Throughout its 50 years, Nike has delivered countless pivotal moments both on and off the field. So it’s fitting that Nike Inc. veteran Sarah Mensah made history at the Swoosh in March 2021 when she was named VP and GM of Nike North America. With this new title, she became the first Black women at the helm of the critically important region.
Today, during a discussion at the FN CEO Summit in New York City with FN executive editor Katie Abel, Mensah detailed the importance of being a Black woman leader at the athletic giant and how she is empowering the next generation of leaders.Below are some of the most powerful points made by Mensah during the talk, edited for clarity.
On being the first Black woman to lead Nike North America:
“It is very personal. I grew up in Beaverton, [Ore.], not even a mile from where Nike is located. As a girl growing up, I used to run on a track about a mile away and I watched Nike grow. And then I understood that Nike really was a brand that celebrated the beautifulness of Black people and Black athletes at a time where ‘see it, be it’ was not really a buzzword. For me, as a young girl who wanted to play sports, I saw the brand as one of the most aspirational brands to inspire me and to see what was possible. I feel a mandate to continue the role that Nike played for me for others and to expand the aspirational nature of the brand.”
On empowering the next generation at Nike:
“It’s kind of like sports. We talk a lot about who has next and how to build a bench. When you look at the North America bench, it’s more diverse than what a more traditional corporate bench would look like. There is extraordinary diversity in terms of gender leading North America. We also have a close team that has very different, divergent backgrounds. Some people came from technology backgrounds, [there are] people with retail capabilities, digital capabilities. All of that is coming together to create a perfect storm of innovation. In terms of that next generation, I’m so passionate and deliberate in making sure that the bench continues to reflect that diversity of gender and diversity of communities.”
On Nike’s next 50 years:
“At Nike, there is such a rich culture, and a big part of that culture is grounded in the very powerful message that informs Nike. That is ‘If you have a body, then you are an athlete.’ We follow that mission and it has taken us to amazing places over 50 years. That statement means we can open the aperture of how we think about sport, open the aperture of how we think about athletes, open the aperture of how we serve athletes. The world needs leaders, the world needs leadership and the world needs corporations to step into these places and lead.”
On the membership model:
“We were working on membership a lot prior to the pandemic, and there were opportunities that came during the pandemic because there was so much digital traffic coming in through our apps. We were able to communicate to people the benefits of being a Nike Member and what it could do for you. So we can serve your needs if you’re a runner, if you’re into yoga, if you’re a basketball player or any other sport — or if you’re just in it for sneakers. Membership has the opportunity to help curate your needs and the benefits that are specifically designed for you. That’s why we saw our membership numbers just jump throughout COVID, and we’re in a position to extend that — especially as we work with partners in this space as well.”
On Nike’s relationships with its wholesale partners:
“We believe our partners have an incredibly important role in how we’re going to speak to consumers. There are partners in our portfolio now that have incredibly strong relationships with consumers and have incredible roles in helping us meet those consumers. That will continue and will be a long-term part of our model. We also know that consumers have an expectation around Nike and serving them personally. We will work to get in a position to have the best of all worlds — have the best digital-direct relationship with our consumers and build our relationships through our partners.”
The 2022 FN CEO Summit is sponsored by FDRA NuORDER by Lightspeed and Aetrex.