Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are shining the spotlight on the diverse journeys of women of color in sports – from veteran athletes to rising stars, coaches, executives and more – in the series, Elle-evate: 100 influential black women in sport.
Monique Nelson has made her life’s work caring for others. As president and CEO of UniWorld Group, the oldest black marketing agency in the country, the Brooklyn native has taken her perspective around the world, from Beijing to Seoul, Guangzhou, São Paulo and Milan to begin with. At UniWorld Group, Nelson and her team are focused on adding diverse perspectives to the mainstream, including working with ESPN the undefeated and launch a new NIL program for black college athletes in the fall. But this kind of work isn’t new to Nelson.
Prior to taking over the agency from founder Bryon Lewis in May 2012, Nelson was the global leader of entertainment marketing at Motorola, ensuring that people of color and the poor could “participate”, in his words, in digital culture as it slowly took over. globe account. Now 12 years into managing the agency, she reflects on the international journey she took to end up back in her hometown at UniWorld, and her work to address prejudices surrounding the exceptionalism and perfectionism of people of color across the world.
Long before traveling the world, Nelson was at home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a classically trained vocalist attending LaGuardia High School and working towards her future at Vanderbilt University. “I was lucky enough to get the Posse Scholarship in my senior year, for schools looking for more inclusive campuses,” she recalls. The Posse Foundation is a youth leadership development and college access program that offers full leadership scholarships to public high school students with Posse’s partner colleges and universities. Nelson, who currently serves on the foundation’s New York Advisory Board, was on its pilot for the program with Vanderbilt. “We had the second black prom queen. We had the second president of the Black Student Government Association. If I look back now, this [experience] I started my whole inclusion thought process by being the answer,” says Nelson. “Solving problems is actually a lot easier when you have all the perspectives.”
Nelson left Vanderbilt to take up his role at Motorola, where he was keen to ensure that people of color and of different socio-economic status were considered in the burgeoning digital markets for new technologies. “I really cut my teeth on technology; I managed to do this globally. There were a lot of innovation centers around the world. One in Japan, one in Shibuya where they make all the games, one in India, one in Milan for fashion,” she says. “This is probably like 2000, maybe ’99. For the United States, this technology was still a novelty. But you would go somewhere else and everybody already had a phone, and they were doing amazing things with it, accessories, matching clothes.”
Nelson believes her time abroad has given her an international perspective, which has been a constant advantage as she has led companies to more intentional cultural fluency and nuances. “I was grateful to be on this team to be able to experience this important culture, everywhere,” she says. “I couldn’t do the same thing in Milan as I would in the UAE or Dubai, right? I had to think a lot about what culture meant – even if the telephone was ubiquitous; people were not.”
Her current role has allowed Nelson to continue her cultural fluency and advocacy work at the UniWorld Group, the company’s oldest black marketing agency, founded in 1969. She joined the UWG in 2007 as an Account Director, before quickly becoming the head of brand entertainment and integration, at exactly the same time that global internet culture was booming. She recalls that Lewis valued his leadership’s digital mindset, something he was less fluent in due to the generation gap.
“We realized that it will no longer just be TV, radio and print media. You have the internet, this digital space, which will come to life.” This put her in another unique position to ensure that underrepresented groups were considered, as these emerging technologies dominated the entire world. “I was kind of sitting in a lot of the meetings, just making sure that they wouldn’t forget about us, or that they wouldn’t forget that black people would be a part of this,” she says. “People of color would also participate, so don’t leave us out.”
When global brands and companies arrived at black leadership agencies in the summer of 2020, Nelson and his team were more than ready. “If we weren’t built for this moment, I don’t know who works. It was just the quintessential moment when you think it’s dark. But I looked at that moment and saw true clarity,” she says. “People can really see what’s going on, right now, and we’re going to take this as an opportunity to support each other in our purpose. We had purpose before purpose was a thing.”
Today, Nelson is focused on being a strong example of loving leadership for her two children and supporting her partner. She hopes future generations – and especially women of color who want to run companies and change industries – will keep her network in mind and value those who keep us grounded in reality. “I would say a strong bond of partnership, a strong community is the key to success at any level,” she says. “You’re never good at this all the time. You just need to have people around you who will be like, Okay, sorry for my French, but that wasn’t nice. Right? Just to give you that relief and that ability to be your best self. Don’t be afraid to mess up. You make much more progress when you make a mistake. It’s not always up to you.
When it comes to brands that haven’t achieved the kind of equity Nelson advocates, his advice is simple. “Brands that are truly customer and consumer focused are hypersensitive to this now and should be focused. If you don’t have a multicultural strategy or at least a point of view in your diverse market, I don’t know how you’re going to do in business,” she says. “The brilliance of finding the facts is that you found them; you cannot ‘unfind’ it. That’s what we’re trying to do, raise awareness. It never goes away. Difference and fear are always intertwined; they will never go away. We just have to know they are there and get people to deconstruct and think about what that means at work.”
Naya Samuel is a contributor to the Empower Onyxa diverse, multi-channel platform that celebrates the stories and transformative power of sports for women and girls of color.