By Leah Fessler
This week, we hear from Chief Member Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, the first Black American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in 100 meter hurdles. A renowned executive in the sports and nonprofit industries, Benita formerly served as Chief of Organizational Excellence at the US Olympic Committee and CEO of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation USA. Benita is currently Founder and CEO of LeadLeg Consulting and is a Senior Advisor with Proteus. Her two primary goals in life: use her gold medal as the gift that keeps on giving, and leave a legacy that can be acted upon when she’s gone. Below is an edited and condensed glimpse into Benita’s story and perspective on the present, as told to Chief.
When thinking about Black Lives Matter, it’s important for me to go back a bit further, back to my beginning.
My mom and dad are both deceased now, but they were amazing people. They grew up in the thirties in Richmond, Virginia, and experienced the Great Depression, Jim Crow. Despite all that, they never had a chip on their shoulder. They were among the first in their families to go to college and earn graduate degrees. My mother even went to Columbia. She wanted to get a masters in special education and none of the schools in Virginia would allow her to attend because she was Black. So they gave her a full scholarship to go to an Ivy league school up North instead. Go figure.
Long after Brown vs. Board of Education passed, school systems all over the country were still refusing to integrate. In 1965, Prince William County, Virginia called on four Black women to participate in a pilot, going to teach in all white schools to see if racial integration would work. My mother was one of those four women — now called the Courageous Four. Guess what, it worked. This was in the second largest county in the state of Virginia. It was a huge shift for the state. As a result, my mother had an elementary school named after her in 2008. It’s called Fannie W. Fitzgerald Elementary School, and it sits on 15500 Benita Fitzgerald Drive, the street that was named after me when I won my Olympic gold medal.
All that to say, my mother was incredible. My dad equally so. He was my guidance counselor in high school. My parents were focused not only on helping us doing well in school, but also on exposing us to the world — to music, sports, museums. That's how I found track after trying many other sports. Pretty quickly, I learned I was really good, and I had the blessing of going to a high school that had already won three straight state championships in girl’s track. My freshman year we won a fourth. The girl who was the star of the team, Paula Girven, ended up making the Olympic team my freshman year. Our coach told me, “You are equally talented, and you too could be on the Olympic team someday.” I was fourteen years old. That really opened my mind. I could actually believe that dream.
Fast forward four years later, and both Paula and I made the 1980 Olympic team — which, unfortunately, was boycotted in Moscow. In 1984, I made the US Olympic team again. I was very fortunate to win a gold medal in Los Angeles on home soil. Doesn't get any better than that.
After the Olympics, I worked as an engineer, and was eventually tapped to work for Special Olympics International in sports administration. That prepared me to do marketing for the Olympic Organizing Committee in Atlanta, negotiating sponsorships with some of the biggest brands in the world — Coca Cola, Bank of America, John Hancock. That was when my career really took off.
My professional environments have always been predominantly white. Rising through director levels, I felt like I was pretty well accepted. I won't say my race was an advantage, but it certainly wasn't hindering me earlier in my career. The higher I rose, the more I noticed that it's rarefied air. It’s not just that there aren’t many people who look like me. It’s also that in many cases, the path has been made harder for me in ways that it wouldn’t have been if I looked differently. I know that for a fact. I’ve seen countless examples in which white people's achievements far outweigh any mistakes they make along the way. Or they’re given the benefit of the doubt because of the way they look.
People of color often aren't always given that benefit of the doubt. They're not given the leeway to not be one hundred percent perfect. And I'm not claiming to be at all perfect, I have certainly made my share of mistakes. But I believe in the aggregate.
I’ll share one example. In a previous role, I identified a fundraising opportunity with a very wealthy donor who wanted to give our organization money and office space, which we sorely needed. When I brought the opportunity to the board, they were highly resistant. They made up reasons to decline the opportunity. I advocated for 10 months. Our lawyers even came and told the board, “This is a no brainer. A risk-free opportunity.” For two lawyers at a very prominent firm to say this is “risk free” is a resounding endorsement.
I really wanted to believe it wasn’t because of me. I put myself on the line and risked my relationship with the board for this opportunity, because I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t come around. This was a billionaire with many billionaire friends.
Still, they dropped it. It was a horrible and formative experience. A complete uphill battle. Forget that it was to my detriment — it was to the organization's detriment that we didn't take advantage of that opportunity. The donor walked away angry. All because of a narrative that these board members had in their heads about me, which they perpetuated by undermining me again.
This situation is not unique. But especially now, things seem to be slightly different. Black employees are being asked to voice their thoughts and opinions. A lot of us are being pulled outside our comfort zones because we’re the only Black people around. We’re being asked our opinion on how the company should handle what’s going on, for input on corporate statements. It can be overwhelming.
My advice is rooted in my experience having been a token Black woman myself: Embrace it. Embrace the opportunity to have a voice, and to take additional ownership. Use your leadership to bring other people of color up. Share your thoughts. What’s more, be upfront that this is extra work. Be direct and ask for compensation — whether it’s a bonus or a raise. If you enjoy it, ask to have this work on DEI integrated into your role so you can continue holding a leadership position. Prove your worth, and then ask for the compensation you deserve.
Right now, I feel encouraged. I am in courage. I am expressing and feeling more courage than I did two weeks ago — to say something, to be forthcoming about my feelings. Right now, as Black employees, it’s difficult for others to impose negative consequences on us for sharing our perspectives. If I say something in a board meeting that others disagree with, or if I call somebody out and I get backlash — that's going to send a bad message throughout the organization. So I feel liberated in many ways.
This is a very hard time. But I’m not one who dwells in the horrible moments. I really don't. I kind of want to deal with it and move onward and upwards. What’s the alternative? To just swim in the negative? It’s just so painful, and while I’m there for a moment, I choose to continue visualizing my way out. Of course, your visualizations don’t always come to fruition just because you want them to. But often when it doesn’t, it pushes you out of the nest to do what you're meant to do next.