Kevin Martinez, ESPN’s vice president of Corporate Citizenship, oversees all aspects of the company’s citizenship initiatives including corporate giving, volunteerism, cause marketing and sustainability.
As an industry veteran, Martinez is responsible for ESPN’s strategic programs that enable both greater access to sports and leadership through sports. He leads ESPN’s sponsorship of Special Olympics, which has helped more than 1.6 million athletes, teammates and coaches join the Unified Sports movement.
Additionally, Martinez manages ESPN’s ongoing collaboration and fundraising efforts with the V Foundation, which have generated nearly $100 million toward cancer research programs. He also successfully launched the inaugural Sports Humanitarian Awards, celebrating and honoring athletes, teams and nonprofits for using the power of sports to make a positive impact on society.
ESPN named Martinez vice president of Corporate Citizenship in February 2013. He joined the company in 2011 as senior director, Corporate Outreach, where he led the company’s global volunteerism efforts and cause-marketing projects.
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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcasts. This is a very special edition that I’ve got with me today, Kevin Martinez. He’s the Vice President of Corporate Citizenship at ESPN. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Kevin.
Kevin Martinez: Well, hello, and thank you for letting me be here today. I’m very excited. You’re talking my language, impact, and sports. So, I couldn’t be more excited to spend an hour with you today.
John: And that’s really an honor for me and an honor for our listeners and our viewers. And Kevin, before we get talking about all the amazing impacts you’ve made at ESPN since you’ve been there in 2011, can we hear a little bit about the Kevin Martinez background story? Where did you grow up and how did you even get on this wonderful journey that you’ve been on?
Kevin: You bet. Let me start with that the story I tell you is really important for practitioners in this space. I’m giving a speech in Denver to be civic about this very issue, which is… The opportunity for people in our practice is to bring your whole self to the practice of corporate responsibility, ESG, sustainability, social impact, whatever you may call it, citizenship. The reason that’s important is because we are the sum of many of our parts. But because of our role to be able to define those, to express those, to standardize them, and to engage others within communities like this is what the companies need is to bring people forward, to expand the audience, develop new markets, also do social impact.
It’s important that we can express those. And so thank you for letting me tell my story. I will try to go quickly, but I am a man of many histories. I’ll just let you know that my parents, my mother just passed away a couple of years ago in impacts related to COVID. That’s deeply personal to me. I was born in Denver, Colorado, my father is Mexican and Native American, Navajo Indian. My mother is European, as you can possibly imagine, Irish, Swedish, and French. Anyway, they met in Sheridan High School in Colorado, they had a my brother at a very young age, but they stayed together. My dad finished high school, but my mom did not. They lived with my grandparents, and who were not of wealthy means.
They lived in a chicken coop behind my mother’s mother’s house, just to give people an idea. I mean, it wasn’t at the time, I mean, everything is about space and time. At the time, I’m sure that they had run an extension cord out and all that type of stuff. I don’t want to in any way make it more difficult or more movie like set like, they had no place to go. And there was a lot of need for resources. So, my dad joined the military to help build his family. He was second generation Mexican American. He joined the Navy, having never seen the ocean. He joined it specifically so that he could get hazardous duty pay, which was the most expensive pay you could get in one place. And he became a deep sea diver.
Then he became a scuba diver and then underwater demolition. Then he trained Navy SEALs to give you the progression of his career and was a renowned educator in the space, one of the first to actually do scuba and to to do the elements. I mean, this is back in the day. My mother was an amazing woman who helped raise three kids, actually four kids and really struggled. But the cool thing for me, now it’s about me is that when my dad became a member of the armed forces in the Navy, we moved to Hawaii. I grew up in Hawaii. I am a product of Hawaii and I am very proud of that. I did not live my whole life in Hawaii, but we moved there when I was about two years old and I stayed there until I was in, I think, third, fourth grade.
I went to Pearl City Elementary School which is the very top of Pearl Harbor. We lived in Quonset huts and a Navy housing. I can remember to this day, my brother going to school and us going to the school. This is, remember right after, I’m 62 years old that this was right after seven, eight, it would have been sixty nine, sixty eight. This would have been not too long after World War Two. And so a heavy military presence there about 15 years. But this is still a very much a new state to the union, the patriotism, the understanding of the culture, the misunderstanding of the Hawaiian culture was a very big part of my life. I went on to go to Radford High School, which was in Honolulu in Pearl Harbor. But it was actually like a charter school for military kids around. So, you had to test in. At the time, there weren’t great high schools on Oahu. So, you could test into this one school, which was really built for this military community.
