MLB Exec Wendy Lewis Talks Jackie Robinson Day, Supplier Diversity Summit

Major League Baseball's Wendy Lewis.

Happy Jackie Robinson Day. As part of recognition for the day which celebrates the rich baseball history as it relates to Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in 1947, we took the time to talk to MLB executive Wendy Lewis, senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances, on the topic of Jackie Robinson and what’s being done by Major League Baseball to ensure diversity throughout all aspects of the business — including on the field. What’s the significance of Jackie Robinson Day falling on the same day as day two of the Supplier Diversity Summit?

Ms. Lewis: For us it’s our baseball holiday. For some people it’s Tax Day; but for us, it’s Jackie Robinson Day.

This is the first time we’ve had the summit in conjunction with Jackie Robinson Day. It was our commissioner who saw the importance of bringing these two components together. We want to celebrate the continuing legacy of Jackie Robinson because as much as we know about what happened on the field in ‘47, we know that his greater legacy was about opportunity for everyone and being as inclusive and open as possible — for all people.

Folks think that Jackie Robinson’s legacy begins and ends with what happened on the field, but when you continue to explore his life and lifestyle around entrepreneurship and supplier diversity, it’s amazing. Even his family, continuing with the Jackie Robinson Foundation which has fostered amazing careers. His son, David, has a coffee plantation that’s in Tanzania, Africa. So it’s really tying it all together in a way that we haven’t experienced before.

Is there a connection between what’s happening on the field in terms of African-American involvement — obviously the National League MVP is African-American. What is the connection to what we see on the field and what’s happening on the business side at the summit?

Well they’re very connected. I am blessed to also participate in the Commissioner’s Office on the field diversity task force. The Commissioner is dealing with this issue at the same time so that’s why I believe that our efforts are connected. I know that the reason that baseball was so highly represented before and has lost some representation and is now getting it back is because there was a whole 360 approach. It wasn’t just that people were going to the games, but there were people who were part of the community, who collected souvenirs, who watched on TV — all of that. So we know that having people work and become decision-makers in the business is really what’s going to bring it all together.

What do you say to entrepreneurs who want to get involved with baseball and with the Diversity Business Summit, but don’t know a whole lot about the sport?

I would say they should map out their strategy for engagement with Major League Baseball or a particular club, very much like they’d do in any industry. I would expect several entrepreneurs to have a plan of action. You don’t have to be able to quote statistics or identify how many World Series a team has or remember what happened in the last draft, but it doesn’t hurt to at least know what those things are. You may not even know who won the World Series, but you need to know that there is a World Series.

The reason that is important is because some entrepreneurs get a little discouraged. They’ll say, ‘Wendy, I followed up on that lead and it’s been a month since I’ve heard from anyone.’ Then I’ll ask when they reached out. They’ll say, ‘Well I started calling in March and now it’s April and I haven’t heard from anyone.’ Well, they’re wrapping up Spring Training and they’re getting ready for Opening Day. The last thing they’re looking at right now is new business. They’re trying to get the show on the road. You may not know anything, but you might need to know that there’s an Opening Day, and to know what that entails — or that there’s an All-Star Break. That’s the easy stuff. We’re not expecting you to know the entire pitching rotation for a specific team. Just know that there are some components of the business that uniquely make this our business. And there will be the expectation that some of our people are sophisticated around that. If you work in it, you will become a baseball fan.

RELATED: The Market for Jackie Robinson Memorabilia Soars

You’ve highlighted the one-on-one time entrepreneurs can get — can you elaborate a bit more?

That’s your one-on-one time, for about 15 minutes, to identify what your club is about and what their expectations are. The reason the matchmaker segment is so significant is because there will be 500 other businesses there, too. And they won’t be doing the same commodity category that supplier may be doing, but there’s a whole lot of buzz and a whole lot of people running around, so it’s your chance to really work it. This is the time that you’ll have set aside to meet face-to-face. That’s where you do that data dive and find a little more about what to do.

We have has some companies achieve two things out of the summit. One is new business, when a supplier that we don’t currently have sourcing to MLB or a club gets an opportunity. We’ve seen that happen with promotional items, and even with some technology deliverables. What also happens is that a current supplier will go and actually increase their business. There’s one company that does these wonderful gift baskets for our All-Star Game. They have a Major League Baseball contract. But this gives them the opportunity to say that I already do this business and we do it quite successfully.

What’s the added benefit of having this event in New York?

With any of our Major League club markets we consider that to be an unprecedented opportunity. Wherever the summit lands in 2015 and beyond still creates an opportunity that doesn’t exist currently — outside of baseball doing it. But in New York there is this wonderful opportunity to connect in a lot of ways. The tri-state market area is uniquely New York. So you easily see businesses being able to be here if they’re from any of the boroughs, but also businesses from Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C. or Boston. So geographically speaking, it’s very doable for a lot of folks. Given the branding stature of the Yankees, that’s a brand that a lot of people want to do business with. Also, it’s home for us.

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