Shawn Small: It’s time to make diversity a business imperative

—It is Black History Month, and every day this month, The Message will be sharing short profiles of Black professionals from across the industry: marketing, advertising, PR, media and production. Written by POCAM members, the profiles are a way to “fight invisibility,” an exercise in representation for an industry where representation must get better—

Shawn Small, founder and president of Rise Integrated Sports + Entertainment, has been in the sports marketing industry for more than 20 years.

He was attracted to the industry in part because he believed his unique perspective on the world could bring new ideas and fresh approaches to the sector. He also saw it as an opportunity to “deliver positive impacts on society through the promotion of diverse and inclusive advertising campaigns.”

Small graduated from the Sports Business Management program at Durham College, and secured an internship at MLSE. That internship turned into a successful nine-year career at the sports industry giant, where he built a legacy of inclusion and excellence.

Despite working at some of the biggest companies in the industry, Small believes there still is underrepresentation of BIPOC professionals, which means the industry is missing out on a diverse range of perspectives, experiences, and ideas that can help create more effective and impactful partnerships. It also means that BIPOC talent is excluded from opportunities for career growth and advancement, which can perpetuate inequality and impact diversity at higher levels of the industry.

The path to an industry’s highest echelons is never straight, and it can be made even more difficult when faced with discrimination based on the colour of your skin. “After experiencing systemic racism within several organizations throughout my professional career, I have become much wiser,” says Small. “I know the importance of speaking up and taking action when faced with discrimination: Whether it is ‘calling in’ a colleague or friend for using a derogatory term, or reporting a case of discrimination to a higher authority.

“By doing so, we can help create a more inclusive, respectful workplace, where everyone feels valued and respected.”

Along with the courage to speak up, Small is here to provide solutions. “First and foremost, the industry must focus on increasing diversity in hiring practices and make it a permanent business imperative,” he says.

“Like all performance indicators for successful businesses, the industry should measure its success by curating a diverse workforce that includes people from different races, genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Companies can ensure they are reaching diverse candidates by partnering with organizations that focus on underrepresented groups”

So what continues to inspire and drive him to succeed after two decades in the industry? He credits mentors like Suzanne Duncan, who have pushed him in his career development to take on new challenges and “swim in bigger ponds.”

No pond is bigger than venturing out on your own as an entrepreneur and small business owner. In October 2022, Small opened the doors to Rise Integrated Sports + Entertainment, a turnkey strategic consulting services leading with diverse, inclusive, innovative solutions, partnering with organizations such as Hockey Equality—which creates programs for BIPOC, female and disadvantaged youth hockey players.

“By highlighting the struggles, triumphs, and unique experiences of BIPOC athletes, we challenge preconceived notions [and] stereotypes while promoting diversity and inclusion in the sports marketing industry,” he says.

Small has also taken on the role of director, global partners with Project 8 Sports Inc. “It is our vision to launch a women’s professional soccer league in 2025 that is founded on the principles of inclusion, community, and identity,” he says. “Our goal is to validate the perception of Canada as a global leader in sport and gender equality.”

We asked for his advice for those looking for inspiration to reach the next level in their careers. “Build a strong foundation of knowledge and skills,” he says. “Develop a network of contacts and nurture those relationships. Find a mentor, be persistent, and embrace your unique perspective.

And, he says, “bring your A-game always—you are not measured by the same ruler as everyone else.”

This POCAM BHM 2023 profile was written by Julian Franklin, VP, Partnership Development & Strategy MLSE, Co-Founder, POCAM and founder, FMG.