Global marketing executive Vicky Free talks diversity, equity, inclusion
By Craig Brandhorst, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3681
It’s 2021, and Vicky Free is on it. In January, the 1992 broadcast journalism graduate started a new job as vice president for global marketing at Adidas. In February, she got married. A week later, she and new husband Christopher Sistrunk relocated to Herzogenaurach, Germany, home of Adidas corporate headquarters. “When I go big, I go big!” she says.
Thing is, the Boiling Springs, South Carolina, native has been going big forever.
Prior to signing with Adidas last fall, she was senior vice president and chief of marketing at Novant Health. Before that, she was senior vice president of global brand strategy, marketing and creative at Disney/ABC International. Before that? BET, Time Warner and McDonald’s Corporation.
“I’m always looking to take my leadership to the next level, and I’m a marketer through and through,” she says. “If you look at my career, everything I’ve done is focused on, how do we deliver marketing messages, brand promises that resonate deeply and drive loyalty?”
At BET, that meant shifting from a focus on Black consumers to a focus on Black culture. At Disney, it meant shifting the company’s marketing strategy as content delivery moved to streaming, and then customizing content to expand the brand’s “tribe.” “The through line for me is always pushing the boundary of what’s possible,” she explains.
That’s what Adidas is after, too. Last summer, when employees questioned the company’s commitment to diversity in the wake of the George Floyd murder and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, the company announced that 30 percent of new hires would be Black or Latino. And while Free wasn’t brought on to spearhead DEI initiatives, and her hire wasn’t about HR optics, she recognizes that diversity, equity and inclusion must be reflected in leadership and broadly defined.
“Any leader in any business has to not only believe in diversity, inclusion and equity, but they have to demonstrate it,” she says. “It needs to be visible, it needs to be consistent, and it needs to be dynamic. We like to put boxes around what DEI is. There’s no box.”
One of her chief goals, she says, is to help Adidas recenter as a purpose-driven brand.
“We need to understand where the soul of culture is going,” she says. “This is where inclusivity lives, this is where sustainability lives, where creating an equal and equitable starting point for all people lives. That’s what’s next. Purpose-driven brands will be the brands people choose. That’s how you build loyalty.”
Which is, in fact, a good a segue to Free’s college experience. After all, three older siblings preceded her to the university. Her own goal was to attend an HBCU — and she got into Spelman College, her top choice — but in-state tuition was hard to beat. So was family loyalty. Counting “frontline cousins,” she estimates more than 20 Gamecocks on the extended family tree. “The road,” she says, “was clear, paved and direct.”
Any leader in any business has to not only believe in diversity, inclusion and equity, but they have to demonstrate it.
And it was the right destination. With a combined undergraduate and graduate student population of nearly 27,000 in 1988, the year she moved into the Honeycombs, campus felt like a “city within a city,” she says. With a Black student population of 3,265, there was also something of a community within the community, the best of both worlds.
“It was big,” she says. “In a lot of ways, and I don’t say this to be disrespectful, we sort of had our own HBCU within the larger university. I think that advantaged my experience. But I also met people from all walks of life, from all around the world, from different academic and economic backgrounds that opened my eyes to possibility.”
Her classes were stimulating, her professors engaging. Sophomore year, she moved from the Honeycombs to Capstone — “I went from the projects to the penthouse,” she jokes — and her ascent continued. After graduation, she took her degree in broadcast to WOLO-TV in Columbia before transitioning to a career in marketing and an eight-year stint as director of women’s initiatives at McDonald’s.
Free later earned an M.B.A. at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, but her building blocks came from Carolina. “I think what I learned at the University of South Carolina was how to think, how to build networks of support, and I really started to build my personal brand while I was there, as a person who tries to do everything with excellence and everything with grace.”
It’s pretty easy, though, to shake her corporate cool. Just rewind to the mid-1980s, the early days of hip hop, the Run-DMC hit “My Adidas,” and ask —
“Oh my gosh, are you kidding me?” she exclaims. “I had to have those sneakers! Listen, I put that song on the playlist for our wedding. It’s the cornerstone for hip hop in my life. You know? Run-DMC!”
She’s not selling the brand now; she’s mining her own DNA. And it doesn’t get more authentic than that. She’s also just excited. “I could not have imagined this job,” she says. “But to be honest with you, I had big dreams. I told my mom I’d work in Paris — I’ve always been a dreamer — but I didn’t see this. And that’s kind of the beauty.”
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