Nike executive Robin Herrington: 100 influential Black women in sports
Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Robin Herrington has mastered her approach to life: Find the intersectionality between your passion, principles, values and work, and your days become a playing field for dreams fulfilled. There are only 24 hours in a day, the Nike Golf U.S. consumer experience marketing manager says, so there’s no way to do both (work and fulfill your personal passion) if the two don’t overlap. Regardless of where her career has landed her, Herrington was able to stay focused on this way of life, and her years have been brimming with intention, gratitude and joy because of it.
Being purposeful is a prominent theme in Herrington’s life. The 61-year-old is clear about how she wants to leave her mark on life and how she wants to live it—part of which involves being invisible online.
“Having a North America brand role means that you’re working with different time zones so there’s no such thing as an eight to five anymore,” Herrington says. “Social media is just a continuation of work. Finding ways to turn off is a blessing because it can be a curse when I do not create boundaries for my personal space and my family. So, choosing not to participate personally or professionally was my stance, which I know is probably not a common style.”
This perspective aligns with her story, which is both intriguing and inspirational. “We were the epitome of poor,” says Herrington, whose Filipino mother, Lourdes, and Black father, Billy Macon Sr., married when they were 17. “My parents each had nine siblings. They grew up in pregentrified west Oakland, California. The Asian ’hood was adjacent to the Black ’hood, and that’s how they met.”
Her father fell in love with Alaska when he was 12. He went there to work for his great-uncle, and vowed to move back and start his own family when he got older.
“We had a shack with no running water and no furniture. That was our home,” recalls Herrington. “We melted snow for water to bathe. There was a tub and a toilet fixture but no plumbing. So, we really roughed it. And I had no idea until I went to elementary school that there was running water in the bathrooms.”
Herrington says that her mother and father, now at 80 years old, surrounded her and her siblings with a competence that really shaped them.
“We get our values and that inner grit from my parents, who literally modeled them every day,” she says. “I have such amazing parents who did not take ‘no’ as the final answer. And who were willing to recalibrate until they achieved the dream that they had in their minds and hearts for their family.”
“I take this notion of resilience, and just straight-up hard work, with me to Nike every day, and to my work in the community,” she adds, “as I try to leverage the power of sport to make the world better.”
Her unique upbringing and outlook on life allow her to pass on knowledge to the new creators and leaders that she is guiding at Nike. She understands the value of assembling a great team and allowing them the space to shine, recalibrate and repeat. Not knowing everything is O.K., she says, and empowering others to exercise their expertise is key.
“You must know how to enroll a team of experts who have the same level of passion and commitment to be great, and then go make the magic happen,” Herrington says. “It’s not enough to empower them. You must create space for them to be great.”
She understands that pitfalls are bound to happen and encourages recalibration to get back on track. “Everything doesn’t come out of the gate successful,” says Herrington, who knows firsthand that some jobs are not the right fit. “When we fall, we need to have the grace and the space to get back up, talk about what we learned, how we’re going to be better next time and keep it pushing. That’s how I look at it in the workplace and in life, as a series of recalibrations.”
Herrington’s life took a turn after she developed chronic fatigue syndrome in college, forcing her to leave the University of Maryland (where she had become the first All-American cheerleader from the state of Alaska) and move back home. Nevertheless, she persevered by tapping back into the things that sparked joy—serving youth and dancing—in a role as program manager for the city of Anchorage, in a parks and recreation facility.
“It was really about using the principles and the life skills that are taught through sport and physical activity, and bringing it back to the community,” says Herrington, who also danced in the NBA for the former Washington Bullets. “I converted that kind of go, fight, win into creating the first multicultural youth dance cheer program in the state of Alaska. It was about changing lives through the intersectionality of sport and physical movement with dance at the center.”
Herrington explains that the performances were linked to important social issues like intergenerational health patterns and imprisoned youth while also being centered on hope, aid, self-care and serving others in the community.
She went from the Municipality of Anchorage to Pepsi-Cola, where she continued her community work with youth and honed her marketing skills. “That is where I met my husband, Anthony, who also worked at Pepsi,” says the now mother of three. “He was transferred to Pepsi, Portland. That’s how we made our way to Oregon, where I found my passion position at Nike.”
Nike may have been her dream job, but her strategy to secure it was no different than her tried and true hustle. She tapped into her inner grit to land at the megabrand. Her New Year’s resolution for that year in 2000 was to reconnect with the principles and values that had been ingrained in her by her parents. After leaving a temp job she despised, she says, Herrington started knocking on doors and asking questions, poking around to find out: What is the secret sauce to get into Nike? Why is it so popular?
Her research paid off and she secured a temporary position at the brand in April 2000, when she continued with another myriad of questions—this time inside the walls of the company. How can this temp role be converted into a permanent position? What is the scope of work? How long is the job? “It was three months and I said, That gives me really 60 days to prove my value, learn the industry and get up to speed on Nike’s backyard and impact.” By June she was offered a permanent full-time position. “And that was 22 years ago,” Herrington says.
Making an impact has remained a prominent thread throughout her career. Projects that get golf into communities have been the silver lining in her journey at the company as she continues her work with youth to bring awareness to the game and get them engaged in physical activity and mindfulness.
“We have a very aggressive grassroots program called Nike Made to Play,” says Herrington, who hopes to change the face of golf through the lens of participation.
The focus is to get Gen Z—known to be the least active generation yet—physically active. “At every Nike contracted tournament, we will activate a Nike Made to Play golf-specific event, targeting Black and brown Gen Zers. Let’s get them up, let’s get them out, let’s get them active.”
“Kids have lost so much coming out of this pandemic,” she says. “In two years, we have seen the kids who were involved in sports prior to the pandemic not be interested in coming back to sport. And the kids who were never introduced to sport have no interest in being active.”
Herrington notes that, yes, they may not fall in love with golf, but the hope is that getting kids moving and teaching them what endorphins are will help them fall in love with something that gets them up and moving each day.
The nucleus of Herrington’s work exudes joy and fulfillment. Her dream of serving youth and making sure that they are happy and healthy flows freely between her personal and professional life. What started out as a temporary position has evolved into Herrington being one of the very few women and people of color in Nike Golf. And she plans to remain dedicated to the brand.
“My position has morphed back to kids of color, grassroots on the ground, changing the face of the game and helping the world become a better world through sport,” says Herrington, who was, on top of everything else, also crowned Ms. Oregon Senior America last year. “It’s everything that I wanted, even prior to Nike. It’s everything that I was raised upon, principles and values, community, joy, being of service, using sport as the conduit to change; it’s all there. The journey has been just incredible. And believe it or not, I feel like I’m just getting started.”
Bryna Jean-Marie is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.