Known best for: Becoming the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks — the first African American woman CEO in the NBA
During Women’s History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of woman innovators and history makers who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout March to learn about more important figures.
Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall was born in Alabama, but her family moved to Richmond, California when her parents decided they did not want to raise their children in the Jim Crow South. Years after her family’s move, the 16th Street Baptist Church down the street from her former home was bombed in a racist attack.
Marshall grew up in relative poverty in Richmond, but despite the odds against her, attended UC Berkeley on a scholarship. She was offered scholarships to several colleges, but ultimately chose UC Berkeley because it was close to her home.
She recalled in a UC Berkeley alumni article in 2018 that she did not realize her family’s situation until much later. She said when she was at UC Berkeley, a dinner date dismissed her hometown as the projects — something she fiercely denied until her mother told her, “Yes, actually they are.” Marshall also grew up with an abusive father and recalled that her education was her refuge.
Marshall studied business administration with a focus on organizational behavior and human resources. She ended up working for AT&T (No. 1 on DiversityInc’s 2019 Top 50 Companies for Diversity) for 36 years, beginning as an operator in San Francisco. She served as president of AT&T in North Carolina, then the senior vice president of human resources, and ultimately the chief diversity officer of the global corporation.
In 2018, Marshall became the first African American woman working as a CEO of the NBA, but even before 2018, her life was full of firsts. During her time at UC Berkeley, she was the first Black cheerleader and only Black woman in her sorority. She was also the first Black person to serve as the chair of the North Carolina Chamber.
At the 2015 Berkeley’s Women’s Empowerment Day, Marshall recalled a time at her first job when a female boss told her she was “too ethnic” for wearing red high heels and styling her hair in braids. She said she went home, took out her braids and purchased neutral shoes, a decision later regretted. She told the audience in 2015 to be their true, authentic and assertive selves.
Marshall’s career in diversity and inclusion continued even after her time at AT&T, when Dow Chemical Company (No. 37 on DiversityInc’s 2019 Top 50 Companies for Diversity) asked her to help pioneer an inclusion program. Dow’s diversity and inclusion practices evidently improved with Marshall’s leadership. In 2018, Dow landed the No. 50 spot on the Top 50, and in 2017 it did not appear at all.
In the wake of the 2018 publication of a scathing 46-page report that outlined a culture of sexual harassment against women at the Dallas Mavericks, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban reached out to Marshall to ask her to become CEO and help transform the culture.
In her first 100 days of leadership, Marshall brought new women into leadership roles, established a complaint process, created an ethics hotline, implemented a code of conduct training for everyone and launched an internal advisory council.
In the 2018 UC Berkeley alumni piece, Marshall defined diversity and inclusion:
“Diversity is about numbers and representation. Inclusion is how to create a culture that’s welcoming.”