a man in the head in self-defense of me. I was standing right by him when it happened. Had to end up being escorted to school by a uniformed police officer. And so that officer did exactly what he was supposed to. To protect and to serve, and he took care of me when I was in seventh grade.
Just having seen a lot, there’s not a whole lot that I’m afraid of. But because of that, I know there’s always something better on the other end. I’ve had people show up for me all the time, so this is an opportunity to show up for people. And they seem to need me.
What are you most proud of, of what you’ve been able to do since you joined?
I’m proud of the fact that our leadership team, our entire workforce, is very diverse. And when I got there, we did not have a diverse workforce. We didn’t have any women in permanent leadership positions on my side, the business side, and we didn’t have any people of color.
So, my leadership team now and throughout the organization is 50% women and 50% people of color. And I’m very proud of that from a standpoint that it didn’t take us a long time to do it because we were committed. I was committed, obviously Mark was committed; he brought in a Black woman to do the job. That’s something he never even thought about. When people talk about me being the first Black, female CEO of an NBA team, nobody ever thought about that.
I always say, ‘[Cuban] was trying to make a difference for the team. He wasn’t trying to make history. He just picked the person that was qualified.’ And so, I’m proud of the fact that we’ve made diversity, equity and inclusion just part of our DNA. It is just who we are. Our supplier base is diverse, our workforce is diverse. You name it. We’re just diverse.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve made diversity, equity and inclusion just part of our DNA. It is just who we are.”
How do you think your hiring has impacted the Mavericks and the NBA at large?
It’s definitely a model. Even [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver told all the teams back when he did his big press conference back in September of 2018 to look at the things we had done and the recommendation that came out of the investigation. And he said, ‘This is the model.’ So, the NBA has really done a lot to put a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. I’m proud of what we did after the George Floyd situation. We launched something called ‘Mavs Take ACTION!’ That’s my baby. The Lord gave me that in my prayer closet because I was just so bothered by what had happened.
If you go on LinkedIn, you’ll see something called ‘Decision Time.’ It’s an excerpt of a letter that I sent to our employees about how it’s time for America to make a decision about what kind of world are we going to live in. What are we going to tolerate? And we were having our courageous conversations, Mark was having courageous conversations internally and we said, ‘We got to do one externally.’ We had a big community courageous conversation in the whole COVID environment. We spread it out, 200 people, because we said: ‘We naturally convene people for a living, this is what we do. And so, we’re going to convene people around this discussion, around race in this country.’
And we did that, and our theme was ‘Listen, Learn, Unite.’ If you go to our building right now, you’ll see that’s what’s up on our building: ‘Listen, Learn, Unite.’ So, Mark and I led that conversation. I mean, we hosted it and we brought people together who lead all the different systems. Systems that I believe undergird systemic racism in this country. We had a great conversation and we said, ‘OK. Go put together an action plan.’ And so, ‘Mavs Take ACTION!’ stands for advocacy, communication, training, investment, outreach and noise. So, we want to look at 50 initiatives that really address racial inequities in the Dallas area. We said, ‘We’re just about doing things that promote sustainable changes.’
We’re doing some amazing things to embrace the community, embrace young people and embrace the economy. We’re trying to impact the economy. The economic viability of certain areas like South Dallas, we’re just doing a lot. We’ve adopted a school. Totally, these kids are 100% free or reduced lunch. And so, we picked the kind of school that we wanted to adopt, and we are coming alongside them, their families, all that. But it’s over 50 initiatives. We said it’s going to be a $5 million investment, so we’ve already spent that over a three-year period. We’ve rallied the whole community, especially business community, around driving sustainable change in Dallas. I’m really, really proud of that.
How did George Floyd’s death impact you personally?
I could barely function for a while. Our Black employees, especially Black men, wanted to have a talk and sit. And I was so emotional, I could barely have it. I have four kids. I have two sons and two daughters. And I was just thinking about like, ‘This is ridiculous. My sons really are at risk walking down the street?’ As a Black parent, and my husband, we’ve had ‘The Talk’ with our kids. We are really in a position again where we have to do this. We have to make a decision that we’re not going to tolerate this.
I’m sure maybe young women, maybe mothers and fathers, for that matter, may reach out to you. Can you talk about some of those things and how you’ve been told you’ve impacted people?
I spoke to a commercial real estate group for women, CREW Dallas. And this lady came up to ask a question and then she started crying. And she said, ‘You spoke somewhere a couple years ago, and you talked about how we had to dream big and how we had to be there for each other, and then we had to document the things that we wanted to happen.’ She brought up to me this whole recipe I gave them. She says, ‘And you gave us an exercise about laying out our boundaries, laying out our goals and all that. And I did that.’
And then she went on to talk about what she’s doing right now, the business that she started, what she had learned, and she just started sobbing. She said, ‘It’s all because of your encouragement and what you told me to do that day, and how inspired I was to finally live out my dreams and change my life.’ I could barely talk. I was stunned, because you want to make a difference. And I always say when I go to speak, I pray: ‘Lord, you know who’s sitting out there. You know what they need to hear. Just give me the right words. Just make me your vessel.’
“[AT&T] promised me I’d be low-profile when I got to Dallas because I always had big, high-profile jobs. What I have realized now is sometimes people need to see it. They don’t even know it exists. They don’t even know that a Black woman can be CEO of an NBA team or could even do that.”— Cynthia Marshall
So sometimes it’s good to hear back, and then it just motivates me to want to do more of it. But I don’t like to talk about it. I just want to do it. [AT&T] promised me I’d be low-profile when I got to Dallas because I always had big, high-profile jobs. What I have realized now is sometimes people need to see it. They don’t even know it exists. They don’t even know that a Black woman can be CEO of an NBA team or could even do that.