To this day, some of my best friends in the world. I went to school at Radford while our President Obama went to Punahou. We played basketball. I’ll tell you a little story later about meeting Barry, which was his name at the time. But an amazing childhood. I tell you that because of the multicultural elements by learning. I grew up with most of my friends being Asian. I’m Hispanic, as I said, Native American. I come from a very big WASP mother side of the family. I’m a gay man. I’ve been with my partner for 33 years. I am an avid environmentalist. Those types of things build me, build my structure, build my thought leadership, etceera. I went to the University of Washington, graduated with a communications and sociology degree. Long story short is I got out of school and couldn’t find a job, had debt. At the time was a lot of debt. I think it was what? Maybe $20,000. But that was a lot of debt for me at the time. When minimum wage was what? Maybe $1.85 an hour. So, it was a big deal. So, I waited tables. I ended up getting a job at the 1990 Goodwill Games with Ted Turner.
And I was working at night as a waiter and during the day as a concierge at the Seattle Sheraton, I introduced myself to Ted Turner and a couple of people and said, “I’m your guy. I’m going to take care of you and you should hire me.” And then two months later, they did. For anybody who doesn’t know what the Goodwill Games was, it was kind of the answer to the Olympics. And it was bringing the Cold War and the wall down. I mean, look how circular things are now with the So, viet Union. It was a closed country at the time so we brought athletes and cultural institutions back to Seattle. It was a very big deal. I worked on marketing programs there. When I graduated, I will skip through this very quickly. I worked in local government. I worked for Gary Lockwin, went on to be secretary of commerce. He was the governor of the state of Washington. I was the executive director of the Seattle Aquarium for a brief time because I worked in government.
It was quasi-government owned. I had this background and I was an environmentalist. And so all things kind of came together. But low[?] and behold, what really happened was, is I got a call one day because we were working on the World Trade Organization, which was coming to Seattle. At the time it was called Battle in Seattle because it was a riot. Like many, as I said, history preaches itself. Eddie Bauer called me because they wanted to have a stronger public affairs person in space. I went there and worked with them on the commitment to working with people that were coming to Seattle that were going to riot and do many bad things. So, we created outreach programs, et cetera. It worked incredibly well for our teams. The interesting thing about at the time, Eddie Bauer was the largest cataloger in the United States. So, we had paper production. Spiegel owned a portion of Eddie Bauer. Spiegel used to be a huge cataloger in Germany.
This is where it gets into corporate responsibility. So, I came in in public affairs to do issues management, respond to government, deal with trades. And they said, could you handle this other stuff? It was sustainability to kind of figure out ways that we could do that. Our corporate giving, our volunteer programs, it was all that. As well as looking at cause marketing opportunities in store. That’s when the portfolio came together and then also labor practices and supply chain. So, that’s the first time this would have been back in the early to late 90s, mid 90s. I can’t remember when, but I think it was like 95, 97, somewhere[?] in there that I went to Eddie Bauer. It was the first time bringing many of these together, particularly in a retail market. I was there for about three years. I got a call from a good friend who was leading and just hired at the Starbucks corporation, who had this new idea about creating thousands of coffee shops across America.
She was going to be the head of the foundation, Lauren Moore, one of my favorite people in the world. She’s now the president of the Johnson and Johnson Foundation. Amazing human being. She hired me to help build their community infrastructure. So, I went to Starbucks and did some great work there. My claim to fame there was as I brought ethos water to Starbucks. The reason I think that’s important is that for our practitioners out there to find a way to establish business, transactional, cause marketing, do right, do well, bring profit, but also build the business so all boats rise. That was bringing revenue in through one of the most revenue heavy products there is, water. But it also helped us fund our foundation and build water wells in coffee growing regions in Africa, which was one of our big goals. Worked there for about three and a half years and got a call from Home Depot to come run their program. That’s when I had the big idea that Home Depot should be about disaster relief.
I got there and no sooner had I gotten there and there were Indonesian earthquake. Most of the wood sourcing outside the world comes in Indonesia. There were wildfires in the West and then three hurricanes hit the southern states, including Katrina. It was literally for two and a half years, it was disaster, disaster, disaster. We built a thousand playgrounds in a thousand days with Kaboom. We did sustainability models, which no retailer had done, thanks to many people outside of my role, but in working coordination with them. Worked for a man named Bob Nardelli, who was very well known in the GE space.
Very focused on a different type of management style than I had ever had. But incredibly committed to the role of responsibility, particularly with veterans and sustainability and the work that we were doing in disaster. But that’s where I got my MBA, working hard. I never got my academic MBA, but it’s stuff I learned from individuals was phenomenal. I always give them credit for that, hardest job I ever had. Most fulfilling because I know we saved lives. Then Bob left and I got a call from KPMG as he left. I went to KPMG to make my millions of dollars. And I was there for all of maybe six months.
We lost Lehman Brothers 2008, do the math. I was laid off for about, you know, almost a year. But I started interviewing at Disney about eight months in for the head of their foundation. I did not get the job, but about three weeks later, I got a call from ESPN saying, do you like sports? And here I am. So, today is actually my anniversary and I’ve been here for 13 years.
