Wendy Lewis: Creating a Field of Opportunities

Wendy Lewis played a lot of sports growing up. In high school she was on the girls football team and participated in softball, tennis and track and field. At the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh she played intramural sports and was on the dance team. But people didn’t always want her on their side. Specifically, they didn’t want her to be captain. She didn’t always go for the best players, and teammates were unsure of this approach.

“I realized what I wanted was to win, but I knew to win you needed a balance of people with different skills, in different positions,” she said. “If you were choosing a softball team and all you picked were the folks who could always hit, you weren’t going to win in the long run. That’s the paradigm I exist in today. I look for a rich balance of people — the healthiest group I can find; the most talented; the strongest work ethic.”

There might be something to her strategy.

Becoming a Game-Changer
Lewis has worked in Major League Baseball’s central office since 1995 and is the highest-ranking African-American woman with the league. Under her leadership as senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances for Major League Baseball (MLB), the department launched the Diverse Business Partners Program to cultivate relationships with minority and female-owned businesses. More than $800 million has been spent with minority business owners, making it a premier supplier diversity program in professional sports. Her success has come steadily, but it hasn’t been easy.

“When I started, I was very often the only woman in the room. Certainly the only woman of color,” she said. “But my mom used to tell me very often that if it was easier, everyone could do it. If it wasn’t such a challenge to do, then it wasn’t going to give me an opportunity to do great things.”

Lewis hasn’t had a shortage of opportunities since she graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a psychology degree. In 1987, while working as a sales representative for the Tribune Co., which owned the Chicago Cubs, she interviewed for a human resources manager position with Dallas Green, a baseball lifer who was then the Cubs president and general manager. She ended up creating the first human resources position in baseball.

Since then she has earned an MBA from the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, served as MLB’s vice president of strategic planning for recruitment and diversity, and vice president of human resources and office operations.

“From day one, being an African-American woman, seeing the absence of people like me in my field made me want to work harder to create opportunities to be more inclusive,” she said.

In her current position Lewis implements MLB’s Diversity Economic Impact Engagement Initiative, one of the league’s newest programs, to advance workforce and supplier diversity efforts and create methodologies for cultural assessments, diversity economic platforms and industry-wide diversity training. She meets with each of MLB’s clubs — HR members, the clubs’ CFOs and often the owners and general managers — to help support them as they create customized practices for clubs to create economic impact based on diversity strategies. Because of these bottom-line accountabilities, Lewis has reported directly to MLB’s Chief Financial Officer Jonathan Mariner and the league’s Diversity Oversight Committee for the past three years.

“Our work is centered on facilitating projects that have economic impact, so it made more sense for the organization for us to be more grounded on the finance and economic gain component of the business than within an HR labor group, where we had been before,” she said.

Similar to the internal Diversity Economic Impact Engagement Initiative, the league’s Diversity Business Partners (DBP) program is a procurement initiative with a targeted approach to exchange goods and services with distinct suppliers that has produced significant economic opportunity for the commissioner’s office, its franchises and local communities. Since 1998 MLB has spent hundreds of millions of dollars with minority- and female-owned businesses through the DBP program, which has created opportunities for thousands of minority- and female-owned businesses across a variety of industries.

“We know the value of business to business,” Lewis said. “Hiring you, that’s a wonderful thing, but the economic community impact that comes with facilitating a business relationship with your whole organization is phenomenal and measurable.

“We’ve seen some businesses grow exponentially as a result of becoming a component of our supply chain, and we want those businesses to continue to grow, and grow alongside us.”

It’s not hard for Lewis to sell these programs internally or to minority and female-owned businesses.
“I’m not trying to get people to eat pea soup,” she said. “If you get a taste of it, you just like it. My job is about giving more people the opportunity to taste it, and not just once, not just twice, but know that if they like it, they can do it again. In fact, they can be part of building it. In fact, they can be a part of doing it themselves. It’s an easy sale; it’s just a matter of getting the buyer and seller in the same room.”

Batting Against Bias
Although the league has taken on diverse suppliers, it still struggles to maintain an African-American presence. According to the MLB Racial and Gender Report Card, at the start of the 2012 season, the total percentage of players of color in MLB was 38.2 percent. The opening day rosters were 61.2 percent white, 27.3 percent Latino, 8.8 percent African-American, 1.9 percent Asian, 0.1 percent Native American or Native Alaskan, and 0.1 Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. The percentage of African-American was up from 8.5 percent in 2011, but although this was a slight increase, it was still the second lowest percentage since 2007.

