In February, Cynthia Marshall took over as CEO of the Dallas Mavericks—becoming the first African-American female CEO in the NBA. She also inherited an organization in crisis, after a Sports Illustrated story revealed rampant sexual harassment, incidents of domestic abuse, and a toxic culture.
But Marshall, a lifelong pioneer, is familiar with navigating difficult situations. The Cal alum was the first African-American cheerleader at UC Berkeley in the late 1970s and the first in her family to graduate from college. She was also the first black head of the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. During her more than three decades as a high-up at AT&T, she adopted four kids and survived colon cancer.
She tells her life story in a series of vignettes, parables of sorts, fine-tuning her advice for other students following in her footsteps. While in town for her great-niece’s graduation at the Fox Theater a few weeks ago, Marshall shared some of this wisdom. Here’s what she’s learned over the years, in her own words.
1. It’s Not Where You Live, It’s How You Live
Marshall grew up in Richmond, not far from the Berkeley campus, but a world away. “I probably didn’t realize just how poor we were until later,” she says.
In fact, while at Cal, a dinner date dismissively referred to her hometown as “the projects,” and she was indignant. “These aren’t the projects!” she told her mother, expecting her to agree. “And she said, ‘Yes, actually they are.’”
Marshall was born in Alabama just down the street from where the 16th Street Baptist Church would be bombed a few years later. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about those four girls,” she says, knowing it could have been her. But according to Marshall, her parents didn’t want “their kids to grow up in the Jim Crow South,” and they had family out in California, so they ended up in the Bay Area.
Despite the odds against her, Marshall went to college, with a full ride to Berkeley. Her sister and brother soon followed, attending schools of their own.
“It’s not where you live, it’s how you live,” she concludes, “and with God, all things are possible.”
2. School Is Your Ticket Out
When Marshall was in 7th grade, she saw her father shoot a man. A teenager had come to the door to confront him. Although she was supposed to be staying out of trouble upstairs, she says, “I sneaked out, I was being nosy.” She came downstairs to find out what was going on and “the teenager was pointing a pistol at me.”
Fortunately, she says, the shot her father fired in self-defense wasn’t fatal, but while the case was being settled, her family had to be sequestered in their house for safety. The problem was, Marshall didn’t want to miss any more school. “I was crying, crying, crying, saying I wanted to go to school,” she says.
To this day, she doesn’t know how her mother convinced the powers that be, but sure enough, “a uniformed police officer came to take me to school and picked me up at the end of the day.” For a few months, her uniformed escort ensured she could continue her education. “I wasn’t embarrassed by it. I wasn’t ashamed,” she remembers.
Her studies continued through the summer, when her mother would make up lessons using the civil servant exams. Marshall recalls studying those books while other kids were on vacation. “We kind of didn’t get summers off.”
Four years later, her parents divorced. The physical abuse and domestic violence got so bad that Marshall’s father broke her nose at one point. After that, she, her mother, and her siblings fled the house. But still, “I had to go to school,” Marshall says. “It was my refuge.”
Throughout it all, she and her siblings stayed focused on their education. “We knew this was our ticket out,” Marshall says.
It paid off. She was offered five full scholarships to different colleges and picked the one closest to home.
3. You Gotta Be Big
In June before freshman year, Marshall remembers arriving on campus for a summer bridge program: “I looked up at Sather Gate and I just started crying,” she says. “I was just overwhelmed.”
“I remember telling myself,” she continues, “‘Girl, you gotta be big.’”
Being big meant no time for distractions. Her now-husband, then-boyfriend, transferred to San Francisco State from Fresno in order to be closer. But she told him she needed to focus on school. “I told him, ‘I will call you when I graduate.’”
And she did.
“I called the day I graduated,” Marshall says. The only problem was, he’d gotten engaged in the meantime. “That is the wrong answer,” she jokes. “I kept up my end of the bargain.”