John: Congratulations. This has been a wonderful day to have you tape this episode because that’s a heck of a journey and also 13 years. I want to get into those 13 years in a second, but let’s go back. You casually say, and with great pride, you were an environmentalist. Was that informed by you being raised primarily in Hawaii and the beauty of the environment that you were surrounded with in your upbringing there? Or what informed you to become an environmentalist way before it was cool to be environmentalist number one?
Then obviously get on this amazing sustainability journey at Eddie Bauer, Starbucks, Home Depot. You were a sustainability OG. It’s only become in vogue, what, the last four or five years, probably. So, where did that environmentalism come from? Was it a DNA thing or was it a surroundings? And literally the environment you were raised in thing.
Kevin: Yeah, I think it’s nurture nature. I think it’s a little bit of both. But I think we were brought up with very little means. And so the acumen of understanding impact in our basic construct of our home and saving water and electricity and all that stuff was one thing.
John: Doing more with less, doing more with less.
Kevin: Exactly. And it was just like it wasn’t an option because milk cost five dollars a gallon at the time, which is astronomical. Because it was Hawaii and it cost to ship it in and stuff like that. So, there was that type of stuff. But I think in general, my first remembrances of being more focused about the environment was in Hawaii because there is also a cultural belief to not leave the footprint from which where you came. It’s to leave it better than from where you came. And so the gift of the beach and the water and the mountains and the ohana, which is the family around you, is to not make that type of impact.
And even though it was nuanced, it informed me as I went to college. Where I really learned sustainability was in college at the University of Washington, who has an amazing I think way before mostly because of forced practices. So, looking at the sustainability of wood sourcing and forestry and all those steps, it was very much part of the little culture. In my local government, I think I worked with two of the greatest environmentalists that were elected officials on the West Coast at the time, Ron Simms and Gary Locke, who believe that it was absolutely essential because the Northwest had hydroelectric power the way we did with our wastewater runoff and sewage treatment.
I could go really deep in that, more so if you ever want to know. But even things when we built stadiums, which I was helpful in developing Safeco Field at the time before Lumen Field, tearing down the Keen Dome, building new infrastructure for First and Gold, which owns the Seahawks, was to look at, like, if we’re going to give you the space, we’re going to require you to bring more to the community, transportation, intermodal, those things. That’s where I learned it most. But activating against it literally has been the journey through each of the companies I had in working with what a real successful environmentalist and sustainability offer is.
Ben Packard at Starbucks, who helped create the paper sourcing program for the cup, because we use more paper than anybody in paper…. He was just brilliant. I think he runs sustainability at the University of Washington now. He’s that type of guy. I learned from him. I was never the sustainability expert, but I could always bring one with me.
John: Also, it’s been your historical, as you shared your journey, Kevin, everywhere you went, from Starbucks and Eddie Bauer, and then Home Depot, you left that organization in a better place than you found it. So, you talked the talk, but you walked the walk, and you’ve been walking it your whole life. I know you’re a very humble man, but I do have to mention this is your 13th anniversary. So,me of the numerous industry awards you’ve won, the Klaus Marketing Forms Award, the Halo Award twice, the Gold Cleo Award, the Telly Award, the US Chambers Award for Corporate Citizenship.
I mean, you have a life history, a body of work of succeeding everywhere you’ve gone, but succeeding not only in the classic terms of success, but in actually, as you say, making the organization better, leaving it in a better place than you found it. And then obviously, all the reverberative effects, the domino effects of the communities that they then serve around them also in a better place. My hats off to you on all those things. And to find Kevin Martinez and his colleagues and all the important work they’re doing in impact, please go to www.espn.com.
Now let’s talk about these last 13 years, as[?] today is your anniversary. Let’s talk about some of your favorite subjects and some of the great initiatives that you’ve got the chance to lead and work on and still get to lead and work on at ESPN. I don’t know where to really start. I mean, do you want to start at the Special Olympics or the V Foundation? You tell me where you want to start.
Kevin: Well, let me start with when I got here, I had role models to start with. So, there was a woman named Rosa Gaddy, who had been leading the efforts here and what they called corporate outreach. And Rosa was literally the pacesetter for women in sports and communications. She was, I think, the first public information director, sports information director at Brown University, if I remember correctly. She became one of the first communications leaders in media. She ran ESPN’s media program. She helped guide and counsel many presidents. She was here for more than 30 years. She was my boss and she oversaw the corporate outreach piece. But I think her and George Bodenheimer, so George is kind of the most…. Obviously Jimmy Pitero is my favorite because he’s my boss now, but George also was a special place for everybody at ESPN who had worked for him because the man started in the mail room and he had a sensitivity that few people understood.
