Cynthia Marshall is the first Black female CEO in the NBA but her journey has been far from easy

BY Preta Peace Namasaba January 17, 2024 12:35 PM EDT
Photo credit: JerSean Golatt for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Although the NBA sides have seen Black people in management and executive positions since the 1970s, Cynthia Marshall is the first Black female CEO in the NBA. Marshall has led the Dallas Mavericks since 2018.

This period may not have seen a lot of success on the court for the Mavericks who were in the Western Conference Finals in 2022 but following decades of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct, Marshall has transformed the workplace culture and thrived through adversity to become a trailblazer.

Her family left Birmingham, Alabama, when she was 3 months old to escape the Jim Crow South. They lived in a public housing project in California where life wasn’t any easier. Marshall saw her father shoot a man in the head in self defense when she was 11 years old. He was also abusive towards her and broke her nose when she was a teenager.

The young Marshall sought leadership and excellence as a means to transcend the harsh background she knew.

She credits her mother for passing on her spirit of grit, grace and resilience. Her mother’s constant reassurance set Marshall on a history making path. She was the first African-American student president at her school and earned a full scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley. Marshall went on to become the first African-American cheerleader at Berkeley and the first Black woman in the school’s Delta Gamma.

After she graduated with her degree in Business Administration and Human Resources Management, Marshall became a supervisor at AT&T. She climbed through the executive ranks and became a highly respected leader. She served as senior vice president, Human Resources and Chief Diversity Officer before her retirement in 2017.

Marshall leveraged her 36 years of experience to establish the consulting firm Managing Resources. She was also the first African-American to head the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce.

“No matter what happens – things can be taken away from you, you can fall down – but the key is to get back up. You’ve heard the saying that ‘tough times don’t last, tough people do.’ Well, sometimes tough times do last for a while. I call them seasons, and I try to learn from them,” Marshall has said of overcoming adversity.

Marshall has been candid about her personal and professional life experiences that she details in her memoir. She had several miscarriages and dealt with the death of her 6-month-old baby. In 2010, she was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer that she beat following 12 rounds of chemotherapy. Sharing her personal stories has helped Marshall thrive and build understanding relationships with her colleagues.

The Dallas Mavericks brought Marshall out of her retirement following reports that exposed toxic workplace culture at the organization. An independent investigation by the Mavericks also revealed a series of sexual harassment and improper workplace conduct over two decades. Although Marshall admittedly did not know much about basketball before taking the job, she was the appropriate person for the franchise’s culture transformation, the franchise made history and brought in the first Black female CEO in the NBA.

“I walked into a bad culture, I walked into a place where the women were not valued and treated the way I would like to see them treated. Frankly, I think we had a problem with how we respected and treated people of color. It wasn’t a very diverse and inclusive environment when I got there. And so we needed to do some things,” Marshall on transforming the Mavericks workplace culture.

She implemented a 100-day plan to transform the team’s leadership and actualize a non-hostile work environment within weeks of her appointment. Marshall developed a women’s agenda, created a values-based employment system, and allowed outside counsel full access to the Mavericks business operations for transparency purposes. She has increased the diversity within the executive leadership team from zero to over 50 percent by appointing and promoting more women and people of color.

In addition, Marshall has put in place mechanisms to address the cultural issues that engendered harassment and inappropriate conduct. She set up a 24/7 hotline for employees to report any arising concerns and implemented ethics, compliance and unconscious bias training sessions. Marshall has also established an external advisory council of 27 local Dallas business leaders.

Marshall is well aware of what conditions formed her and how she took charge of her narrative. She believes that is how she’s been successful.

“Everything I’ve gone through in my life, I think it was just a set-up for the next phase of my life. It was a set-up to help me get through adversity the next time or a set-up to help me achieve great things with people the next time. I don’t think anything happens just arbitrarily,” Marshall said of her life and career journey.