The National Basketball Association announced recently that the Mavericks received the 2022 Inclusion Leadership Award, marking the second straight time the franchise won the honor. What does that award mean to you?
It’s a big award, and it is based on all the work we’ve done around diversity, equity and inclusion. When I got to the Mavs, we laid out a set of values that spelled CRAFTS: Character, Respect, Authenticity, Fairness, Teamwork and Safety, both physical and emotional safety. The emotional safety piece was big, especially considering what was going on when I got here. We also laid out a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy that spelled CRAFTSS. Customers, Reputation, Agenda for Talent, Women, Families – so home and/or community, integrating all that talent – and Suppliers and Sponsors.
And we basically laid out performance indicators and said, ‘We want to see diversity across all of these areas.’ So, we have a very robust diversity, equity and inclusion agenda. Our workplace promise is that every voice matters, and everybody belongs. So, we have employee resource groups, we’ve done all that. And then, of course, Mavs Take ACTION! And we’ve just done a lot to try to really address some of these inequities.
I put together an external advisory committee when I got here, the Dallas Mavericks Advisory Council. Very diverse. Different community leaders, heads of chambers, academics. Community leaders, pastors. Just a group of about 30 people to help advise us in our business. And even from a philanthropic standpoint, the folks who give the philanthropic dollars, it has to be a diverse goal. And you need a diverse workforce too, to make all of that happen. Because people connect in different ways. So yes, we’re proud of that.
How much involvement do you have with the actual Mavericks players? Do you talk to the guys much?
Yeah, I talk to them. The player relations piece is underneath my organization. But then I’m also the one that personally gets to do the code of conduct training, all that stuff with them. I’ll see them all the time. Nico Harrison and Jason, we’re joined at the hip.
Then, of course, we’re big on community. I would put our team up to any team in terms of players involved in the community. Luka [Doncic] is up for the community assist award. We’ve had other players like [Dwight] Powell, who actually have won awards. So, we do a lot of service projects and things together. Especially pre-COVID, we got a chance to do a lot of that. We do a lot of that together with them.
You’ve got yourself, a Black president of basketball operations in Harrison, a Black head coach in Kidd and a Black general manager (Finley). And you guys are qualified people. What kind of example do the Mavs hope to set with that?
One day that really sticks out to me was when it was last July, when we had the press conference to basically introduce Nico Harrison as the president of basketball operations, Michael Finley as assistant general manager and Jason as the coach. Then you have Mark – the governor, the owner – coming out. And then me as the CEO. Before the four of us [African Americans] walked out, we took a picture. And we just kind of all looked because it hadn’t really dawned on us that Mark had such a diverse executive leadership team. We just hadn’t thought about that. I don’t think he thought about that. So, we’re standing there taking the picture like with the 2011 [NBA championship] trophy, right in the middle there. And it dawned on me that our boss has an all-Black leadership team. Wow. And he’s not Black, so we got diversity. And we got a woman in there.
So, we were like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is a pretty powerful image for people of color, for little kids of color, for women.’ It’s a powerful image to say, ‘You can do this too and there are no limits. And you’re all qualified.’
Have you had a chance to get to know Mavericks assistant coach and WNBA Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver?
I love that sista. We also have a new program that we launched last year called Girls Empowered by Mavericks, and it was the focus on the 9-to-14 age group because a lot of times, these girls start dropping out of sports. We want them to stay in sports. Because even if they drop out of sports, it’s bigger than basketball. Kristi came and spoke at two of our conferences. The girls were so fired up.
She walked out, and they just went crazy because they see this woman who is a basketball coach in the NBA. And these are girls of all ethnicities. They were screaming. They wanted so many pictures with her afterwards. She gave them so many good messages about how she got there, what it actually takes, what you need to do and the balance that you need to have in your life. She talked about the nutrition, getting your schoolwork done. She is the woman. Just how she talks to them and her own personal journey, she shares that with them. It was beautiful. I said, ‘We got to have Kristi come back and talk about her job.’
In terms of diversity and inclusion in the NBA and sports as a whole now?
Let me just preface it by saying we’ve made some progress, but we’re not done yet. I’m not one to sugarcoat it. The NBA has a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. We have a lot of different programs where we’re developing people. We’re truly focused on the pipeline because we have to be focused on that pipeline. We got to have people that are coming. So, we’re focused on the vision.
But we’re not there yet. We’ve made progress. When I came in, there was one woman in LA, Gillian Zucker, who was a CEO for the Clippers. And so, I was the second woman, the first Black woman, and now there are four of us. And there are a lot of women who have come up into the executive ranks. My executive team is 50% women. We’ve made progress on the business side. We’ve made some progress on the basketball side. We have more female assistant coaches. Obviously, we don’t have a head coach yet, but I believe that will happen. Adam Silver is very focused on referees. So, we have female referees. We have 37 [referees] for the playoffs and so I had to send an email and say, ‘OK, I want to see a woman in this mix.’ So, obviously you want the most qualified people, and we have some very qualified referees.
Sports in general are making progress, but not nearly the progress that we need to make. I love the number of Black coaches and coaches of color in the coaching ranks. Obviously not a woman there yet, but I think that will happen. I hope and I’m praying that one day we get to a point where we don’t even have to talk about it. But until then, we have to talk about it because we’re not done yet.