Gianina Thompson never had teenage girl aspirations to work at ESPN. In fact, while still fresh in college, she dreamt of becoming an Editor-in-Chief for magazines like Seventeen, Teen Vogue and Cosmopolitan. But, she did always seem to have a sort of OD amount of hustle and drive that I would say has equipped her for her current tasks as senior publicist at ESPN.
Graduating at 21 years old with both her bachelor’s and her master’s degrees was no easy feat. It required 18 credit hours per semester including summers. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Gianina became a Division I athlete on the rowing team, practicing six times a week, doing conditioning and weights two to three times a week, going to athletic study hall throughout the week, and working part-time at her university, Old Dominion.
Seven years later, she hasn’t slowed down since. Our conversation proves it, as Gianina found a quiet cozy spot tucked away in the corner of a train station for us to chat, while she waited for her train to arrive and take her to New York City for a work project.
How Gianina Thompson Became Senior Publicist at ESPN MELISSA RAWLINS
Gianina describes her alignment with ESPN as magical and God-sent, noting that, “Sometimes passion and opportunity reveal themselves to you before you have that dream or goal inside.”
But I wanted to dive deeper and take a peek behind the curtains to discover the realities of what it’s like to be both young and one of the few women of color working in “the boys club” that is the sports industry.
Adunola Adeshola: I know jumping into the corporate world at 21 years old had to be tough. What’s one thing you wish you would’ve known when you started your career?
Gianina Thompson: We live in a society that takes on various isms, but I’ll focus more on ageism. A lot of times people are qualified with experiences and exposure. They have a bomb track record. But, because of their age or because they look young, it becomes a distraction.
I’ve been in meetings where I’ve been second guessed because they’re assuming my age is too young in comparison to who they’re used to dealing with, feeling like they got the help, instead of the expert.
Being a seasoned professional is not about age. It’s about hustle, grind, determination and creativity. I remember earlier in my career, a national TV reporter stood over me with her finger in my face, while I was sitting down, and she said, “Little girl, don’t let me get Atlanta Housewives on you.” She followed up with, “This industry is small and I can ruin you like that” and she snapped her fingers.
And, I don’t keep that top of mind, but I do remember that. I could’ve let that intimidate me and really make me sink as a young professional. But, I’ve learned that everyone is not going to be for you, or be your cheerleader and that’s ok. Be your own cheerleader and keep striving.
But, I wish I did know when I entered the real world that nothing is going to be given to you. I remember when I graduated college, I was like, “I’m 21 years old, I have two degrees, I’m a former college athlete, I interned at a news station, and I have pretty good references.” I thought jobs would just be coming from left to right, and that was not the case. Even though those were big accomplishments, a thousand more recent college graduates did that, plus more. So, the question became, “How else am I going to stand out?” Furthermore, “What else do I need to do in the waiting period?”
On top of that, not to make it so much about race, but I’m a black woman. I don’t see it as a challenge but more so as an opportunity to show: don’t underestimate me. It motivates me and reminds me that things aren’t always going to be fair, but if I just sit around and talk about how it’s not fair, that’s not going to get me anywhere.
Adeshola: It’s one thing to know who you are, but it’s another thing to be able to project that in a respectful and assertive way. So, in that moment, when the national TV reporter said that to you, how were you able to combat that, and how do you continue to do so in similar situations?
Thompson: As far as combating that, I’ve always been a doer. It’s in my hustle. I also think it’s okay to cry. But, I’m not going to cry in front of you. I’m not going to give you that.
But, I don’t think it makes me weak if I need a moment to internalize, “Oh my gosh, did she really say that?” Or, “Why can’t I get to this next level or chapter in my career?” But I also feel like you give yourself that moment, and then you move on. Use it as a teaching moment.
You know how people say, “I remember all of my haters.” I’m not going to give someone that much power, that’s too much power. Instead, I just make the mental note. But, I’m not putting it in my back pocket, I’m throwing it away because I don’t need your energy. I don’t need your vibes. Words have power so I’m not going to have those words inside my heart, even if it’s just for motivation.
Adeshola: What advice do you have for young professionals who believe it’s hard to break into PR?
Thompson: Invest in yourself. If you can’t invest in yourself, why would an employer? When I was working at Hampton University, on weekends I would drive three hours to Washington, D.C. to work Redskins home games and I would drive three hours back.
I used my vacation days to work for the Redskins so that I could attend rookie camps, training camps, week day and weekend home games. I knew I needed that exposure and more importantly, I wanted that mentorship from Tony Wyllie, the Redskins senior vice president of communications. He had such strong reputation that he built from nothing and I didn’t want to just speak to him on the phone, I wanted to learn from him firsthand.
Adeshola: I always say that networking is an untapped goldmine that most job hunters rarely use. How would you describe the concept of networking?
Thompson: I hate the word networking because I feel some people just see it as, “How many business cards can I get?” Or, “Let me stunt on the ‘gram and show who I’ve met at this place or that place.” But, it should be about forming relationships.
People have to learn how to network. Don’t just reach out to someone when you see a job opening and ask them to put in a good word for you. You need to be curious about the person and their journey. Reach out to them when you see that their company did something cool or when you notice that they spoke on a panel. Check in with them about what you’ve been doing that mirrors advice that they gave you. I did that. I still do that.
I always keep in mind what Robin Roberts, Good Morning America anchor, said, “Success leaves clues but you have to personalize it.” That drives me. It inspires me to meet new people and to learn about them.
That goes back to how I got the job at ESPN. The people that I knew at ESPN weren’t just like, “I met this girl at this conference and here’s her resume.” No, they were like, “I’ve known this girl for two years because she’s kind of annoying. She emails me every two weeks, following-up on the advice I gave her and asking for more advice on what else can she do.” I seriously was that person and that is a job on its own, following-up with people and updating them.
