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Integrating Women in Business: Becoming a Modern Day ‘Branch’ Rickey

3p Contributor | Wednesday February 19th, 2014 | 0 Comments

RobinsonBy Brandon Doll

Sports are very much a part of my fabric. My father played college football at the University of Southern California, and my grandfather played and coached football in the National Football League. I have been active in sports since the age of five, both as an athlete and coach. I worked for a youth sports education nonprofit called Positive Coaching Alliance for my MBA summer internship and am currently working part-time for the NFL’s Oakland Raiders with hopes of parlaying the position into a full-time role with the Raiders or another professional sports organization after graduating with my MBA.

Because sports are such a big part of my life, I often draw upon business and leadership examples from the sports world. Therefore, you can expect no different from me when articulating how my approach to supporting women in business and leadership has changed over the past semester, largely motivated by my involvement in Professor Kellie McElhaney’s Women in Business class at the Haas School of Business.

I have been familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson for a long time, but it was not until I recently watched Warner Brothers’ “42,” a cinematic portrayal of Robinson’s story, that I realized how much this film resonates with me in terms of my approach to supporting women in business and leadership.

Wesley “Branch” Rickey, played by Harrison Ford in “42,” was an innovative professional sports executive, best known for breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier by signing African American player Jackie Robinson in 1947.

There was no statute officially banning African Americans from Major League Baseball, only a universally recognized and unwritten rule that no club owner had dared break. This rule was perpetuated by culturally entrenched racism and a desire by club owners to be perceived as representing the values and beliefs of the everyday, American, white male.

Similarly, although there is no rule or law that women should not serve as CEOs, board members or senior-level managers of large corporations, culturally entrenched sexism exists and inhibits a woman’s ability to climb the corporate ladder.

Rickey’s determination to desegregate Major League Baseball was born out of a unique combination of idealism and keen business sense. His idealism was derived from an incident involving a team for which Rickey worked early in his career. While he was managing at Ohio Wesleyan University, African American player Charles Thomas was refused accommodation at the team hotel because of his race. Though an infuriated Rickey managed to get him into the hotel for the night, he never forgot the incident and later said, “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball.”

The business element was based on the fact that the Negro Leagues had numerous star athletes, and logically, the first Major League Baseball team to sign them would get first pick of the players at an attractive price.

When battling a culturally entrenched ideal, one approach is to tug at the heartstrings of your “opponent” with an ethically-based argument; however, we all differ in some way on our approach(es) to such issues. Ultimately, everyone speaks green (money, that is)–and to me it is far easier to make the case when an issue clearly affects the bottom line.

Branch Rickey embraced his idealism and ethics in supporting a controversial issue; however, he also made the business case for his decisions. His success as an innovative professional sports executive is especially motivating to me given my career goals and aspirations.

Throughout my Women in Business class, I was consistently presented with the benefits of investing in women, all of which are clearly supported by data. In addition, our class final project required me to create a personalized approach to supporting women in business and leadership through combining my life experiences, information covered in the class and examples of those who have come before me.

Inspired by the real-life examples of Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers depicted in “42,” I established five guiding principles as they pertain to how I will support the continued integration of women in business. These principles are vital to keeping me grounded and focused on my values as I pursue a career in the male-dominated confines of the National Football League, especially in light of its recent C+ grade in gender hiring practices and continued struggles in the area of gender equity.

The Five Guiding Principles of Integrating Women in Business are as follows:

  1. Go “On the Record”: Let others know where you stand.
  2. Walk the Talk: Practice what you preach.
  3. Foster Unit Cohesion: Surround yourself with talented individuals who share your vision and ideals.
  4. Be a Mentor: Offer your experience, network and support to those who seek it. Don’t just hold the door open for others; pull them through with you.
  5. Stick to Your Guns: Once you’ve gone on the record, don’t ever back down.

Amid both positive and negative fanfare, Jackie Robinson debuted, and turned out to be a huge success. Robinson was baseball’s first African American Rookie of the Year, and while opposing baseball players, managers and fans often harassed him, he became extremely popular with the American public at large.

Robinson’s success became the crowning achievement of Branch Rickey’s illustrious career. It also set a standard and opened the door for other leaders like Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians, who integrated the American League later that year.

In order to achieve success similar to that of Rickey’s, I must also be true to my values and always make the business case when it comes to supporting women in business and leadership, utilizing these five guiding principles to keep my path lit.

Image credit: Robinson in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series (Source: NYT)

Brandon Doll is an MBA student at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley (class of 2014).

A version of this piece was originally published on the Redefining Business blog, a Haas School of Business publication.


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