Wendy Lewis maintains diversity pipeline

espnW caught up with Wendy Lewis, MLB's senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances, as part of our ongoing Power Play series highlighting women in the sports business. Lewis has worked in Major League Baseball's central office since 1995 and is the highest-ranking African-American woman with the league.

espnW: You've been the senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances for MLB since November 2008. Tell us a bit about your responsibilities.

Wendy Lewis: It's really an unprecedented position in sports. And I think what makes it even more exciting is that commissioner [Bud] Selig and Jonathan Mariner, our EVP and CFO of MLB have given me and my group an opportunity to cultivate a lot of things we've been working on. We have a couple of areas that are somewhat historic in nature, creating a much more strategic platform for the future. We work with all 30 clubs -- as well as the MLB central office, MLB Advanced Media, MLB Network -- really looking at workforce diversity. And by diversity, I also mean inclusion. It's more than just having more representation of a particular race or women, but making sure that we are working more toward achieving sort of the ultimate balance. We are doing that by taking a real, very strategic and very micro look at each one of those establishments and the pipeline of folks that they actually have coming in ... We've been busier than I could have ever expected.

espnW: In 1998, Commissioner Selig authorized the creation of the Diverse Business Partners program. The DBP is now the leading supplier diversity program in sports, resulting in more than $800 million being spent with thousands of minority- and women-owned businesses. Can you tell us more about the program?

WL: We're very pleased how [the DBP] has grown to include more minority and women owned businesses, as well as the amount of money that we actually spend with those businesses. It has really been a process and we've been at it for over a decade. Since [1999], every year has had some real incremental change and increase in dollars spent, as well as the number of suppliers who are in that pool. Today you see more suppliers not only increasing their business activity with a particular club, but more and more, we are starting to see more suppliers do more business with additional clubs as well and create within this supplier diversity model some economy of scale for those franchises, as well as really growing from the business of that particular supplier.

espnW: You helped in the creation of MLB's Executive Development Program, a two-year rotational career development program designed to create a high potential talent pool for the industry. Tell us about the program.

WL: The EDP has been in place since 2006. Our objective is to bring through very, very rigorously selected individuals. We bring four people on every two years and bring them through very nuanced and substantive activities and projects and experiences throughout the central [MLB] office. Year two is typically with one of our clubs. Our objective is to create a talent development pipeline with individuals who have had some fantastic access to people and projects and the business as a whole.

It's been tremendous for both sides. These individuals are getting promoted and moving into real strategic, very high profile, highly valued components of the organization. It's really been amazing to watch. I can't wait to see what the next five years looks like.

espnW: You started your career with the Chicago Tribune and became manager of human resources of the Chicago Cubs in 1987. Today you're a high level executive with Major League Baseball. What would you say has been the defining moment of your career?

WL: I would say two, where you ask yourself, "Oh my God, what have I done?" and at the same time say, "Oh my goodness, this is the opportunity of a lifetime." There are two times where those two have converged. One was leaving the physical corporate structure of the Chicago Tribune, and going to work with the Chicago Cubs organization ... When that happened I remember sitting at this cubicle in the accounting department discovering that a lot of things I was hired to do would be unprecedented in sports and that day I was going to be a pioneer in human resources. That's not what I had signed up for. [Laughs] That was sort of a big aha for me.

And the next huge leap would be leaving the Cubs organization to come here to New York to create that centralized human resource space, for not only the [MLB] central office, but to create some access and synergy throughout all of our clubs. That was another one where I thought, "Oh my God, what have I done?" [Laughter] It required relocation of myself and my younger daughter and leaving the Cubs where you think it's safe and venturing out into MLB and the sports industry, so that was a big deal.

espnW: You are a single mother of three daughters who are now grown. How did you handle the struggle to find a work-life balance as a working mother in the sports world, which never stops?

WL: The key about work/life balance is … I don't know if I ever really got there. I can't honestly say I ever felt that I really had it figured out. Everybody had to get tough. I had to get tougher, my daughters had to get tougher because they had to become much more mature, much more responsible, and spread ourselves thinner than we had anticipated ... I could not have become a great mom without them being great daughters, there just wasn't enough time. My kids had to become pretty proficient and the key for us is we've always had an effective communication desire amongst us. We always talked often and we've always had family meetings. That's the way we've always done it. We've been operating like a team for a long time.

espnW: What advice do you have for women interested in working in baseball?

WL: I would tell them to know the game, know the business, and learn to love the game and business ... If the intrinsic value for you is not high, it's not going to be for you. It's very appealing, it's very exciting, it's very pioneering. It's a great place to grow as an individual, whether you are an employee, whether you are an entrepreneur, whether you are just a person interested in the game. It's a tremendous business. I love being in it. It asks a lot. It's like living off gas fumes half the time because that's what's going to keep you going ... Folks have to build that kind of affinity for it for themselves. If they're not feeling that, then I wouldn't recommend that you put this kind of time and effort into something. Do something different.