Growing up a Lakers fan, it was a dream opportunity for Los Angeles native Towalame Austin to work for Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Little did she know that her hard work would catapult her from receptionist to president of the Magic Johnson Foundation.
Austin worked her way up the ladder. She handled typical administrative duties as a receptionist but attended negotiation meetings and volunteered to help at events so she could grow. She became a program coordinator after two years, then director of corporate relations and special events after a year and change, then executive vice president and, two years later, president, a role that has her overseeing day-to-day operations, fundraising programs, networking events and scholarship programs.
If being in her early 30s and running the charity of one of the most legendary and greatest NBA players of all time wasn't impressive enough, Austin also had a small stint working with former NBA player Alonzo Mourning and his wife, Tracy, in re-launching the Mourning Family Foundation in Miami. Currently, Austin is part of Jay-Z's Roc Nation, where she serves as the executive of philanthropy. She launched eight-time Grammy award-winner Rihanna's charity venture, the Clara Lionel Foundation (including its annual black-tie fundraising event, the Diamond Ball) and works with other entertainers such as rapper Big Sean and the band Coheed and Cambria.
On the sports side, Austin works with Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley, Seattle Seahawks running back C.J. Prosise and Miami Heat forward Justise Winslow, among others, in their philanthropy efforts. Her clients aren't the only ones training, though. Austin is preparing to run her first marathon, the Los Angeles Marathon, on March 19.
Ahead of one of her workouts, she took espnW down memory lane of her career, her role with Roc Nation and how she overcame the intimidation of running.
Don't underestimate what a receptionist can become
As long as you were handling your responsibilities, Earvin wasn't afraid to promote and reward. I became a very young president and had a lot of autonomy with Earvin because of my longevity with the company, the stable relationships I had with donors and work ethic.
I had to show up a little harder during meetings. Earvin would position and empower me so even if someone did mistake me as his assistant, which they often did, he would say, "No, this is the president of my foundation." I was young, and I was learning on the job, but I made sure that I knew what I was talking about and was prepared so I wouldn't be caught off-guard with anything. It's just one of those things where you have to be the part, not just look the part. And Earvin was big on both. It was a unique situation in terms of working with Earvin and growing up in his shadow in the business world. I learned so much from him.
Inspired by Rihanna's selflessness
When launching Rihanna's charity, the Clara Lionel Foundation (named after her grandparents) in 2012, I knew exactly what she wanted to do and where she wanted to put her focus. Before we officially launched, Rihanna had already made a commitment to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in her home country, Barbados. The commitment came about because her grandmother had passed away from pancreatic cancer at the time, and Rihanna had taken a look at the hospital system in Barbados, particularly the oncology department. The hospital had only one piece of equipment to treat cancer. It didn't have equipment to detect cancer. She knew she wanted to get involved in changing that.
There's so much that people don't know that Rihanna has done, and she prefers it that way. It took a lot of encouraging for her to even talk about the charity. She does this because she cares, she can and it's what she wants to do. She doesn't do it for any other reason other than that. She feels no person should lack the basic fundamentals -- housing, clothing, food, shelter -- and when she sees that, it disturbs her, and she often reacts and wants to do what she can to provide a solution. She's one of the examples of why I am constantly inspired by the humility and selflessness of our entertainers and athletes.
Advancing social good
Roc Nation has a real entrepreneurial spirit. We have the freedom to come up with ideas and make them happen. In the philanthropy department, we support the entertainers and athletes by working alongside them to maintain an unwavering commitment to humanitarianism in advancing social good globally and providing opportunities for vulnerable populations to succeed.
When it comes to our athletes, our goal is to get them active in the communities they are playing and living in. A typical day would be developing these plans based on surveys that the athletes take, which give us a better understanding of what causes they are passionate about. We'll engage with the athletes from the very beginning and many times navigate a tour with the communities they play in. Talking to their families, managers, agents and potential partners are priorities as well. We foster a relationship and presence in a number of ways very early on.
Still learning, even at the top
Success for me, personally, is just being a constant learner. I know the fundamentals and basics, but how things get done continues to evolve, and I want to stay current and relevant at how I go about accomplishing things.
I'm still a baby if I compare myself to some of the nonprofit giants of the world, such as Susan Batten (president and CEO, Association of Black Foundation Executives), Emmett Carson (CEO, Silicon Valley Community Foundation), Dr. Robert K. Ross (president and CEO, the California Endowment) and Judy Belk (president and CEO, the California Wellness Foundation). Those are my role models because of how they are supporting their states, cities and communities by managing millions and billions of dollars toward charity and philanthropy efforts.
'Got 99 problems, but Jay-Z ain't one'
I work with Jay-Z in terms of he's the boss. I don't personally work with him like I've worked with Earvin or Rihanna, but I have interacted with him because he's very engaged and visible in the company. Roc Nation is such a vibrant company that is growing rapidly, and things are always moving toward new clients, announcements and partnerships. People trust the brand and definitely want in. It's an amazing place to work, and I'm blessed to work with people who genuinely want to give and be impactful and do meaningful things.
Advice to her younger self
I used to have the mentality that as long as I knew what I was capable of, I didn't need to prove it. But in some cases, you do. So in those moments, I would have told my younger self to step up and be more assertive at letting it be known.
I would also tell my younger self to slow down. I would sleep with my Blackberry at the time and always be on email. I feel like my life kind of passed me by. Finding balance really depends on a person's priorities. For me, it's to pay more attention to me -- my soul, wants and needs.
Working out a balance
I've always been passionate about working out. Even when I worked with Earvin, I'd go to the gym and do maybe two or three cardio classes a night. But I never was a runner. I admired people who ran but was always intimidated to do it myself because even though I was very active, I felt like running was very challenging and hard to break into.
One day, my colleagues at Roc Nation and I had the opportunity to work out with Nike as part of a focus group they were conducting for a new app they were working on. They took us through all of these workouts, and running was one of them. At that point, I couldn't even run a mile, and the van had to come pick some of us up. The man was like "You guys aren't up this hill yet?" That was two years ago.
Since then, we joined a Nike running club and formed a running group at work called the Unlucky Bandits. Then I started training for my first half-marathon, but then I tore my calf muscle and had to get physical therapy. The injury happened because I wasn't stretching properly and wasn't giving my muscle enough time to heal itself, not knowing there was something wrong. Although I had a major setback from that, I ran two half-marathons last year and am now training for the Los Angeles Marathon in March.
Running is time to myself, and I love the escape. I can do it any time, anywhere, and I don't have the pressure of trying to make a class or get to the gym before it closes.
Gianina Thompson (follow her on Twitter @Gianina_ESPN) is ESPN's senior publicist for NBA and MLB on-air personalities and shows. She's sports all-day, every-day and lives for overtime games, unless it's on Thursday nights when she's locked onto Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder.