Q&A WITH ZENAB KEITA ’10
Seat at the Table
Former Golden State Warrior and current The Athletic manager of partnership finds her voice after taking her seat at the table.
Prior to playing basketball for four years at Yale, earning a Masters of Arts in Management at Wake Forest University, and working in partnership management for the Miami Dolphins and Golden State Warriors, ZENAB KEITA spent a post-graduate year at Pomfret. She is now the manager of partnerships at The Athletic, a subscription-based sports website founded in 2015. Since leaving the Hilltop, she has found her voice and was recently recognized in the industry as part of the Sports Business Journal’s New Voices Under 30.
Tell me about how you started with the Golden State Warriors?
I joined the Golden State Warriors in 2018 as they were opening the brand new arena — Chase Center. They needed to outfit a team that could handle growing their existing partnerships and manage new ones brought on board. The CMO at the time reached out looking for someone who could learn quickly and jump right in and I was sold — I was excited to bring an elevated level of sports business and partnerships into my day-to-day, and being able to do this with the Golden State Warriors was a no-brainer.
What does a Partnership Development manager for a professional sports team do?
My responsibilities varied based on the team and the partners they have, but essentially, brands are looking to partner with a sports team in order to use that team’s cache to help sell their service and products. In my role, it was my responsibility to act as the face of the team for that partner, helping to execute their agreements with the team by activating our contracts. This included providing them with contractual assets such as access to our players and fan database, our special gameday experiences, hospitality at games and concerts, and things of that sort. I was also involved with significant community programs put on with these partners such as turkey giveaways, court refurbishments in under-resourced neighborhoods, and food drives.
How did Covid change your work since the sports arenas were closed and the fans and clients could interact with the players?
In the midst of Covid, I got an opportunity to come up with new and different partnerships and community programs since we had to find solutions for assets we couldn’t deliver on like tickets or in-arena activations. One project that I am particularly proud of was a partnership with Nike to celebrate National Girls & Women in Sports Day. A co-worker and I created an all-day celebration that ultimately culminated with us featuring some WNBA players and putting on a virtual clinic for young girls to participate in. What was most rewarding was when Natasha Cloud, a known activist and WNBA champion, posted on Twitter a shout-out to the Warriors for actually doing something tangible and creating a space in which women and young girls could be celebrated. It felt good to be able to create that experience for our community, our partner, and our organization.
It sounds like you had a great time with the Warriors, what made you decide to go work for The Athletic?
After seven years of being on the team side, I wanted to do something new, especially after the projects during the Covid year. I had a thirst for being on the brand side and thinking of ideas and strategies on how to use partnership funds to sell products and build brand equity. The unique opportunity with The Athletic came up and it was not only on the brand side but also in the media and tech industries, both of which I wanted to get involved in — especially being here in the Bay Area. It was a perfect little launchpad.
Tell me about your job at The Athletic, what are you most excited about?
It’s cool because the job is all about getting to set the strategy for our partnership plan. I get to work with a team and figure out what we are going to do to get our brand out there and do something different that helps people choose The Athletic over other media platforms. I get to use the tools and knowledge that I developed in my two previous roles and now set a strategy for a brand, which is amazing.
Early on in my career, I experienced some imposter syndrome. I used to wonder if I should be at the table — especially with senior leaders — having a say in the strategy and the decisions. So earning this new job and being in my role is great validation that I'm supposed to be here, I'm supposed to be at this table, and I'm supposed to be involved in these types of conversations. I'm excited to get going on that.
You talk about imposter syndrome, where does that come from and how have you overcome it?
I think I have experienced imposter syndrome since I came to the United States as a child. As a Black kid with African roots born in France growing up in the American South, you are always gonna have a little bit of imposter syndrome. I was always thinking, “Should I be here?” from a language, cultural, and social perspective. But every time, I dug in and I did the work necessary to perform and it would chip away at that imposter syndrome because I would prove to myself that I could do the work and I belonged. Now, I think my imposter syndrome is creeping back because I’m in this brand new space in my career. I’m in tech and media—two new industries for me — and everyone at The Athletic is incredibly talented, so I feel a bit of pressure to perform exceedingly well. However, I continue to remind myself, as I have in my other roles, you have to be confident in your skills and what you uniquely bring to the table in order to perform and excel in unfamiliar environments. I affirm myself every morning, “You’re here for a reason. You’re doing a good job.” Then I do the work.
You were recently honored as one of Sports Business Journal’s 2020 New Voices Under 30. How have you used that voice in the sports industry?
I think I was selected for that award because I use my voice to say the things others may not want to say aloud, to encourage dialogue, and hopefully to educate others. That is how I disrupt spaces—I speak up. For example, with the social and racial injustice events of 2020, I used social media to express my opinion and it encouraged other people in my organization (even some of our players) to share their own opinions and thoughts on their platforms. Sometimes they reshared my content and sometimes they shared their own, but in all cases, it was good to have people feel empowered to discuss. I had co-workers, classmates, and mentors all calling me to talk about what was going on in the world because they saw me being vocal. I think people felt comfortable coming to me because they knew I was not going to judge them and I was open to the conversation. So in that situation and in my life and sports career thus far, I’ve always tried to use my voice and empathy to empower others and ensure people feel heard. Whether it’s speaking up for women, for younger employees, for underrepresented people, or anyone who feels like they can’t speak up themselves, it is important to me to make sure people feel validated and can trust me to be a vocal leader.
If you had to give a Chapel Talk now, what would it be about?
It would have to be around the concept of you belong here and you have a seat at the table. You were driven to this place, there is a purpose that you are supposed to fulfill by being here. So whether it is a short time or a long time, live in this space. Be in this space and take up space. Have a seat, not on the outside, but at the table. Say your piece, but come prepared. Having a seat doesn't give you an excuse to be uninformed and be ignorant. The worst that can happen is that someone can correct you, you can learn something new, or you could realize this table is not for me.
Who were some of the people at Pomfret who left a lasting impression?
Shout out to my basketball coach Rebecca Brooks, who was also my advisor. I have never seen a more poised, calm individual ever. She was also always a person that you could count on and she was consistent — she was a great role model in that aspect. Even now, to this day, wanting to be a consistent person at work or for friends, I am so thankful for her. Also Bruce Wolanin, my college counselor, I am so grateful for him. He always believed in me and my ability to get into Yale. Also grateful to Johára Tucker, Bobby Fisher, and Sharon Gaudreau for making Pomfret feel like home. I appreciate them being unofficial aunts and uncles. Lastly, my classmates, many of whom I’m still friends with to this day, made a huge impact on me. I came to Pomfret having been one person my entire young life and they took me into their world and allowed me to explore myself and my interests. I think my time with them was a perfect segue into Yale and my college experience.
How has the new opportunity with The Athletic changed your work-life balance?
At The Athletic, I get to work from home. During the pandemic, I rescued a dog, Remy, so I get to be home with him. I hope to get him a French passport soon so he can travel throughout the European Union with me. My family lives overseas and being able to go visit them is a blessing. I really couldn’t do that during basketball season — especially when you work for a team as good as the Warriors — their season was always two months longer than everyone else! Overall, I’m just happy to have flexibility in my life to work anywhere and work on a schedule that is more accommodating to my lifestyle while still getting to work in and around sports. Quarantine helped illuminate what was really important in life and I’m grateful this new role gives me the time, resources, and inspiration to go after those things in my personal and professional life.