If he’s known for anything, Kenneth Shropshire – lawyer, author, longtime Wharton professor – figures he’s known for sports.
He played football at Stanford, was an executive with the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, and worked with the NFL and Major League Baseball on diversity. For part of his 30 years at The Wharton School, he was director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.
His sub-focus, though, was always on equity and opportunity in sports, he tells Poets&Quants.
On July 1, he returned to Wharton after a five-year hiatus to focus on equity and opportunity full time. He is the faculty lead of the new Coalition for Equity & Opportunity (Wharton CEO), and is serving as senior advisor to dean Erika James.
“This is a chance to fully immerse myself in the equity and opportunity space in the broadest sense: Not just DEI, not in response to the George Floyd moment, but bigger,” Shropshire says.
“What is it that business schools can do to lead in addressing issues of equity, opportunity, the wealth gap, access to capital, as well as DEI in the workplace. How do we make sure people have access to equity and opportunity across sectors – race, gender, socio economics, and so on.”
A RESEARCH-FOCUSED, DATA-DRIVEN COALITION
Shropshire earned an economics degree at Stanford University and a law degree from Columbia Law School. He joined Wharton in 1986, becoming the David W. Hauck Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics, and was a professor of Africana Studies.
In 2017, he was recruited to Arizona State University to start Global Sport Institute as the Adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport. The institute’s mission was to research and disseminate sports information that people can use: Is Gatorade better than water for athletic performance, for example. He was recruited to ASU by Ray Anderson, the school’s athletic director at the time, and a former NFL executive and Stanford football teammate.
When dean James became the first African American woman to lead an elite business school, Shropshire reached out to offer his support. They began a conversation around the loose concepts of a research, data-driven coalition around equity and opportunity, and whether he actually wanted one more heavy lift in a distinguished career.
“I actually retired before joining Arizona State. What I found is that I really enjoyed building the thing,” he says.
The new coalition, Wharton CEO, is still in the planning and building stages, but Shropshire hopes it will be able to start making public announcements about its work this spring. We recently got the chance to sit down with him to talk about the coalition’s vision and purpose.Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why was this opportunity – the chance to create and launch this new coalition and concept – worth returning to Wharton?
The conversation with dean James was around being able to do this work full time, full speed and not just in the sports space. That was exciting to me. As an African American scholar, there’s often this question of what’s your role in the room? Many African American scholars, myself included, will be in a committee and be the only person of color in the room, and we’re looked to when those issues come up. Often, I would say ‘I want to talk about the finance issues,’ or ‘I want to talk about the marketing issues.’ But at this point in my career, I’m going to go full speed ahead and address these issues.
When I came out of law school in 1980, I had a buddy who went to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, another worked in the Justice Department. I went to a corporate law firm. There was this little tinge of maybe I should have done something similar. Forty years later, this is a chance to kind of amend that.
The other broad piece is the success of dean James. The uniqueness of an African American woman leading the top ranked business school in the world, and to be able to be a part of that success, is exciting too.
What are some of the parallels in your sports background and what you’ll be doing now at Wharton?
We’ve certainly seen the attempted uses of the Rooney Rule (which hopes to foster more diversity in NFL leadership), for example, that has had varying degrees of success, but not in football. Other corporate parties have tried to utilize the framework as well. If you think of the football equivalent to a CEO, it’s probably an NFL owner. But, it’s actually much easier to have a CEO (of color) of a Fortune 500 company than it is to have an owner in the NFL. The barrier on any sports league is now billions of dollars. Where a board can say, ‘This is the right person, I don’t care what their wealth is.’
I’ve been on the board, off and on, of the Women’s Sports Foundation. There’s this law, Title Nine, that provides all these opportunities, but you still have to be vigilant about making sure the opportunities are delivered. We see that in the workplace through all kinds of laws – all this enforcement we have to do to make sure the laws that are in place actually work.
I remember the first time somebody approached me about just the generic equity and opportunity kinds of issues, and the argument that so many of us hear: Can you give me the business case for DEI, for example. People want to see KPIs and ROI and sort of all those traditional sorts of things. In my younger scholar self, my reaction was, why does that matter? It’s the right thing to do.
My more mature scholar self says, ‘Okay. Let’s provide that.’ If that’s the reason someone needs, we’ll go with that.
NEXT PAGE: Vision for the new Coalition for Equity & Opportunity