Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
If there’s one word that describes Kim Davis, it’s fearless. The term has accompanied the current senior executive vice president of the National Hockey League (NHL) over the past 40 years of her career as she’s earned the respect of the most powerful people in business.
“My grandmother told me years ago that being fearless was not about not being scared,” says Davis. “It was in spite of being scared, moving forward. And I never forgot that.”
Those precious words have always remained in her heart, particularly in meetings with some of the most powerful men in finance. A former managing director of global corporate social responsibility at JPMorgan Chase, Davis recalls a time when she was lauded for her courage and boldness.
“I was managing a group of older white men who were part of the sales force,” says Davis, who served as the president of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation and a member of the firm’s executive committee during her 20-plus years with the company. “You can imagine in the ’90s, this young Black woman managing these men—most of whom could be my father—and what it required to gain their trust.
“Then my mother passed away in 1995. And that team gave me a plaque just to really encourage me around my leadership. On that plaque, they talked about me being fearless. And to be called fearless was a real honor.”
Davis says it was frightening to be the only person of color in the room. But ultimately she found her voice. “It was scary often to speak up,” she says. “You'd have the angels on each shoulder, one saying, Just make your point. And the other one saying, Be quiet.”
When she waited and didn’t speak her mind, a white man in the room would say exactly what she was thinking—and it would be supported. That was the turning point, she says.
“I stopped being scared to say it. And even when it wasn’t affirmed, I became known for having a point of view,” she says. “I think that’s one of the greatest compliments that can be made to anyone in corporate America—having a point of view.”
Davis has gained respect by being direct, trustworthy and authentic, and recognition for her strategies for inciting progress and change in organizations. She has spent the last four years doing just that in her current position at the NHL, where she is responsible for the social impact for all of the youth hockey programming and the league’s work across the U.S. and Canada.
“Much like I did in investment banking, I’m almost a consultant and an adviser to the CEOs of the league—the owners and presidents of the 32 clubs of the NHL—to [help them] understand and see multicultural audiences through the lens of growth, not through a lens of charity,” she says.
In her role, Davis is enthusiastic about engaging underindexed audiences and gaining a better understanding of the way that millennials and Gen Zers view sport and entertainment. “We have to make the sport more culturally available. We have to educate our clubs on the demographics in their markets, and how to build relationships with the influencers in those communities,” she says.
Davis has also been in tune with the evolution of the relationship between consumers and business leaders throughout her career.
“What I’ve seen is employees becoming far more intentional about their expectations of employers to be connected to their communities and to social justice,” says Davis. “Obviously in the past 10 years, it’s been through their social platforms. But I watched this starting to happen in the ’90s, when employees used their voices as consumers to be very vocal about the change that was required. That’s a trend that I think has been very positive over the course of my career for people of color.”
Sometimes, Davis says, entering what can be perceived as intimidating business environments is a huge hurdle for women of color and that “getting out of our heads” will afford a sense of belonging in certain environments. “I’m not suggesting that there aren’t people that aren’t supportive of us,” she says. “But generally speaking, when you walk in these rooms, if you have a point of view and you’re [good at] your craft, people aren’t going to be there waiting to ‘get you.’ ”
Davis refers to the intersection of race, ethnicity and gender that women of color experience as the triple threat. And she adds that this trio is different for white women. “We have to support each other,” says Davis, who has been passionate about this topic for 30 years. “We have to get white women to understand that they have a role as allies, because the whiteness of their privilege affords them a different opportunity than we have.”
During her tenure as senior managing director at Teneo Worldwide, Davis led the firm’s leadership development and corporate responsibility practice where she advised Fortune 500 companies, executives and cultural icons such as Billie Jean King. In 2013, Davis assisted the tennis legend with the creation of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, a partnership with CEOs to advance gender diversity and pay equity.
“When we started putting together the initiative, Billie said, ‘The one thing that I’m really passionate about is gender equity,’ ” says Davis. What followed were some very direct conversations about the different experiences of Black and white women. “Billie will tell you today that it was a seminal moment for her, because she really had not honed in and focused on those differences,” says Davis, who shared major pieces of data with King about the pay equity disparities between the two groups of women. “She has the power to use her voice, with primarily white male CEOs, because that’s basically what we have in corporate America today. And we need to influence and to educate them around these issues.”
It is candid and courageous discussions like this that make Davis one of the most sought-after women in the industry when it comes to changing the culture of companies.
“I think that, even before it was commonplace, organizations thrive with those who operate in the space of change,” Davis says. “I understand how to pivot and build relationships. I can come into an organization and set forth a course and a vision for the future.”
Bryna Jean-Marie is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.