Four-time National Basketball Association champion Shaquille O’Neal spoke about brand management and his philanthropic ventures, serving as the keynote speaker of the second annual Diversity Dialogue Conference held in the Rafik B. Hariri Building on Friday.
The daylong conference, hosted by Georgetown Aspiring Minority Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs, discussed the future of diversity and inclusion in conversations with corporate leaders, including representatives from PepsiCo, Under Armour, Accenture, Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
In a packed Lohrfink Auditorium, O’Neal’s address, which occurred during the middle of the conference and drew frequent laughs from the audience, took the form of a conversation with his agent Perry Rogers (MSB ’91) and professor of marketing Marlene Morris Towns.
Towns introduced O’Neal and emphasized his business savvy.
“He’s always been a first mover with technology, which many of you may not know. He was an early investor in Google and was the first verified account on Twitter,” Towns said. “He’s one of the largest sports brands, both literally and figuratively.”
O’Neal began by discussing his personal brand and how he makes investing decisions.
“I like to call myself the master of the fun business. Anything that’s fun, I like to get involved with. When it comes to the products I’m dealing with, I let Perry deal with the money. I always go to the story,” O’Neal said.
Reinforcing O’Neal’s devotion to relationships over money, Rogers explained that O’Neal, who is a television analyst for TNT, picked the network over media giant ESPN, even though ESPN had promised to make him the centerpiece of their basketball coverage.
“[Shaq] knew … he’s got to have a relationship with them. He said he’s in the fun business because that is his personality, and so authentically, he wants to make sure he’s in partnerships that make sense,” Rogers said. “I am not allowed to tell him the numbers.”
Noting his status as a role model to children, O’Neal also touched on his approach to philanthropy, which he said was instilled by his parents. During the question-and-answer session that followed the conversation, O’Neal invited two 10-year-old children up to the stage to ask him questions.
“I remember when I was that kid looking up to Magic Johnson. To be from where I’m from and have kids looking up to me is a big social responsibility, so I think the best thing I can do is make them smile,” O’Neal said.
Rogers echoed O’Neal’s dedication to serving the less fortunate.
“He’s always been a size 23, but [the shoe company] called me up and said, ‘He’s a size 22,’” Rogers said. “[Shaq] said, ‘Yeah, but I wear size 23 … Perry, you don’t understand. I grew up poor, and my feet were growing fast, and I was always outgrowing my shoes. When I was a kid, I promised myself I would be wealthy enough to have shoes that fit me, and so I wear size 23 intentionally to remind myself of the childhood that I had.’”
Matt Whang (MSB ’16), who attended the keynote, found O’Neal both entertaining and informational.
“Shaq’s a natural entertainer. He definitely gave a lot of valuable life advice. I think the crowd loved him. I really enjoyed what he had to say,” Whang said.
Earlier in the conference, business leaders discussed shifts in diversity dialogues and the role of diversity in the creation of innovative ideas during the Chief Diversity Panel.
During the panel, MSB Dean David Thomas said that because of rapid progress in diversity seen in recent years, some question the need for any dialogue.
“Less than two miles from this room sits a man in public housing, whose name — nobody’s surprised when a black man is in public housing — happens to be Barack Hussein Obama,” Thomas said. “Do we even need to have a dialogue anymore, because all the things I couldn’t even imagine in 1956 [have been done]? Lots of people would say ‘dialogue done, conversation done.’”
Thomas also spoke about the shift in self-perception among minorities.
“I literally used to think of myself only as black,” Thomas said. “Those other identities seemed irrelevant. Today, when I talk to young people like yourselves in my office, I’m often impressed by how much broader you see yourselves.”
With recent events around the country sparking a national conversation about race, the focus of diversity dialogue has also shifted back to race, but PricewaterhouseCoopers Director of Diversity Cherrie Mallory McCoy said that diversity is multidimensional and ultimately offers a variety of thought that benefits firms.
“The shift has been a mindset of how we can tap into diverse populations and generate innovative thought,” McCoy said. “We are looking at how we put our teams together because it is a scientific fact that more diverse teams create more innovative ideas.”
The panel also offered advice for students after they manage to land their first jobs. Pamela Culpepper, chief people officer of Golin, a communications company, said that getting hired comes with a responsibility of increasing opportunities for others by increasing access and visibility.
“It’s about helping others reach the levels that you’ve reached and then championing them on the way,” Culpepper said. “You’ve stepped on some landmines; tell them about the landmines you stepped on so they won’t have to.”
Additionally, McCoy said that diversity is not a concept that should only be reserved for one’s future workplace but should instead be embraced in everyday life.
“Spend time with somebody different than [whom] you typically spend time with,” McCoy said. “If you spend all your time with the same people who think like you, act like you, dress like you, walk like you, you’ll never going to get a feel of what is really happening outside of your small bubble that you’ve made.”
Mike Roland (MSB ’15) attended the event and said that it is important to embrace multiple identities and then use that to broaden perspectives.
“I definitely feel that it is beneficial, especially the way Dean Thomas was talking about when we talk about ourselves; we don’t just see ourselves as a race,” Roland said.
“Many races and ethnic groups, even within their own ethnicity, think very differently. It’s better to have people who think differently and are able to work as a team than having the same group of people because that could limit your progress.”