Gianina Thompson refuses to be put in a box. She entered into the workforce at 21 and has been on the up and up ever since.
Hailing from Hampton, Virginia, Gianina is a former college rower who has seen her career in sports evolve from an associate at Foot Locker at sixteen years old to becoming a senior publicist at ESPN, and recently becoming the Communications Brand Manager for Converse, North America region at age 27. She knew that Sports Public Relations was her career path of choice when she received her bachelor’s and masters at Old Dominion University.
But here’s the thing about Gianina, her grind does not stop when her workday ends. Not only does she embody the voice of Converse’s brand, but she also regularly showcases her own voice as a contributor for InStyle and ESPN’s Undefeated. Her multidimensional approach to navigating her career and how she seeks out opportunities has allowed her to maximize experiences and see her dreams come to fruition. For Gianina, trusting the process and doing the work go hand in hand. When Her Agenda had a chance to catch up with the rising PR and Communications guru, she gave us insight into how she has accomplished so much before 30.
Her Agenda: It appears PR and Communications has been your career-track since college with you holding both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in the field, how much of an advantage, if any, do you believe this placed you in jump-starting your career?
Gianina Thompson: When I left college at 21, I thought that companies and opportunities would be knocking down my door. I quickly learned, that the real world does not function that way. Here I was with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Public Relations, and several major internship experiences, but I quickly realized that there were so many other people out there seeking job opportunities who had all of my credentials plus so much more. Once I realized that my degrees didn’t make me special, I knew that I had to think outside of the box in order to make myself stand out. It was important that I put myself and my interests out there and truly [grasped] the power of building relationships. Networking was about more than just collecting business cards for me. When I started out, every time I made a new connection, I was checking in every month and giving them an update on what I have been working on or how I applied a piece of advice they shared with me. This kept me top of mind so if something ever came their way, I was already on their radar.
Her Agenda: I know that being the Editor-in-Chief for a major lifestyle magazine was the original career goal, but it then transitioned to sports PR in college, do you think it is ever too late for someone’s career aspirations to evolve and change?
Gianina Thompson: As long as you have air in your lungs, it is never too late. Naturally as humans, we are multidimensional and constantly changing. That in itself gives us permission to up and take a totally different path. Just as it is okay for me to work in PR and write for a lifestyle site like InStyle, it is just as okay for a doctor who loves medicine to up and decide to pursue a career as an actor. Look at Lebron and Serena, they are more than just the sport they dominate. They have layers and proudly live in each of them. We aren’t meant to be put in a box, and if someone tries to put you in a box, break away from that box. Live in all of your dimensions. If you are curious about something, take a chance on that curiosity and see where it may lead.
Her Agenda: I’m sure that at this stage of your career, there are opportunities coming to you from every direction, before taking on a new position, responsibility, or title, what are some things you consider as part of your decision-making process?
Gianina Thompson: It comes down to whether that organization not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk. A commitment to diversity and inclusion is extremely important to me. If an organization says they are committed to diversity, there should be a real showing that diverse voices are heard at every level and especially in leadership. My presence can’t just be checked off on a list, my opinion and my voice has to be valued. Also, being a Black woman, it is important for an organization to realize that I do not speak for all Black people, nor do I speak for all women. Neither groups are monoliths and deserve different perspectives and representations.
Her Agenda: I know the PR field requires creativity and out of the box thinking on a daily basis, do you believe “bringing all of you to work” is important for you to produce to best quality work-output?
Gianina Thompson: It is extremely necessary. If not, I’m cheating myself and the organization if I don’t…I’m a representation for a community and I must show through my everyday work that there are dimensions to that community. Everyday I show them the type of Black woman I am. If I begin to shy away from any part of me, then the organization may be missing out on a great idea that has the potential to push the organization’s vision forward as well as propel my career.
Her Agenda: As a young African-American woman thriving in corporate America, how do you approach this expectation of having to be “twice as good to get half as much?” in your career?
Gianina Thompson: To me, it’s all about having the mindset to not only think about the work you are doing, but also the legacy you are leaving behind. When I look at all of the layers to Lebron James’s enterprise —outside of basketball, he is an entrepreneur, producer, and philanthropist. While it’s no surprise, he could have just been the greatest basketball player of all time and been fine with that. But instead, he tapped to something deeper to bring something to the world that is bigger than just the sport. For me, while being twice as good is important, knowing what I can do to leave my mark is what matters most.
