Under Armor has looked no further than its own Baltimore backyard to launch what it sees as a key part of a broad global initiative designed to break down barriers limiting access to the sport.
In an effort to attract a more diverse workforce, Under Armor has launched a career readiness program at Morgan State University, just eight miles from its Locust Point headquarters. The sportswear brand said it plans to expand these events to other historically black colleges and universities.
Under Armour, which models its culture after that of athletes, calling workers “teammates,” for example, ran the intensive three-day program like an athletic combine. During the “Career Combine”, 50 Morgan students took a crash course in designing, making, promoting and selling apparel and footwear, before forming teams to test their skills in a case competition.
By forming partnerships with HBCUs across the United States, Under Armor said it aims to break down barriers for students of color in classrooms, in the field and in jobs.
“Our goal is to empower these students and create a talent pipeline,” said Ashley Brown, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Under Armour. “We started with this expanded partnership with Morgan State University to develop a blueprint for how we can elevate our work with HBCUs and [Hispanic-serving institutions] in the future.”
Much of the corporate world has scrutinized internal culture and politics over the past two years since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked awareness of racial injustice. Employers have re-examined everything from diversity on their boards to hiring practices.
Under Armor reviewed its management, committing in June 2020 to improve racial diversity. CEO Patrik Frisk told employees at the time the leadership team had heard black employees express “from anger to frustration to exhaustion” over America’s history of social injustice.
Under Armor has had its own struggles. A former executive sued the company in 2019 for racial discrimination. The parties have reached a settlement in this matter.
“We recognized the immense responsibility we have to do much more,” Frisk said.
In February, Under Armor announced its partnership with Morgan State. In addition to the Career Combine, plans include giving college coaches access to a virtual space called UA Coaches Armory, which offers tools for student-athlete training and development. And at least two Morgan students will be offered internships and mentorship through Under Armour’s UA Rookie program.
The company said it is working to recruit more than 15% of its interns this summer to HBCUs.
Such partnerships are an important way to “support future leaders,” Brown said.
“To successfully diversify our pipeline,” she said, “we need to focus on finding early-career talent, and HBCUs are institutions that produce high-performing students.”
During the Morgan Career Combine, held virtually during college spring break, students learned from Under Armor employees how to design, promote and sell athletic apparel and footwear. They were offered career and leadership advice. Then the students teamed up and took on a challenge Under Armor leaders face daily: to create a campaign, product and experience that captures the attention and emotions of target customers, young adults that the company calls “targeted interpreters”.
Students competed for $10,000 scholarships for each entrant on the winning team. Working virtually, students brainstormed ideas, assigned tasks and, in some cases, worked after hours combined. On the final day, each group pitched their ideas to a panel of Under Armor executives acting as judges.
Even before Nia Cowling was assigned to a team, the Pikesville junior said the experience paid off. Cowling said she decided to pursue business in college because she believes more black women should be involved in business. The event allowed him to meet professionals in his potential future field of marketing and hear behind-the-scenes stories, such as how basketball star Stephen Curry worked closely with the brand to design his iconic shoes.
“In the end, even though my team isn’t the winning team, I still came out on top,” the 21-year-old marketing student said to herself.
Cowling’s team, however, won.
“Their pitch showed collaboration, global thinking, and authenticity to Under Armour’s purpose and values,” Brown said. “They presented with clarity and poise.”
Cowling’s “Team Inspire” focused on ways to support the mental health of athletes. The campaign highlighted stories from Baltimore-born college athletes and others, including swimming superstar Michael Phelps, showing how they overcame mental health barriers. It included an outreach component through a community organization and offered mental health education in sports leagues.
The “Be Your Best You” campaign also included a line of customizable apparel and accessories featuring motivational quotes from well-known athletes.
Heather Wyatt-Nichol, an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said it has become more common since 2020 to see partnerships between the private and philanthropic sectors and colleges serving minorities. as a means of promoting diversity. But more such programs are needed, she said.
“Under Armour, as a corporate citizen within the greater Baltimore community…offers students…the opportunity to develop their skills and career trajectory,” she said. “I would like to see more private companies get involved, and I would like to see more collaboration and partnerships.”
UMES, for example, recently entered into a partnership with Alaska Airlines in an effort to diversify its pilot ranks.
A longer-term challenge for most diversity initiatives, Wyatt-Nichol said, is whether they can be sustained.
“Is this a sustainable goal that has been established? Is there funding for this? Are we preparing people for careers that will be there in 10, 20, 30 years? ” she asked.
Emmanuel Durojaiye, an industrial systems engineering student at Morgan, applied to the Under Armor program as a stepping stone to a future as a product design/development engineer.
“I’m still a firm believer that experience goes a long way,” said Durojaiye, an 18-year-old from Baltimore County’s Gwynn Oak neighborhood. “I was hoping the combine would expose me to an exciting team-oriented project. … I imagine myself working on big projects that require me to know how to be a team player and work efficiently.
Durojaiye created a video ad for Team Two Forward’s campaign. He used a call-and-response slogan, “Who backs me? We’ve got your back,” to show Under Armor’s support for students who dedicate time to a sport.
The freshman, a film editor for Morgan’s athletic department, based the ad on a video he made to promote Morgan’s lacrosse club. He and his Two Forward teammates were also inspired by Under Armour’s early “Protect This House” campaigns.
Gabrielle Timpson, a 20-year-old junior from northeast Washington, led the team, assigning each student a role based on majors and interests. She designed a graphic for a “Two Steps Forward, No Steps Back” logo. The idea for a product, a lacrosse glove that students couldn’t find on the market, came from fellow team member Kobie Johnson, who plays lacrosse at Morgan. And Austin Thomas, a fashion merchandising specialist, designed and illustrated the glove.
The team also proposed a film festival via social media that would showcase the lifestyles of African-American college student-athletes and give students a platform to share their stories.
“We did quite a bit of work outside of deadlines,” Durojaiye said, including one night when they worked until 3 a.m. “It was definitely worth the time we spent there.”
By the third day of the combine, the team had created a PowerPoint with 11 slides.
“We kept rehearsing our lines,” Durojaiye said. “I was very nervous.”
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But the presentation went well, so much so that the impressed judges decided they had to choose a finalist as well. Team Inspire won first prize and $10,000 each. But the members of Two Forward also walked away with scholarships of $2,000 each.
The first Career Combine exposed a “strong group of ambitious students” to potential career paths and professional development skills, Under Armour’s Brown said. And, she added, it showed them successful black professionals in a corporate climate.
For the company, some of the top performers “are now on the radar of our senior leaders and our talent acquisition team,” she said.
Dimitri Watat, a young finance student who aspires to a career in sports management, said he was very impressed with “everything that happens in everything that [Under Armour] Is.”
The event “reinforced confidence in me and my ideas,” said Watat, a member of the winning Inspire team who grew up in East Baltimore.
For Two Forward leader Timpson, the highlight came at the end of day three, when his Under Armor coach handed out individual advice summaries.
“Receiving a personal statement from someone who witnessed our work ethic and personalities was the most beneficial conclusion,” Timpson said. She will use the guidance, she said, “to transform me into a better me.”