To this day, I work with him because he also has been chair of the V Foundation and works on a number of things. He helped found the V Foundation with Steve Bornstein, who was the past president as well. But those two individuals helped set the tone for at the time, this was 13 years ago. We just celebrated our 44th anniversary. So, we were back in the day, 25 years, somewhere[?] there. But ESPN had been growing exponentially and doing some stuff and they had been doing great things. They created the V Foundation for Cancer Research. I’ll go more into that because I think that’s probably the most seminal thing.
But I think the alignment to growing with sport and with media, as you know, this is an ever-changing field. It is crazy day to day. You’re not even sure who owns what and how you’re disseminating your information or your signal. The thing was, is that George Bodenheimer and Rosa really wanted to go from “a social impact local level” to an international or national level and corporate responsibility. So, bringing more integrated assets to it, that was their vision. So, they asked for me to lead that effort because of my experience in the background. I’ve always either been the cleaner or the builder in either one.
So, to reinite or reinvigorate an organization. So, with their direction and their leadership, I was able to kind of look at a strategy that said, here’s where we should be going, including understanding the future space, which is where sport’s going to be, how do our leagues participate, where our sponsors are. As you know, sports is all things. As I always tell people, it’s Coke and Pepsi and Nike and Under Armour. It’s just the way of the world. Because all these sports have different partnerships and all of them have social responsibility efforts. But the reason I think we were successful was because there was a successful platform already built, which was the V Foundation. So, it was an organization that we created 30 plus years ago to help find cures for cancer.
So, research, because we had a very famous Jimmy Valvano who gave a very famous speech at the SB’s Don’t Give Up, Don’t Ever Give Up, who had cancer. He was trying to get people to understand that it may not be about you, but it may be about someone else. And he gave the statistics that one in three women and two in three men will be impacted by cancer. It literally has been a core asset. You will very seldom hear me say that CSR is in a DNA, because I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that you’re built with it. I believe that you have genes that you can ignite, but a lot of them are innate in a lot of people and they don’t use them. But I also think you really have to work for it. It doesn’t come naturally. It is a job. It’s just like accounting.
You don’t have a DNA gene for accounting. You may have a proclivity for analytics or type A personality, but you really got to want to put some energy behind it. So, the company had the energy to put in it. We were raising about $4 million a year. They wanted to blow it. George’s, I remember this like it was yesterday, he said to me, “Listen, here’s the deal, we want you to do corporate responsibility. We want you to make sure that at the time we use the worldwide leader in sports, that ESPs are in the right to be in corporate responsibility at that level. But here’s the fix.
You have to grow and scale the V as you do it. So, that was the charge, is keep the V, keep it seminal. It is a cultural piece of our business.” I can walk John into any office in this company, whether it’s Jimmy or Burke Magnus, who handles our content, or Roz Duran, who has our program, and say,” I want to talk to you about the V I need and I guarantee you they’re going to start this.” I’m shaking my head yes. Because it is so in part of our business. It is a best practice. I can say that with great authority and all of CSR to be able to have full mobilizations, to be accountable, to have the assets that we have, to apply the standards, to help the V fundraise. It’s now their own charity. It’s spun off. But we use every asset twice a year to run fundraise for them. Now we help them raise more than $29.8 million a year.
John: It’s incredible. And to date, how much has been raised aggregate by the V, just roughly speaking?
Kevin: About $400-plus million, of which we’ve helped them about a $280.
John: Oh, that’s unreal.
Kevin: Yeah, it is great. And by the way, it all goes to cancer research. That’s the definitive. We pay for the marketing and everything else. That’s part of our gift. We don’t give money to cancer research. We help tell the story to help fundraise for cancer research.
John: Understood. As you said, then the administrative costs are already covered. So, this is really going towards the research then, money raised.
Kevin: Right. If I can just put a plug in for them at V.org, because we’re picking up on V Week. The thing too is that they have a model that has worked, that Stand Up to Cancer is now using, which is they have the best scientists from all the major cancer institutions who sit down twice a year and say, we think this thing called immunotherapy is going to be the big game changer. We should start to gear and track and move and whatever. And they start to invest prior to, they don’t have the billion dollars like other organizations do. They have the thought leadership and the targeted efforts. And their investments have yielded multipliers of five, six, and 10 times the amount of their gift because they’re so smart in their giving.
John: Understood. So, V is the base, it’s the pillar and foundation. Everything else is built off of that and so much of what you’re doing.
Kevin: Yes, it is. As I said, it’s a best practice. So, what we did is once we were able to demonstrate scaling opportunities, satisfied our leadership, we were then challenged to say, what should we be about in sports? Could corporate responsibility… I always tell people CSR is like the constitution. It’s the framing of everything you have to do by law. You have to labor practices, you have to be fair, you have to pay fair, you have to do things right. You have to look at your business as it rates all this up. Citizenship is like part of the bill of rights and it’s how you activate against it.