While MLB has implemented initiatives for urban youth to address this issue, such as Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) and the Urban Youth Academy, giving more than 1 million youth the opportunity to participate in baseball and softball programs in their local communities, Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida and author of the Racial and Gender Report Card, said the sport has lost a generation.

He offers a few explanations for this problem. First, for the past 10 to 15 years, where the decrease of African-American players has been most precipitous, young African-American kids have mostly seen black NBA and NFL players celebrated, while the best African-American baseball player has been Barry Bonds, who is a central figure in a steroid scandal which overshadows his accomplishments.

“If you’re a kid, you see this African-American guy who’s got an amazing batting record not being loved by most baseball fans,” Lapchick said. “You don’t want to train only to end up in that position.”

Further, young black children often do not have access to baseball fields, or the cost to play is too high and doesn’t seem worth it. On April 6, 1987, Al Campanis, then an MLB executive, made an appearance on “Nightline” on the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and joining professional baseball. During his segment he said, “blacks may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager.” Later in the interview he said that blacks are often poor swimmers “because they don’t have the buoyancy.”

“He basically said, ‘If you want to be involved in Major League Baseball after your Little League, high school or college career is over, it’s not going to happen if you’re a person of color,’” Lapchick said. “So parents of young kids might counsel their children, ‘If you want opportunities that are real, go to a different sport.’ The result is that we don’t have African-American kids in Little League, we don’t have them in Babe Ruth leagues, we don’t have large numbers in high school or college. The pipeline to MLB has lost a generation and a lot of opportunity.”

MLB Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig recognized this problem and said he is working consistently with Lewis to remedy the situation.

“Baseball is a social institution. It has social responsibilities,” he said. “The most powerful moment in baseball history was when Jackie Robinson came to the big leagues. It set a great example for society. Baseball gets a lot of attention in America. We have to mirror where we want the country to go.”

To do this, Selig creates Diversity Committee Reports with Lewis to present to the Diversity Oversight Committee. In accordance with Major League Baseball’s equal employment opportunity policy, in 1999 Selig also mandated that minority candidates must be included in interviews for all openings at the general manager, manager and scouting director levels.

“One of the nicest compliments I have received is Richard Lapchick telling me I’ve made baseball look like America,” he said. “We’ve still got a ways to go, but I can thank Wendy Lewis for how far we have come. She’s persistent, and you have to be persistent in this kind of arena.”

Opening New Doors

In July, Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Diversity Business Summit, more than five years in the making, drew representatives from all 30 MLB teams, MLB Advanced Media, MLB Network and 10 minor league clubs. The conference — believed to be the first of its kind in American sports — brought together 1,000 people hoping to forge a relationship in baseball or with one of the suppliers.

The summit, launched by Wendy Lewis, MLB’s senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances, began with a discussion panel that included five team owners and later broke down into individual matchmaking sessions. Job candidates could meet with the team or MLB division of their choice and had a chance to learn about the game. Lewis said that by stressing diversity, MLB opened its doors to people with ideas and perspectives that may not have been heard before.

“As a result of the business summit, we have an even greater charge and responsibility because all of those clubs now have been involved even more than they were normally, and they all have witnessed and experienced how much better we can be at engagement with diverse communities,” she said.

To hear Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox, and MLB Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig discuss how MLB works to level the playing field with workforce and supplier diversity initiatives from the first Business Diversity Summit, visit here.

Major League Baseball and the Houston Astros will co-host the 2013 Diversity Business Summit on June 19 in Houston.

— Ladan Nikravan

MLB’s 2012 Racial and Gender Report Card

Every year The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida critiques Major League Baseball’s (MLB) racial and gender hiring practices. Overall, MLB received an A for race and a C+ for gender for a combined grade of B in the 2012 Report Card. In 2011, MLB received an A for race and a B- for gender for a combined grade of B+. Baseball’s grade for race dipped slightly from 91.6 to 90.6, while its grade for gender dropped from 79.3 to 75.2. The league’s overall score for the 2012 Report Card was 82.9, which was lower than 2011’s combined score of 85.5.

MLB received A’s for race in MLB central offices, assistant coaches, players and diversity initiatives. Also, it received an A-/B+ for race in managers, team senior administration and professional administration. In addition, it received a B for race in the vice presidents category and a C for race among all general managers.

MLB’s grades for gender are an A-/B+ for MLB central offices, C for team professional administration, D for senior administration and an F for vice presidents.

Source: University of Central Florida, 2012