I reached out to someone on the communications team and she gave me advice that I needed more sports exposure, so I followed up with her and told her that I’ve been going to the Redskins camp and doing more. Then, she replied that I should go meet more writers, so I went to conferences that allowed me to meet more sports writers, even though I wasn’t a writer. I knew that if I wanted to succeed at sports public relations, I needed to meet sports writers, and develop that rolodex so that if I wanted to pitch ideas I could do so to people who know me. Because at the end of the day, you could have a whole bunch of contacts. But will they pick up the phone when you call?
Writers, and people in general are always getting emails, pitches and phone calls, but what’s going to make you stand out for them to pick up?
Adeshola: You also write and host digital videos for espnW and ESPN’s The Undefeated entertainment and culture verticals, on top of your other duties. What would you say to young professionals who believe it’s impossible to add new, fresh and exciting responsibilities to their current position?
Thompson: I live by two things. One, “Never hope for it, more than you work for it.” Two, “Don’t put me in a box, or I’ll break that box.”
I do PR. Yes. I love PR. Yes. But that doesn’t mean that has to define everything I do. And, that’s a good thing. You don’t ever want to commit to just the responsibilities of your title. You have to diversify your knowledge and insert yourself in meetings that may have nothing to do with what you do. You have to have a better understanding of how things work around you because it enhances collaboration, strategic thinking and creativity. You have to be a Jack or Jacquelyn of all trades.
I created the opportunity, it didn’t come to me, and I think that makes it an even stronger case. A lot of times people say, “Oh you do PR, I never thought you’d be interested in this.” But that’s what happens when networking is focused on relationship building, because that usually turns into friendships, and then friendships a lot of times turn into collaborations and opportunities.
Adeshola: We’re in this time in society where women are learning to be more supportive but, if we’re honest, it’s still not the case all the time. Some women just aren’t supportive. So, how influential has it been to have women mentors and how have you been able to find them?
Thompson: First off, there is a glass ceiling for women, unlike there is for men. Women make up 46% of entry level positions but only a handful of them make it to C-suite level positions.
There’s no finish line for us, just milestones. And, that ignites a fire, an inner drive and determination that doesn’t just assume a promotion or opportunity. We have to work so much harder.
That’s why it’s so important to have women mentors. When we stand together, we’re stronger. When we teach each other, pass on knowledge and give real advice, it helps us know that we’re not alone and that we can get passed the issues we experience and overcome those obstacles.
I believe that each generation of woman professionals should be getting wiser, because we shouldn’t have to experience the trials and errors of previous generations. But like you said, not every women is going to support your success.
It’s a dog eat dog world sometimes, and there are women who are selfish and who feel threatened by giving tips and advice to another woman. Because, keeping it real, the advice you give to another woman – younger or older – could be used to take your job or your responsibilities down the line. I think that’s where the fear comes from, but that’s something we have to get passed. And, I know a lot of women who do have those issues.
I value women in the same department and company but I also extremely push for women to find women mentors outside of their departments, outside of their company and outside of who looks like them. You have to diversify your relationships so you too can become diverse in how you think, strategize and collaborate.
As far as meeting different people, it’s about getting exposed to different things. I would go to conferences, and panels. And, they’re not always cheap. But, again, you have to invest in yourself. If you can’t invest in yourself, how do you want someone else to invest in you?
Plus, everyone always wants free labor. Offer to volunteer to pass out pamphlets and you have a free ticket to be there and you gain that exposure. Just because you’re passing out pamphlets doesn’t mean you can’t say, “Hey, my name is Gianina Thompson. I’m an aspiring PR professional. I’d love to just pick your brain on a few things. Do you have five minutes? Can I take you to coffee?”
That’s how you build relationships with people, and you don’t stop once you get a job or even once you get your dream job. You have to make sure that you’re learning from people who are not just older than you or with bigger titles but from people who are just coming up too.
Adeshola: Lately, I’ve been immersed in the concept that work/life balance doesn’t exist, and that fulfillment in life is much more important than how much or how little one works week by week. As a millennial and hard working professional, who’s constantly on the go, in what ways do you ensure both a healthy personal and professional life?
Thompson: That’s a hard one. It’s something I still struggle with because even with a dream job, your life can’t only revolve around that. Your best moments and the cool things you talk about would always just be work related. And, in the world of PR and journalism, it’s always about everything and everyone else, but you.
You have to find something that makes it about you to keep that balance. For me, I learned how to horseback ride, that’s something I always wanted to do. Then, I took it a step further and I bought my dog, a Dalmatian, a little over a year ago and he means the world to me.
Everyone, including my mom, thought I was crazy because of my workload and the amount of time I travel and the fact that I would be raising a puppy alone. I won’t lie, it was hard at first, but I needed something, or in this case, some pet, that would make it about me and that would force me to break from not only doing work, but thinking about work. So, my dog makes it about him and me and ignites happiness that has nothing to do with work and that’s the great thing about it.
Adeshola: For young professionals who feel like they’re stuck in their career, what’s one thing that you would suggest that they focus on?
Thompson: Talking to as many people as possible, without wanting something. Be curious. Yes, as a young professional you want that dream job. So, speak to people who have that dream job. But, also speak to people who have jobs that you never thought would be your dream job. You never know, you might like something that you never knew that job could do. Build relationships, not contacts.
That person you connect with today may get a new job at a company you want to work for down the line, and now you’ve built a relationship where they could be rebuilding a team and they think of you. Now, they’re reaching out to you because of what they know you’ve accomplished, even if they’ve never worked with you directly.
But don’t just invest in one person, you have to do that across the map because not everyone you look to will have the time to be that mentor for you, but you will find the right people.
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