You don’t always have to do certain things, but it is the right and opportunity to take what you’re given as your constitution and move forward as an individual or as a corporation to do right, do well in ways that you’re not necessarily expected to. So, it’s kind of additional, it’s above and beyond. And that’s why we call our work citizenship because we want more people to come with us, but we also believe that it is essential that it be part of the business first and then move into the community of the sports fan to be incremental add to help society.
John: Understood. So, V foundation, over $400 million have been raised. Your ESPN has helped with over $289 million of that raising. What else? Now, building off of that, talk about some of your other strategies internal to ESPN that you’re so proud of that you’ve been working on during this wonderful journey.
Kevin: You bet. We took the model of the V because we also have something called the committee. So, let me be absolutely clear. I suck the oxygen out of the room and then the smart people come in and then they try to put the oxygen back and really make things happen. My job is to bring teams together to be able to help make this happen.
John: I want to stop you right there. Kevin, again, you’re very humble, but some people, when someone has success in life, you can say, ‘Oh, that guy or that person or that woman, right time, right place. Good for them. They got a little lucky and it all clicked.” But you have, when someone like you, a person like you at everywhere you’ve gone has shown this amazing journey of repetitive success. Obviously you have some very key skills that you’ve employed and deployed at all these organizations that have allowed you and enabled you and empowered you to be successful wherever you’re at. Is one of them team building and what are the others as well?
Kevin: Yeah. So, I’m going to just say, don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. I mean, I am, I am the fly and the mosquito in the room. I continue to poke the bear. That is my job. I’m a devil’s advocate. I have to come fully loaded with both sides of the business, both arguments, positive, negative, but my job ultimately is to be accountable to our employees, our leadership and the external audience. It’s not always to our programming. It’s not always to the news, et cetera. It’s to have a vote there. I believe in servant leadership.
My job truly is to set a vision, bring resources to be the good cop, that cop what I need to, but to literally allow the best in the business, which I think my team is to be able to go out and lead and fail because I don’t believe unless someone’s bleeding or falling down that there’s a crisis. I just don’t. I do not thrive on prices. Trust me. I’m not that guy. I learned that in public affairs and I’ve learned that in my business, particularly in disaster relief. There are many things that are more important than a bad quote. It’s how you respond to it and how you believe in what you’re going to transact.
But to your question, leadership, I think is servant leadership. It is critical in our function. As I’ve said earlier, I believe in a trickle down economy as it relates to resourcing responsibility and ultimately advocacy from your senior leaders because I guarantee you in my line of work in the last 30 years with multiple, many CEOs and bosses, it changes every time you get one. And so that means you need to change your strategy or they don’t like a certain thing or [inaudible] had CEOs. So, I don’t like green. Don’t put green in anything. Swear to God. That’s been….
John: I believe it.
Kevin: Okay. We’re talking sustainability here. Hard to do sustainability without the word green or the color green. Anyway, I digress, but that type of thing I think is critical to understanding that you have to allow your team to also be thought leaders, invest in them. I’ve sent all of my people to everything that I’ve been able to do[?]. The Association of Corporate Contribution Professionals, Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship. The work we’ve done with the Chamber of Commerce segment, focused areas and sustainability with Green Sports Alliance, others, they have to grow and learn and to utilize their, as I said early on, their culture, their nature, their opportunity, where they came from to help build a very complete perspective, which is hard to do from many perspectives, particularly right now in social injustice, a black and brown voice is incredibly important to have at the table. I would say important. It is a must have.
So, we need to be smart about that with us, with our charitable events, with our nonprofits. There are boards that we support. I can tell you there are many boards that we’ve gone to that we’ve funded for many years and said, one, two, three, four, five, six, just a second. I’m counting not white people or not brown people, seven, eight, nine, and keep going. You’re like, you’ve got a problem here. There’s no innovation in the way you’re thinking about. That’s part of our job too. So, it is critical that we look at it that way. And it’s not always in your face, but it is part of our responsibility. So, that’s the leadership thing that I think works best. We’ve used a lot of that with the Special Olympics. Special Olympics was our first major add to our portfolio.
I was sitting with Tim Shriver at an event. Rosa Gaddy had created a relationship with Special Olympics, which was phenomenal, but mostly volunteerism and some engagement on the content side. But we put an idea together while she was here to go to Special Olympics, see what else we could do. We looked at their five-year plan and it had all this stuff. And then over in this far corner was this little thing called Unified Sports. I said, well, what’s that? And they said, oh, we’re working on that. It’s a growing thing, but don’t pay any attention to that. Like, no, but it sounds very interested. And so what it was, it was a new way of looking at being truly inclusive with people with and without intellectual disabilities playing together, creating community and creating safety nets for sustainable friendship, partnership, jobs, collegiality moving forward. So, you get a three-four, and so we said, well, has anyone got that? At the time, Coke had everything, Bank of America had everything, and I said, “I’ll take that.” So, we took Unified Sports, we gave a major grant to Special Olympics, and we said, so we want you to go from 500,000 to a million new coaches, teammates, and athletes.
