On a drizzly April morning in Beaverton, Ore., history is being made at Nike HQ.
For the first time, the women at the center of the company’s transformation are coming together for a joint interview and photo shoot.
Nike is using its 50th anniversary to make a powerful statement about its future, which will driven by, and dependent upon, the instrumental leaders here today.
The excitement is palpable inside a meeting room on the seventh floor of the new Serena Williams building, where Heidi O’Neill, the Swoosh’s first female president, is holding court with four of the influential executives. The conversation is already flowing when a reporter arrives, and they all stand in unison. Only a few seconds tick by before O’Neill motions to the video screen, where Angela Dong appears via Zoom.
It is approaching midnight in China, and the loyal leader has been locked down in her Shanghai home for almost 30 days amid a sharp rise in Omicron cases — but O’Neill was determined to include Dong, a longtime Nike executive, in this defining moment. The president personally requested that all group photos, shot in Oregon, were modified to include Dong since she couldn’t travel.
Nike’s VP/GM of Greater China is one of the three geographic leaders joining the conversation today, along with Sarah Mensah, VP/GM of North America, and Amy Montagne, VP/GM of Asia Pacific and Latin America. Seven years ago, a woman had never led a geography for Nike. Now, they steer three of the four regions.
Also in the house is Whitney Malkiel, VP/GM of global women’s, who is following in the footsteps of O’Neill and Montagne (both ran the business previously). And Tanya Hvizdak, VP of global women’s sports marketing, rounds out the group.
“The energy and emotion you feel with this crew is amazing,” said O’Neill, who has been on board at the brand for 24 of its 50 years, and has a lifetime of memories.
As a rising star at Nike, she was there for the exhilarating 1999 Women’s World Cup championship, when the U.S. team captivated the world and changed the game forever.
The executive has also watched Williams overcome great obstacles to win 23 Grand Slam titles. (“I redecorated my office and my gym over COVID, and Serena is plastered all over both,” she said.) And O’Neill has run with Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first women’s Olympic Games marathon champion.
Samuelson, a longtime Nike athlete who won gold in 1984, was able to break through after the passage of Title IX in June 1972, the landmark bill that enforced gender equity in high school and collegiate sports.
That same summer was a tipping point for Nike as well, when a handful of former University of Oregon runners from Blue Ribbon Sports arrived on the scene at the Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore.
“We needed to own those trials, so we sent an advance team down to give shoes to any competitor willing to take them, and we set up a staging area in our store,” recalled Nike co-founder Phil Knight in “Shoe Dog,” his 2016 memoir. “As the trials opened, we descended on Eugene and set up a silk-screen machine in the back of the store. We cranked out scores of Nike T-shirts, which [my wife] Penny handed out like Halloween candy.”
How far Nike has come since those fledgling days — defying all the odds as it grew from a tiny upstart into a singular force that dominates sport and culture like no other.
With great influence also comes great responsibility. And Nike has faced considerable public scrutiny through the decades, most recently around its treatment of female employees and athletes.
A critical point for the company came in 2018, amid #MeToo and a wider reckoning across America that emboldened more women to come forward about mistreatment in the workplace and on the playing field.
Nike is a “brand of action,” O’Neill explained, and since that time, the company has worked to forge stronger ties with its female athletes — while also hiring and promoting more women and diverse voices inside the company, as illustrated through its ambitious 2025 goals.
In its 2021 Impact Report, Nike revealed that it increased representation of women globally throughout the company to 50.4%, and has grown the number of women at the director level and above globally to 43%.
Nike’s targets for 2025 include maintaining 50% representation of women in its global corporate workforce and 45% in leadership positions; 35% representation of racial and ethnic minorities in its U.S. corporate workforce; and to maintain 100% pay equity across all employee levels on an annual basis.
For O’Neill and the women in the room today — who together oversee more than 60,000 employees — this isn’t only a professional mandate; it’s a personal mission.
“There are big ways this team is putting more female leaders at the table. It’s in the numbers. You’ll see it in promoting or mentoring. But it’s sometimes the everyday ways,” O’Neill said, recalling a moment in China almost a decade ago, when she and Dong forged a lasting bond after sitting together at a dinner. “We had such a wonderful long conversation, and it ended up developing into a mutual commitment to support each other and learn and grow together,” Dong said.
Mensah, the first Black woman to lead the North American business, said that genuine camaraderie among the women is a crucial part of the equation. “It’s something that’s unique, the sorority of women, at this level of leadership. We can build on each other’s successes and strengths … and help each other [in areas] where we might have weaknesses,” she said. “What’s playing out here is we’re not only redefining the role of women in sport, we’re also doing it in sport executive leadership.”
For Malkiel, having the support and mentorship of the women who came before her (O’Neill and Montagne) has been impactful as she guides the women’s business at a time when every brand wants a big piece of it.
“My proudest moment at Nike was when I got this job, and the openness of these two women who said, ‘Come in.’ They recognized the landscape has changed, but there is so much willingness to partner with me.”
“It’s almost like all the good parts of sport,” Montagne adds. “We want each other to win. It’s a community, and we want to celebrate together.”
The sports analogy is fitting because the same kinds of candid and collaborative conversations happening inside Nike are also now taking place with the brand’s star athletes through the new Nike Athlete Think Tank initiative that Hvizdak is heading up.
“We created a forum for athletes to be heard, whether they’re introverts, extroverts, the loud voice at the table,” said Hvizdak. “But now they’re in a safe space for us … to meet them where they’re at. This crew has trailblazed. Now they have the opportunity to do that for the generations behind them.”
There’s nothing more important to O’Neill than making things better for the next generation of women at Nike. She’s been doing it from her earliest days at the company, when sometimes she was one of the only women in the room.
O’Neill refers to a thematic line in the new Tiger Woods ad around his Masters return: “What would you be willing to do to chase your dream?”
“How I think about this group is, ‘What are we willing to do?’ It’s not always easy to hold up that light and crash the door down, but we do it.”