Misty Copeland: A Ballerina Offers Lessons in Mentoring, Sponsorship

Updated April 29, 2016

At age 13 Misty Copeland was discovered at her local Boys and Girls Club of America and encouraged to take ballet classes. Even though she started at what is considered a late age in ballet, it became clear she was a prodigy with the high potential of becoming a successful professional ballerina.

Copeland made history on June 30 by becoming the first black woman in the American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) 75-year history promoted to principal dancer. She joined ABT’s Studio Company in 2000. In 2001, Copeland entered the company’s corps de ballet, and in 2007 she became the third black female soloist in the company’s history.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., she grew up in San Pedro, Calif. experiencing financial and family struggles, including a custody battle between her mother and ballet teachers serving as her custodial guardians. Copeland is now prevailing in a field traditionally dominated by white dancers making her company realize that after three quarters of a century, it’s finally time for a black female principal dancer.
Copeland follows in the footsteps of only five black ballet dancers who became principals at companies in the U.S. However, what she has also managed to do is make the art form relevant to a younger and diverse audience by becoming a part of popular culture.
“I wanted to help build awareness around Misty and all that she was doing in the ballet world,” Gilda Squire told DiversityInc. Squire has worked with Copeland for more than four years, first as her publicist and then later becoming her manager.
“I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t every little girl or teen know her name and story the way they know about others like Rihanna, Beyonc and Katy Perry'” she said. “I’ve always listened to Misty and understood very clearly her goals. Everything we do is with those goals in mind.”
Copeland is the subject of the 2015 documentary A Ballerina’s Tale and has a best-selling memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, as well as a children’s book, Firebird. She also has tens of thousands of followers on social media.
Copeland now serves a voice for diversity and inclusion at ABT.
Along with innate talent, her career path includes elements that parallel corporate diversity initiatives to drive retention, engagement and promotions for under-represented people, in which the 2016 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, especially the top 10, have been successful at.
“Without a doubt, mentoring and sponsorship have played a very big part in Misty’s career,” said Squire, who, earlier in her career, actually worked in diversity marketing at Goldman Sachs. “Ironically, DiversityInc was one of the first online sponsorships that I established for Goldman Sachs in my role at that time. I’m so proud that several of those same programs still exist in some form today all these years later.”
In identifying a mentor, Jodi Davidson, director, Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives at Sodexo (No. 6), advises young employees to “seek out mentors who are close to your level, so that they understand and can relate to your realities.” The company is also one ofDiversityInc’s Top 15 Companies for Mentoring.
Copeland sought the advice of a mentor, former ballerina Raven Wilkinson, who could relate to her personal journey.
“It was like I found a missing piece of myself, and a connection,” Copeland said in an interview.
Wilkinson’s employment with the Ballets Russes in the 1950s made her the first black ballerina in a major ballet company. When her racial identity became known, she was unable to perform in certain areas of the South and received threats. She left the company in early 1961, eventually going to Holland to dance at the Dutch National Ballet.
Squire explained that meeting other black women in the industry gave Copeland the strength to keep going.
“[Misty] often speaks about how mentors during the earlier part of her career helped guide her towards a more positive outlook as far as thinking of herself and her place in the classical ballet world,” Squire said.
It also gave her a better understanding of how she could “help pave the way for future generations of hopeful ballerinas who don’t necessarily have the typical background that supports a budding career in the art form.”
According to Michele C. Meyer-Shipp, vice president and chief diversity officer at Prudential Financial (No. 10), the company’s mentoring and sponsorship have been fully integrated into talent development, especially for high potentials from under-represented groups.
During a talk in April 2015 to an audience of C-level executives, she placed a heavy emphasis on sponsorship, referring to it as the “active piece” that is “critical to developing, promoting and retaining our diverse talent.”
Meyer-Shipp said that a sponsor should speak on behalf of another employee, even when he or she is not in the room.
Looking back at the beginning of Copeland’s dancing career in San Pedro sponsorship is evident. Her classically trained drill team coach, Elizabeth Cantine, recognized Copeland’s talent and introduced her to her friend Cynthia Bradley, which led to ballet classes at the Boys and Girls Club.
Currently, Squires said that Copeland’s ABT sponsor, banker Valentino Carlotti, has helped her navigate the corporate world.
“[Valentino] has been her ABT sponsor for the past year, but he’s been a supporter of hers for several years in that [he] helped introduce Misty to the corporate world,” Squire said. “That’s been important because those are the very patrons who will be instrumental in helping to keep ballet vibrant and moving forward.”
Talent Pipeline
Sodexo has had achievements with its Emerging Leaders program with particular focus on women, Blacks, Latinos and Asians in P&L roles.
“This is a leadership pipeline for high-potentials. Through the succession-planning process, we make sure [high potentials] have the right mentors and opportunities, including exposure to senior leaders,” said Davidson.
Copeland’s talent and influence has highlighted the need for a diverse talent pipeline at ABT and she herself is seeking out high-potential students who traditionally don’t have exposure to the ballet industry.
“I’ve helped to bring together a diversity and a shift with ABT and the Boys and Girls Club of America to address [lack of accessibility], starting out with getting children the exposure and the affordable training at a young age with teachers that are trained in the ABT curriculum,” Copeland said in an interview.
In September 2013, ABT announced the launch of a national initiative called Project Pli. Through partnerships with regional ballet companies, Boys and Girls Club high-potential dancers from under-represented groups are offered scholarships and training. The program also provides scholarships and fellowships to diverse arts administrators to support the backend of the ballet world.

In January, prior to Copeland’s promotion, during the Sphinx Organization’s annual SphinxCon, a national arts diversity conference, Rachel S. Moore, CEO of American Ballet Theatre, discussed Project Pli and acknowledged the racial disparity that exists in the ballet field:


In the professional ballet world, if you look at the top 10 ballet companies, in the world, there is not a single, black female principal dancer and there never has been. And that is a huge problem and we recognize it and we wanted to really design a program that was laser focused to address this issue. As one of the largest companies in the world we felt that we had a national and international platform, which we could use to start the discussion around race and ballet.

Moore said the initiative’s successes include “57 students of color selected for merit-based scholarships and the awarding [of] more than $200,000 in tuition and stipends.”
In addition to Copeland working on projects with Project Pli, both she and Squire are on the advisory committee.

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