Teammates are the person without intellectual disability and the athlete and then the coach are the three things we invest in. So, you create that community. But remember, in that model, you’re also creating leadership. So, those people without intellectual disabilities, we’re teaching them leadership. We’re teaching them social responsibility. They’re going to go on and give back in their community in multiple different ways by having the experience. They’re also donors, long-term donors. As are the coaches. So, we basically tripled their movement by doing so.
There’s always pushback because there was a group of individuals at Special Olympics who felt very strongly that if you created a team of Unified Sports, you were going to be taking a position away from someone who may have had intellectual disability. So, if you had a team of 12, and you had six people with intellectual disabilities and six people without intellectual disabilities, you were taking six spots from someone else. We said, no, you’re looking at this wrong. What we’re going to do is we’re going to grow Unified Sports, where we’re ultimately going to add six more spots because we’re going to add another team. Because we’re….
John: [crosstalk] Going to get bigger. Pie[?] is going to get bigger.
Kevin: Exactly. We’re not asking you to change the pizza piece size. We’re asking you to change from large to extra large pizza. We’re going to fund it. And we’ve been funding it. And we’re at 1.2 million coaches, teammates, and athletes now. We’re about ready to go into our 10th year. We just did the World Games in Berlin. And over, I think, 50% of all the team sports were Unified Sports this year.
John: Unbelievable. And for those who just joined us, we’ve got Kevin Martinez with us today. He’s the Vice President of Corporate Citizenship at ESPN. To find Kevin and all his colleagues and the important impacts they’re making to make the world a better place, please go to www.espn.com. Kevin, in 2023, ESPN was honored with the Golden Halo Award for best in class corporate social impact efforts. What does that even mean? And what does that mean to you in terms of the recognition and the success that you and your team at ESPN have been having over the years that you’ve been there?
Kevin: Yeah, I have to tell you, that was a surprise. That’s not one that you can apply for. It’s also run by a company. So, there’s other standards attached to it. It’s not based upon advertising or anything. They have this independent review committee. So, when we got the call by David Hessekil, who, by the way, I’ve known for years, back from Eddie Bauer days, because I knew him when it was the COS Marketing Forum. Awards are great on how you carry them with you, because it allows you to be able to, one, have a platform to thank people that have helped you get there.
To thank you for the resources and thank you, but also to talk about the impact that those things have been able to do. We don’t get a lot of that in sports. You have the Sports Emmys and you have the Sports Business Journal and pause there. So, each of the leagues have their person of the year. But what we’ve been able to do is, I think, be best in class, certainly amongst media companies. I’m going to take that one from the wall right now. There are leagues that are doing extraordinarily good work in CSR. But I think from a media perspective, I think our teams are doing best practice work in this space because we’re attached to accountability impact. We’re looking at future developments. We’re looking at responsible gaming with betting.
We’re looking at things that are relative to our business. But we are also helping millions of people in very strategic ways, Special Olympics being one of them. But to your point about the Golden Halo, it in my opinion, is the highest award in the corporate space. Forbes is also out there that has been very nice to us and said great things about us in placement. But that award was unexpected and it helped us in a really important time. As you probably have heard, Disney’s gone through some really amazing difficult times now.
They’re on some great tracks with Bob Iger coming back, who is just a phenomenal leader who understands corporate responsibility like no other. That’s going to help us. But that helped at a really good time for morale, for the work we do. Quite frankly, we made it through less unscathed or less scathed than I thought we were going to be. And that’s thanks to my boss, Tina Thornton and my boss, Jimmy Patero.
John: Do you put out an annual impact report that then lives on your website or lives somewhere that your employees, that your leadership, that the analysts and Wall Street and your constituents and all the people around the world that love Disney, that love ESPN, that love sports get to enjoy and see all these important impacts that you’re making on as a sort of a formal scorecard of all this great work that you’re doing, this body of work?
Kevin: We do. So, let me start first as part of the Walt Disney Company. We are very conscious of making sure that we were reporting as it relates to what the sector, the financial industry is looking for. So, Disney does that reporting. We add to it, everything from our expenses, our investments, sustainability, labor practices, we do all that separately. But we, ESPN, also produce what we call an impact report. So, it’s a storytelling device so that people will understand more clearly how we use the power of sports for social good.
And then to be definitive about our strategy, we state it, we say how we’re doing against it, and then we tell stories and give examples of etcetera. Those documents, we’ve done everyone every year except from last year because of some of the changes that we were going through. But you will find them on the www.espn.backslash-corporate-citizenship. And that will take you to those documents, but we also are producing one for 22 right now, and I’m excited to say that it looks amazing. I’m really proud of our team’s ability to do really innovative work in this space.
