BALTIMORE — Under Armour looked no farther than its own Baltimore backyard to launch what it considers a key piece of a sweeping global initiative designed to break down barriers limiting access to sports.
In an effort to attract a more diverse workforce, Under Armour debuted a career preparation program at Morgan State University, just 8 miles from its Locust Point headquarters. The athletic apparel brand said it expects to expand such events to other historically Black colleges and universities.
Under Armour, which models its culture on that of athletes, calling workers “teammates,” for instance, ran the intensive, three-day program like an athletic combine. During the “Career Combine,” 50 Morgan students were given a crash course in designing, making, promoting and selling apparel and footwear, before forming teams to test their skills in a case competition.
By forming partnerships with HBCUs across the U.S., Under Armour said it’s aiming to break down barriers to students of color in classrooms, on the field and in jobs.
“Our goal is to empower these students and create a pipeline of top talent,” said Ashley Brown, Under Armour’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion. “We set out with this expanded partnership with Morgan State University to develop a blueprint for how we can elevate our work with HBCUs and [Hispanic-serving institutions] in the future.”
Much of the corporate world has scrutinized internal culture and policies in the past two years, ever since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked a reckoning on racial injustice. Employers have re-examined everything from diversity on their boards to hiring practices.
Under Armour looked at its management, vowing in June 2020 to improve racial diversity. CEO Patrik Frisk told employees at the time the leadership team had heard Black employees express “anger to frustration to exhaustion” over the history of social injustice in the U.S.
Under Armour has had its own struggles. A former executive sued the company in 2019 alleging racial discrimination. The parties reached a settlement in that case.
“We recognized the immense responsibility we have to do so much more,” Frisk said.
In February, Under Armour announced its partnership with Morgan State. In addition to the Career Combine, plans include giving the university’s coaches access to a virtual space called UA Coaches Armoury, which offers tools for training and developing student-athletes. And at least two Morgan students will be offered internships and mentoring through Under Armour’s UA Rookie program.
The company said it’s working toward a goal of recruiting more than 15% of its interns this summer from HBCUs.
Such partnerships are an important way to “support future leaders,” Brown said.
“To successfully diversify our pipeline,” she said, “we need a focus on sourcing prime early career talent, and HBCUs are institutions that produce high-performing students.”
During the Morgan Career Combine, held virtually during the college’s spring break, students learned from Under Armour employees about designing, promoting and selling sports apparel and footwear. They were offered career and leadership tips. Then, students teamed up and were given a challenge that Under Armour executives grapple with daily — create a campaign, product and experience that captures the attention and emotions of target customers, young adults the company calls “focused performers.”
Students competed for $10,000 scholarships for each winning team participant. Working virtually, students brainstormed ideas, assigned tasks and in some cases worked after combine hours. On the final day, each group presented their ideas to a panel of Under Armour executives acting as judges.
Even before Nia Cowling was assigned to a team, the junior from Pikesville said the experience paid off big. Cowling said she had decided to pursue business in college because she believes more Black women should be involved in the business world. The event allowed her to meet professionals in her potential future field of marketing and hear behind-the-scenes stories, such as how basketball star Stephen Curry worked closely with the brand to design his signature shoes.
“At the end of the day, even if my team isn’t the winning team, I’ve still come out on top,” the 21-year-old marketing major told herself.
Cowling’s team, however, went on to win.
“Their pitch showed collaboration, global thinking and authenticity to Under Armour’s purpose and values,” Brown said. “They presented with clarity and poise.”
Cowling’s “Team Inspire” focused on ways to support athletes’ mental health. The campaign highlighted stories of Baltimore-born college athletes and others including swimming superstar Michael Phelps, showing how they overcame mental health obstacles. It included an outreach component through a community-based organization and proposed mental health education in sports leagues.
The “Be Your Best You” campaign also included a line of customizable apparel and accessories featuring motivational quotes by well-known athletes.
Heather Wyatt-Nichol, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs, said it’s become more common since 2020 to see partnerships between private and philanthropic sectors and minority-serving colleges as a way to promote diversity. But more such programs are needed, she said.
“Under Armour as just one corporate citizen within the larger community of Baltimore … is providing the opportunity for students … to develop their skills and career trajectory” she said. “I would love to see more private businesses getting involved, and I’d like to see greater collaboration and partnerships.”
Emmanuel Durojaiye, Gabrielle Timpson and Dimitri Watat stand together for a picture on Morgan State University’s campus April 12. The students all won recognition for their proposals in a case study competition held at Under Armour’s first “Career Combine.”