MLSE diversity, inclusion executive looking to make a difference inside and out

·5 min read

TORONTO — Teri Dennis-Davies is looking to make a difference.

And the new senior vice-president, equity, diversity and inclusion at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment wants to do it inside and outside the sports and entertainment behemoth.

The American-born Dennis-Davies, who has called Toronto home since 2011, is now in her fourth month on the job. Some fruits of that labour came out Thursday in the form of an open letter from Dennis-Davies and MLSE president and CEO Michael Friisdahl, accompanied by a written commitment to address systemic racism and advance social justice.

"We recognize that MLSE and its platform is just one small part of a solution to a problem that has plagued our society for generations, but we also know that our influence, and our ability to help make positive change happen in our society, can be powerful and enduring,” Friisdahl wrote.

Fullback Justin Morrow, who spent the last seven seasons in Toronto FC colours, was quick to react.

"This is AMAZING!!" tweeted Morrow, who doubles as executive director of Black Players for Change.

Dennis-Davies is quick to note that MLSE was already working on diversity and social justice before she got there. Executives like the Raptors' Masai Ujiri, Toronto FC's Ali Curtis and the Argos' Pinball Clemons come with powerful, eloquent voices.

In looking around MLSE, Dennis-Davies says she sees "a tremendous amount of support and commitment to doing things differently."

But like everywhere, there is more to do.

"I have really enjoyed my time so far," she said. "It has been busy. It has been fast-paced."

Coming out of law school, her goal was to work in employment law and her resume shows that with a range of corporate jobs revolving around human resources.

"This (MLSE) role feels like the culmination of my career. It feels like it was designed based on my collective experiences in HR and using even my background in law," Dennis-Davies said in her first interview since taking the job.

"It just feels like the right role for me at the right time," she added.

For Dennis-Davies, who reports directly to Friisdahl, change comes in many forms.

A social justice message from a star player can reach a large audience. An assistant coach of colour behind the Maple Leafs bench can also speak volumes.

Daniels-Davies' vision is wide-ranging.

"An inclusive culture is not only applicable in the workplace, it's applicable in all aspects of our business. So when we think about the fan experience, we want to make it inclusive for all fans … When we talk about our impact through suppliers and partners, that reach is tremendous."

To that end, a supplier code of conduct is to be implemented, part of what Dennis-Davies calls MLSE being "intentional and explicit in our expectations."

An equity, diversity and inclusion leadership council chaired by the CEO is also planned, with its first meeting set for the next quarter. Dennis-Davies says there will also be employee inclusion groups.

"Because employees are wanting to be involved. They want the commitment that this is sustained activity, but they also want an opportunity and a mechanism for their voices to continue to be heard. And that's really important to us."

Company policies and practices will be applied "through a lens of inclusion."

MLSE is also committed to making improvement though its charitable arm, the MLSE Foundation, which has pledged to raise and invest more than $30 million over the next four years "to build equity through proven community investment streams that chip away at systemic barriers for thousands of youth."

MLSE has also pledged US$10 million to the NBA Foundation as part of its commitment to creating greater economic empowerment and prosperity in the Black community.

Dennis-Davies arrives in difficult times, with social justice and issues of systemic racism front and centre in a world struggling through a pandemic.

"But do I see opportunity in using this opportunity for positive advancement of change? Absolutely," she said.

Tanya Mruck, executive director of the MLSE Foundation, says Dennis-Davies is already making a difference.

"She's been really fantastic … What's nice now is there's a larger corporate strategy to align with," said Mruck. "And then you're seeing when people hear and see and feel that alignment, they get really excited. And it's really re-energized my team and my work. It's re-energized the support we get internally. So it's been a lot of fun."

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Dennis-Davies attended Rutgers and then University of Connecticut law school. She married a Bahamian, whom she met at law school, and spent time working in the Caribbean for RBC before coming to Toronto.

The couple have two kids, a son aged 16 and daughter aged 18.

Dennis-Davies recalls watched the video of George Floyd's death with her daughter. She calls it "a crushing experience emotionally."

"It wasn't something that I could actually finish watching with my daughter. It was too overwhelming from a human-level perspective," she recalled.

"It's complex in terms of my own frame of reference. I'm from the United States. I have four brothers, a father. I think about them when these type of incidents occur. And you see a lot of things sort of float through your mind. So it was very difficult. But what made it more difficult, I think, was seeing it through the reaction of my daughter who is just so young to have to see such a terrible incident of a man's life being taken on television.

"We are a close family that talks a lot. And I think many Black people had to compartmentalize those emotions and continue with what they were doing. I had work to do and so I think that made it even more challenging to deal with."

Last July, the Raptors named John Wiggins their vice-president, organizational culture and inclusion. Wiggins has been tasked with leading the campaign to address social injustice, inclusion, equity and political reform.

MLSE is also seeking a director to support the other teams in its stable in a similar manner.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press