John: In terms of process, Kevin, you are, as I said to you earlier, a sustainability OG. You were doing this way before it was cool to be an environmentalist, to be a social activist, a social impact leader. It’s just now that the world is catching up with great people like you and great brands like ESPN, and it’s really cool to be doing what you’re doing. Where do you find benchmarks? You represent such a fascinating and important and unique brand. Coke can use Pepsi as their benchmark for social impact and other ESG-related or CSR-related goals and ideas. Same thing, McDonald’s and Burger King.
This goes across many industries. You don’t have a competitor that any of us would be able to really, truly identify to say, what’s the benchmark? Since you have so much knowledge and so much background doing this at Eddie Bauer, at Starbucks, at Home Depot, at KPMG, what do you use? Where do you find your inspiration? Where do you find some benchmark ideas to further drive the success that you’ve already had at ESPN?
Kevin: I’m going to answer that by sharing a little bit more about me. If I have to do the same thing over and over again, more than twice, I get bored. And I get bored because there’s got to be forward motion. There’s got to be progression. So, when you do the same things the same way, the same time, you can expect the same results. You know what that means. So, the great thing in media is you can’t do that because I can’t take this story and move it to next week and then move it to the next week and expect people to watch it, et cetera. So, we have to be fresh and new and innovative. I believe that my success is, if you do, for people out there in the HR space, the Myers-Briggs thing, every time I take it, I am smack dad in the center. Every single time.
It’s because I am very analytical in the way that I internalize things, how I process things strategically, et cetera. But I am a total empath. If I am not around how to receive humanity, I don’t function as well. So, I need people in my vision. I don’t need just numbers. So, I tell you that because the way I really feed my soul for innovation, for thought leadership, is I go and do unique things. Luckily, I get invited to places where thought leaders talk about particular issues. I don’t mean the Davos’s of the world, which are way beyond, and I’m not sure how critical those are anymore. But when you’re talking to thought leadership, I check in with some of my favorite people who I think are the best thought leaders in the world continuously.
There’s a woman named Nancy Lublin, who I think is literally the smartest social entrepreneur that has ever existed.She got $500 from her grandmother and created Dress for Success. She then went on to work for an organization, Do So,mething, which mobilized teen youth. Then she created the Crisis Text Hotline as a quasi class B corporation that literally looked at analytics funded by Virgin to look at analytics to save people’s kids’ lives when they text. I mean, I check in with Nancy consistently. My friend, Lauren Moore, who is my boss at Starbucks, I look for them. We talk about this stuff. And so it’s not some Algonquin roundtable. I wish it was that we could do that. But we chatted and then I’m going to see Lauren next week in fact, we’re going to have a talk.
But that’s the first thing. The second thing is, is you got to take calculated risk. You have to go places that you don’t normally see. I think one of the struggles that you and I and others in this space will always hear is, you can’t be all things to all people. Okay, first of all, we know that. But let me be really clear, when something happens outside of your strategic priorities, pillars, whatever you call them, it doesn’t matter. The swirl will continue. And someone is going to call you and say, how are we going to respond to that? What are we going to do? We have X number of partners that are employees or cast members. So, it is essential that our teams, our practitioners are worldly. They understand the impacts that are going on. We don’t fund homelessness, but I sure as hell better understand what homelessness means are without home. And what that means to veterans community, because we do fund that. Mental wellness, because we do fund that with youth mental wellness and et cetera.
So, there are intersections. So, it’s not as easy to say, oh, I’m sorry, we don’t do that. By the way, this is the one thing that I’m going to poke every single practitioner. Stop saying that. Stop living in your strategy just for the sake of you being able to say no. It’s set up to do that. I know that I helped start that practice. But the fact is, is you’re losing out on opportunity and innovation that you can bring forward even as an example or reference or best practice, because I’ve reached out to corporations, I’ve reached out to our competitors. I’m having a call with Paramount next week because we sat down on a panel and we’re going to talk about sports because they’re doing much more in that space.
That’s a good thing because all boats rise when we all believe that you should play sports. I’m okay with that. By the way, I still believe we’re going to be better at it because we’re competitive. That’s how I, as you can see, I get juiced[?] by that. I think it’s really important. And that empathy piece is really critical to me because I do think you need to be empathetic, but I don’t confuse that with sympathetic and to understand that the asset that exists in that is the humanity and understanding it from different multiple perspectives. I call that pronopticon, which is a Greek word that looking for things from all sides, that is my kind of focus.
John: Understood. You and I are the same age, you’re 62, I’m 61. When we were little boys growing up, 61 and 62 was time to start collecting So,cial Security and going off into that proverbial sunset. You and I have now lived in a lifetime where Warren Buffett at 93 is still considered the world’s greatest investor. God willing, we both have a lot of gas still left in the tank. What are you most excited about in terms of short and long-term goals coming up at ESPN that you can talk about? Then personally, what are you really excited about? Because if, God willing, you can live to 93 or 103, there’s so much more you can accomplish, Kevin, and you’ve been doing it already, and you have so much of this great history behind you, you could even further deploy that history to effectuate greater change in the future.
