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.
Vicky Free grew up believing anything was possible. It’s this mentality with which she credits her transition from her own, self-described “humble beginnings” in the American South to her current position as senior vice president of global marketing for Adidas in Germany. And though she’s the first Black woman to hold the position at the powerhouse sports brand, she’s focused on creating more opportunities for Black girls and women to be able to access high-stakes roles, harness true decision-making power and know that impossible is, really, nothing.
Free grew up as one of six children, with three sisters, two brothers and her parents. She recalls growing up together, sharing space and learning to coexist with her siblings feeling like a team sport in its own regard. “What’s in my soil actually connects to where I sit today,” she explains. Strong through lines of faith, mutual respect and positivity served as the foundation of her own self-understanding, and as she grew up she carried these pillars into her professional career. “You might call it rules and expectations. But, in practice, it was just the way we navigated the world,” she says. “Treat people the way you want to be treated, because you’ve got to give respect to get it. Smile first! Be open. All of these things I learned before 6 years of age, I still carry them as a leader today. We are only the sum of our experiences, and at the end of the day, I chalk my experience up to grit.”
That grit would land her at one of the top black entertainment companies in the world, BET Networks, as the vice president and chief marketing officer, a role she held for more than five years. BET was another stop on Free’s path, a dream position at an iconic and global brand. “To be a part of a team that could polish a brand that I grew up with, it was really a blessing. There’s no other word to describe it,” she says, noting how her experience at BET set her up for a smooth transition into the sports world. “We know all across the world, sport is as much about competition as it is about entertainment. The path to the court, the track or the field, it’s all influenced by entertainment.”
After a two-year stint at Walt Disney Television as the SVP of marketing and brand strategy, and a year as CMO for Novant Health, Free found herself on a flight to Germany to assume her current role in 2020. Just a week after getting married , and in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she uprooted her life and settled into her new home in Herzogenaurach. Looking back, she’s grateful for the pivot, no matter how chaotic it felt at the time. “I sold my house, I got married and a week after jumping the broom, we hopped a flight to Germany,” she says. “It really is core to the way I see life. Sometimes the opportunity is so huge, you just have to take a leap of faith.”
Free says she wasn’t aware she was the first Black woman in this role at adidas until her interview. “I remember being shocked. Even as you ask the question now, I can feel the heat in my body rise,” she says. « If I’m really honest with you, it’s a double-edged sword. In this century, we’re still celebrating ‘firsts’ in roles and industries where we know that the skills, the passion and the expertise exists. It’s an honor, yes, but it’s also something I want us to get beyond.”
Unfortunately, her appointment as one of the firsts in the executive space at Adidas comes as no surprise. In the summer of 2020, as the entire world protested the highly public and brutal slayings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black folks at the hands of the police, Adidas came under fire. Black staff members and allies protested the state of internal affairs at the company, outlining the systemic and racist problems within its corporate culture. They could not reconcile the brand’s use of Black cultural and sports icons as its main imagery, with the treatment they were experiencing internally. Before that, in ’19, The New York Times issued a harrowing report about racial inequalities at the company’s North American headquarters, where fewer than 4.5% of employees identified as Black.
With the diversify the executive staff, increase DEI and invest in initiatives addressing racial injustice programs, the brand barreled on. It was a heavy time to assume such demand a role, especially as the publiced much better from the sportswear company. But Free is confident that it is making tactical changes, and shifting the culture for the better within Adidas and globally. “I think the world is really waking up to how diverse we are, right? We need that diversity, equity and inclusion to make it into the boardrooms as much as it is on the court or the field. There’s no question,” Free says. “If you look across our entire global employee base, there’s a lot of opportunity with our employee resource groups, with our strategy. We are cultivating a culture of inclusivity and belonging, and certainly my being in this role can help champion that.”
Free teased a series of video campaigns that Adidas is gearing up to release in 2022, highlighting the impact of the women in and connected to the sports industry who are shifting the parameters of what’s possible. The series will feature pioneers such as Tiffany Abreu, the first trans woman to play in the Brazilian Volleyball Superliga, who Adidas also highlighted in ’21 with her own “Impossible Is Nothing” campaign.
“We are telling the stories of women who are really seeing possibilities, where there’s darkness,” Free says. « This isn’t only about Adidas’s appreciation for how women are changing the game, and how we want to advance this idea of radical allyship. The world has to take notice. It’s not about empowering women. We are powerful. It’s about shining a light on the radical change that is happening and telling those stories from their point of view.”
Free is not only self-assured about where she stands on her own today, but she’s also confident in her ability to push Adidas into the future, led by Black folks, led by women and led by those who have been otherwise overlooked—or silenced —in similar boardrooms. We’re all humans. We’re a company made of humans,” she says. “I’m listening to hear, right from people, and past strategies. What’s worked, and what hasn’t? I’m taking my own 20-plus years of experience, and applying it to what I’ve learned. The way I’m leading, is the aggregate of all that. And that is how I’ve framed my time here. I have grown massively, to turn my life upside down and start anew. I learned a lot about adidas, no question, but I’ve learned a lot about me. And, I think that makes me a better leader.” Adidas has made a lofty promise that this 2022 season will be its “biggest commitment to women, through innovation in products, partnerships and across all dimensions of sport.” That remains to be seen—but with Free at the helm, the company might actually be able to deliver on that promise.
Naya Samuel is a contributor for Empower Onyxa diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.