But Marshall isn’t one to give up easily. She told him her mother was having a graduation party for her later that day and he needed to show up. They’ve now been married for over three decades.
4. Listen, Lead, Love Them
At Cal, Marshall studied business administration, with a focus on organizational behavior and human resources. When she graduated, she had 13 job offers and she took the one that offered a fast-track management program and that paid the most: $16,800. Working her way up, she served as president of AT&T in North Carolina and then senior vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer for the national corporation. She stayed with AT&T for 36 years.
When she started out, she was managing long-distance operators in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, “back in the day when you had to dial 0,” and most of the operators were “old enough to be my mom,” she says.
One of the first things Marshall noticed was operators weren’t allowed to get up and go to the bathroom unless the light above their station was off. She proposed a system by which the operators could simply trade off and go to the bathroom when they needed, instead of being dictated to by a light. When the supervisor finally approved the system, it was a huge success and the division showed improved results.
The moral? “Treat people like humans,” she says.
Another day Marshall walked into the women’s bathroom at the office and was surprised to find a guy in there. She explains, he was very flamboyant and “He told me he was not going in the men’s bathroom, it was too much for the other fellows.” He asked for her help, and she agreed.
This was back in 1982, but it turned out she was dealing with the same bathroom issues current policymakers have tied themselves in knots over. After talking to the employees and management, Marshall proposed making one of the bathrooms “essentially gender-neutral,” which seemed to suit everyone just fine.
“Listen, lead, love them,” is how she describes her leadership philosophy. You have to try to understand people and then “meet them” where they are.
5. Bring Others Up With You
Now the first African-American woman working as an NBA CEO, Marshall was previously Cal’s first African-American cheerleader and the only African-American in her sorority. She was also the first African-American to chair the North Carolina Chamber.
“At some point, it’s almost embarrassing, especially in 2018,” she says. “I got to make sure I’m not the last. There’s no stigma in bringing up others.”
Although she intended to retire after her kids graduated and the cancer battle was over, opportunities kept coming up to help other people achieve their own success. When she was finally ready to retire, Dow Chemical Company invited her to help pioneer an inclusion program, and she couldn’t say no. Before the project had even ended, Mark Cuban called from the Mavericks.
Diversity and inclusion are different things, Marshall explains. “Diversity is about numbers and representation. Inclusion is how to create a culture that’s welcoming.” Both are still a work in progress. Marshall took the position at the Dallas Mavericks, to help on both fronts.
She didn’t know she was going to take the Mavericks job, though. She didn’t even know who Mark Cuban was when he called. It was her husband who told her, “You really need to take this call.”
Even after she did her homework, she was ready to say no. “What woman would want to come here?” she remembers thinking. But what she saw when she visited was people “hurting and in pain.” Cuban wanted to find a way to fix it.
“By 2019, we’re going to be the standard for inclusion in the NBA,” she says now. “Research shows businesses are more profitable and decision-making is better when employees are more engaged,” which is why representation and inclusion matter.
“I felt like I was being called into service,” she says, looking back. “For the sisterhood.”
6. Soak Up The Whole Experience
Now Marshall’s closing in on her 100-day plan. (June 30 was Day 100.) So far she has brought a couple of new women in to leadership roles, established a complaint process and an ethics hotline, implemented a code of conduct training for everyone—including players and coaches this fall—and launched an external advisory council.
In her free time, she’s listening. Her plan is to meet with every single one of the 140 employees at headquarters “to find out who they are, why they’re doing this job, what their vision is, any issues.” She’s over 95 percent done.
All of it, Marshall believes, is possible because of a combination of the things she’s learned throughout her life, from Cal to AT&T and beyond.
That’s why the advice she always gives students is to try everything. Take different classes, embrace multiple cultures. “You get a phenomenal education outside the classroom,” she says.
“Soak up the whole experience,” Marshall advises. It’ll build a foundation “you can stand on for the rest of your life.”