Kevin: Yeah. So, I’m going to answer that in three parts. The first one I’m most excited about is we have a leader at Disney. Her name is Lisa Haynes, who comes from Disneyland Parks, who is just an amazing communicator. She’s been assigned what we call enterprise social responsibility. The minute she got hired, we clicked. I’m like, okay, this is going to be great. So, I’m very excited about that. But I’m also excited because she understands the segment versus the corporate and understanding how that pendulum swings, but whatever.
But she has ideas to advance a partnership that we know has been so important to all of the Walt Disney Company, which is the Make-A-Wish Foundation, or Wishes, that there’s a unique opportunity that Pixar and Star Wars and Lucasfilm and FX and Hulu and ESPN and Walt Disney Animation. All of us do wishes. And we have been doing some incredible work to make sure that kids and families, we can tell the story. But remember, I’m also careful here. Remember, cause, not charity. I have this written outside my door. It’s about purpose. It’s not about the nonprofit.
It’s about the mission of the nonprofit. But unfortunately, nonprofits can fail or fail you. So, understanding that mission is really critical. Make-A-Wish is a great organization. We continue to work with them, but we have the My Wish series. So, Make-A-Wish is the wishing piece. I’m really trying to look for more there. Secondarily, I would say for us, we just got off a call today where we’re going to really focus in on, I don’t know if you know this, but we did a campaign with Kobe Bryant before he passed away called Don’t Retire Kid. It was phenomenal. It got into research.
We worked with the Aston Martin Institute. Kids were dropping out of sports since the pandemic. They’ve been dropping out of multiple rates. Women drop out at twice the rate. We work with the Women’s Sports Foundation. We have all the reasons in the world to make sure that kids play sports because the outcome of sports is higher confidence, less body shaming, more comfortability, conflict resolution, leadership, all that stuff. [crosstalk] Look for us to do something really cool in 24 that’s about sports and parents, coaches, and teachers.
And thirdly, I’ll just say that we have the unique opportunity to do something still amazing because remember, I got to bring cancer with me all the time. When people say, hey, you’re not curing cancer, I’m like, “Yes, we are.” We’re going to be partnering with NHL this year, and the V Foundation is going to be the charity of choice for hockey fights cancer. And we’re incredibly excited about that. That’s the first time the league has taken on at the V Foundation. So, we’re excited about that.
John: So, you mentioned at the top of the show that next week or soon thereafter, you’re going to be going to Denver to make some remarks or make a speech. So, I’m going to leave you with this, Kevin, and I’d like you to share this with the audience. When you get off the stage in Denver, what do you want people to come away with being the greatest lesson they could have learned from Kevin Martinez that day?
Kevin: Oh, my God. You didn’t feed me that question, so now I have to think. First of all, I am like this all the time.
John: I can imagine.
Kevin: You were going to become the success that you’ve been and made all the impacts you have with not being who you are. That’s what everyone says about you. That’s why I’m so excited about today. I know, but it’s a lot to take for a lot of people because it’s like I’m on coffee all the time and I’m not. But I try to be authentically me because I get jazzed about stuff. But believe it or not, I can weigh the compassion and opportunity. What I want people to take away is that this is a practitioner. There’s experience to it. Find the experience within the sectors of this, which is sustainability, corporate giving, cause marketing. There are elements related to labor practices and supply chain.
There are elements related to public affairs and issues management. There are areas related to cause marketing and commercial co-venture, which are legal applications. And then within your sector, how those apply, whether you’re B2C, whether you’re energy extraction, all of those things, is to know your business. Be just as good as the head of production or the head of drilling is to know what those things are so that you can apply those and be one of the great standards of knowledge within your community. But also in that, don’t lose yourself. Bring your whole self to this because we need more good people who are going to be saying this is not a comma and it’s a part of strategy before you get to period comma and. It has to be part of the strategy.
John: I love it. Kevin, as you and I know, just like life, sustainability, CSR, impact is all just a journey. And it’s just been an honor and a privilege to have you on the Impact Podcast today. It’s an honor and privilege to meet you virtually. I hope I get to at least shake your hand and give you a hug one day in person. You are always invited back on this show to share any wins and any stories you want to share with our audience.
Again, for our audience to find all the important impactful work that Kevin and his colleagues are doing at ESPN, please go to www.espn.com. Also, shout out to the v.org. We’re going to put that in the notes of today’s show. Kevin Martinez, thank you for everything you’ve done to make all the impacts throughout your 62 years and the ones that you’re going to make in the next God willing 50 years ahead of you. Thank you also for just making the world a better place.
Kevin: Thank you for this time. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your communication to be able to get this information out. It’s critical. I am greatly appreciative.
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