Her Agenda: Outside of work, you are also a contributing writer for The Undefeated and InStyle, why is finding time to also write outside of your busy work schedule important to you?
Gianina Thompson: Working in PR, your voice is the voice of the brand. Having a voice that is being heard or read is super important to me. It makes me better at doing PR as well, because I know what media and consumers are interested in. Finding balance to do things that has nothing to do with my regular job is important for mental health reasons. Because I’m a people person, I vibe off of human interactions. When I interview people, I pick up on their energy and it feeds me beyond the time I am with them. I can take away what is being shared with me during an interview and apply to my own journey. While I have no plans to fit into a box, I still want to be excellent in what I do. I have learned to understand my limits and the power of saying no to something. I have realized that if you are juggling too many things, you become mediocre in most things. You still want to be the best of the best, so it’s important to be honest with yourself.
Her Agenda: Women make up the majority of junior and mid-level Public Relations roles, but only 30 percent of leadership roles, why do you believe it is so important for women to have an equal opportunity to not only aspire, but also reach high-level management in PR and Communications?
Gianina Thompson: Companies can not lean on having one woman or minority in the executive level. Just because the company does not have a lot of women, it doesn’t mean you still can’t aspire to leadership.
Women like Jessica Mendoza, who became the first woman to hold the position of a full-time MLB analyst; or Doris Burke the first woman to be a full time NBA game analyst on TV. Just because they didn’t see it, doesn’t mean they did not aspire to that level. Even if you aren’t aspiring to be TV or sports analyst, it can be inspiring to anyone for them to apply to their own field or passion. Having that kind of legacy that is tailored to whoever is watching, listening or seeing. That’s one thing I loved most about being around at ESPN. At Converse, having a woman head is the norm whether you report to them or not. The people who make the big decisions are not just huddled in a room. It is not a closed door policy and so when you see it, you believe that you can do it and seeing that is inspiring.
Her Agenda: How have mentors or supervisors helped shape your leadership style and what do you believe makes a good leader?
Gianina Thompson: A good leader is not about self. Being a manager of people is one of the hardest jobs, because you are not just managing your career and climb, but the development of others. You have to let them make mistakes and learn on the journey. A good manager or leader has to think of every win as an us win. When someone on my team wins, that also means I win. Just because someone is good at their job does not mean they can be a good manager.
I have found it important in my career to have diversity amongst mentors, sharing their different perspectives. This results in no mentor giving me the same advice. There are people you would think would be good mentors, but they aren’t about the walk of mentorship, and that is okay. Unfortunately, I have sometimes found that women are more apprehensive to help another woman, because they do not want the competition. On the other hand men are sometimes more open to [mentor] because men don’t see you as a threat. Since they don’t see me as competition], that becomes an opportunity for me to use the advice they may share with me to my advantage to open up new doors for my career.
Her Agenda: Your career has recently transitioned from ESPN to Converse, what is one thing you expect to gain or learn from this new role?
Gianina Thompson: Basketball greats were sporting Converse on the Court back in the day. The state of basketball is in my DNA and has continued throughout my career. There [are so many] visible women in leadership roles, I expect that just being in their presence will help build me up, build my thought process and confidence levels. The biggest question that I will be answering is “How do I make my mark?” Wherever I go, I want to leave my mark.
Her Agenda: If you could give a young woman who looks at your career and aspires to the same journey, what’s one piece of advice you would share with her about what not to do?
Gianina Thompson: There are three things I would share. First—don’t be selfish. You have to be a mentor to others even early in your career. You can’t shut people out because you feel that they may rise higher than you or they are you biggest competition. God sees that and will reward of you. Secondly— your career will become exactly what you make of it. I could give you all of the advice, books, quotes of all the people who have dominated in what they do. But if you don’t tailor that for yourself and use it, then it is nothing.
Last but not least, get rid of that fear. Be your own competition, because you cannot mirror your journey to someone else’s. Even if that means not going on Instagram. Do what you need to do not to seep deep into comparison, because it will not do your journey any good.
Her Agenda: What is a motto you live by?
Gianina Thompson: This has been ingrained in my mind: Never hope for it, more than you work for it. Because there is a big difference between someone who is living the dream and the person just dreaming the dream. I’d much rather live it.
[Editor’s note: This interview published on October 15th 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.]