Having Black women embedded in company leadership across industries has never been more crucial as we head into a new landscape, where the very real possibility of electing the first Black woman Vice President of the United States has seen the country’s tolerance for gender and race-based inequities reach an unprecedented boiling point nationwide. For companies like LeBron James’ SpringHill imprint that have long been doing the real work towards closing the systemic racism-induced gaps present within the American workforce, there’s never been a better time to not only stay the course, but also create new opportunities that allow for qualified, deserving women to shine.
As the newly-minted Communications Director for the SpringHill conglomerate, Gianina Thompson is more than ready to put her brilliance, passion and fine-tuned skill set to work. A career alum of both Nike, Inc. and ESPN, Gianina credits her early beginnings as a Senior PR Specialist for Hampton University with birthing her passion for wanting to leave a trail of impact as a change agent against injustice and inequality that remained visible throughout her professional journey.
“At Hampton, I was just surrounded by that diversity of Black excellence,” she told ESSENCE. “In that role, I was able to handle the PR and journalism efforts for the University’s biggest headline events, which included working with people like Bishop TD Jakes and Bernard Shaw, who was one of CNN’s inaugural anchors, and National Urban League President Marc Morial, and even ESSENCE Magazine Founder Ed Lewis. So, I really found how I wanted to present myself as a Black leader and really first began to step into that during my time working at HU.”
While her ultimate dream was to do meaningful work as an Editor-In-Chief for a prominent entertainment or fashion publication, the Old Dominion University grad unexpectedly found her true calling when she sprung into action to help save the professional football career of a boyfriend after he was cut from his team. Her fearless, yet purposed, approach while cold-calling the offices of NFL coaches, agents and general managers helped develop the relationships with PR professionals in the sports world that would ultimately launch the career journey of a lifetime.
Gianina’s grind would soon present her with an opportunity to work as a PR assistant for the former Washington Redskins—a job that would prove a true test of her dedication to succeed. Stepping up to that challenge meant driving 6 hours roundtrip from Hampton to Washington D.C. in a single day, every week, to work the home games and still make it back to Virginia in time to stay afloat at her main job at Hampton University. It was also during this time that she would cultivate a professional friendship with Soledad O’Brien, whom she still credits as a mentor today. Gianina continues to offer her support as a donor for Soledad’s PowHERful foundation, which taps into providing financial assistance and mentorship for young girls and women in lower-income areas to really encourage them to not just dream, but pursue those dreams.
By the time she transitioned into what would be come a multi-hyphenate role as a writer and Senior Publicist at ESPN, before joining Nike, Inc as a Communications Manager on the Converse brand four years later, a young yet tenacious Gianina was more than ready for it all.
“At ESPN, I was able to story-tell,” she says. “I managed publicity for the NBA and the MLB and in those cases, I meshed sports with culture, including fashion, entertainment and music. A few years later, I joined Nike Inc, where I really got to be a part of helping Converse get back into basketball. I started working with Draymond Green, Natasha Cloud and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the athlete side, while also taping into influencer marketing by developing communications campaigns outside of sports with Tyler the Creator and Vince Staples.”
While graduating with both your Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees by age 21 (yes, you read that right) is undoubtedly the mark of someone built to rise to any occasion, Gianina admits that her career path hasn’t been one without some of the very same obstacles that so many Black women continue to face everyday.
“A lot of times, I’ve been the only Black person on a team or in the department and that’s part of the problem,” she says. “I unfortunately have had the experience of being that Black woman who has checked that DNI consciousness box for employers but, I absolutely refused to be someone who was their “safe” Black option who they could use as a puppet. I challenged them, I provided a point of view and to be honest, I demanded what I deserved because I worked for it. I didn’t always get what I wanted [laughs] but, I made sure it was known what I was working towards and that I wasn’t just doing this for a pat on the back and a “good job, Gia!”
“That’s not diverse, it’s not inclusive, it’s lazy, it’s disrespectful and at this point, it’s intentional because this is a problem that’s been brought to these companies’ attention directly, multiple times.”
Earlier this year, LeBron James and long-time business partner Maverick Carter announced plans to transform their SpringHill Entertainment company into a powerhouse media empire. To date, three previously individual entities have come together under one umbrella to form what it is now The SpringHill Company: Uninterrupted, which houses programs like HBO’s The Shop; SpringHill Entertainment, whose current credits include the Madame CJ Walker-inspired series Self Made on Netflix and the upcoming Space Jam sequel; and The Robot Company, which functions as the company’s partnership and marketing leg. In the weeks since the announcement, the newly-formed company has already snagged its’ first sports Emmy for the documentary, What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali Part I and launched their “More Than A Vote,” initiative focused on fighting voter suppression ahead of the upcoming election by encouraging the public to join them in taking action.
So when the time came to decude between joining SpringHill or taking a formidable position at a notable record label, for Gianina, the choice was a no-brainer.
“It was an easy decision because, while both offers were those “pinch me” type of jobs—and I am also super aware that I’m blessed to even have received two job offers in the middle of COVID—SpringHill isn’t just another company or brand, it’s a movement. And respectfully, it’s even bigger than LeBron. So, being part of a movement that is bigger than any one person is what really drove me here. Their company make up is a little over 100 employees total but, it’s around 64% people of color around 40% women. So, their DNI isn’t just in the talk or the walk. There’s excellence from across the board where everyone is bringing in a difference expertise in their portfolio. I’m so excited to just begin hustling with this team.”
“In this newly created role, I’ll be responsible for developing and executing the communications initiative within the media, consumer and entertainment industries across each of the company’s three pillars. Part of my role will be that storytelling to media in a way that people aren’t so blinded by being entertained that they missed those moments of like, the re-education of whitewashed history or, the unfiltered conversations across the ranging perspectives of Black and Brown communities.”
As inspiring as the SpringHill Company’s core mission is to an incoming team member, having a history-making superstar athlete who also doubles as a respected business mogul & activist at the helm doesn’t hurt either. Asked what she’s most looking forward to learning from LeBron, Gianina cites his limitless approach to how he hopes to continue to use his massive public platform to change the representation landscape in and outside of sports for the better—an approach that aligns well with her recent decision to stop referring to herself as a communications professional. These days, she’s proudly self-described as a “storyteller and truth-seeker,” namely one who’s left a solid trail of content that unapologetically highlights the importance of Black narratives and Black representation in entertainment and beyond.
“The first thing that comes to mind is a quote of his where he said he hopes that someday down the line, people will recognize and remember him not only for the way he approached the game of basketball, but the way he approached life as an African-American man,” Gianina says. “There’s so much to pull from that statement and for me, that embodies being more than whatever you’re most known for and turning that into something bigger than yourself. Making it your responsibility to impact generations in the now and the later. In any of the work that I have done and will do, the beauty in it is that my being a Black woman is in the front seat of my story-telling and truth seeking. There’s no detaching from it and like LeBron, I feel it my responsibility to be intentional in that. Not everyone is going to go out and protest or even have the money to donate substantially so, for me, my power is also in using my words.”
All in all, the kid from Virginia has found a professional home with the kid from Akron and together with their team, SpringHill is trailblazing the way towards shaking up the entertainment status quo through diverse, powerful storytelling in the name of truth, equality and social justice.
“LeBron said it best in the NBA Bubble, Black Lives Matter may be a movement to some but, it is a lifestyle for Black people. At the end of the day, I want to make sure my work is part of a movement that goes beyond just having a dream job, but truly pushing for equality to get to a place where it doesn’t have to be just a “dream” for anyone, anymore.”