Cynthia "Cynt" Marshall was the first black cheerleader at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1970s. She spent nearly four decades climbing the corporate ladder at AT&T. And today she is the first black, female CEO in the NBA, having taken the helm at the Dallas Mavericks in 2018 to clean up the league's toxic work culture.
But Marshall, 60, says she didn't truly come into her own until more than 20 years into her career.
"I just did my job and did what [my bosses] told me to do," Marshall tells CNBC Make It.
But it was speaking out about her painful childhood and life experiences — from suffering domestic violence to losing a child to surviving cancer — that changed all that, helping Marshall to find herself professionally and setting her on her trailblazing path.
Marshall grew up in the housing projects in Richmond, California, less than an hour from San Francisco. While her family struggled to make ends meet, she also had to deal with an abusive father.
In 1975, when Marshall was 15, her father broke her nose as she tried to protect her mother from his physical abuse. After that, her mother and her three siblings left.
But Marshall says she learned to "weed out the distractions" at an early age and stayed focused on things that she wanted to accomplish. She also found comfort in books and sports, and credits her mother, Carolyn Gardener, a high school executive administrator and resource librarian, for making education the top priority in their home.
"My mother put a math book in one hand and the Bible in the other," Marshall tells Make It.
In school, Marshall would over-prepare for everything. That work ethic earned her a full scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley to study business administration and human resources management.
It was at Berkeley that Marshall first started breaking barriers — she became the university's first African-American cheerleader.
Praying, she says, helped her cope when people said negative things about her on the football field.
"I prayed a lot because I had to keep my spirits calm. It's the kind of stuff that can get you really upset, when you hear some of that stupid stuff," Marshall says.
After graduating, at 21, Marshall landed her first job as a local supervisor at AT&T in California in July 1981, working the afternoon and evening shifts.
Soon she married her husband Kenneth (who she'd dated in college but broke up with to focus on school), and for 10 years they struggled to have kids. Marshall says she had four second trimester miscarriages, and the couple gave birth to a four-months-premature daughter who died six months later. The Marshalls went on to adopt four children from the foster care system.
During this time, Marshall climbed her way to upper management at AT&T, regularly promoted to director then to vice president and senior vice president.
But she was just following the rules and trying to fit in.
Marshall says she experienced what's known as code-switching, when people of color or differing ethnicities or cultures change the way they present or express themselves to adapt to a given situation.
"I tried to look the conservative way my colleagues looked," says Marshall, who adopted a uniform of a blue suit, a scarf and black shoes. "Nothing ethnic," she says, which for her meant no red shoes or braids at work.
She was also "definitely less animated and quieter at work than at home. In fact, I was once told not to speak so loudly," Marshall remembers.
While Marshall never felt the need to fit in with "the guys" at work, early on in her career she learned to be comfortable being an "outsider." It also meant Marshall avoided socializing with colleagues outside the office.
"Early in my career, I didn't talk much about my personal life and I made a conscious decision to leave my colloquiums and slang at home," Marshall says. "However, my church speak came with me. I was once told to say 'lucky' instead of 'blessed.' I wouldn't do it."
Since she was a teenager, Marshall also liked to be called "Cynt" (instead of Cindy or Cynthia), a nickname she earned on her high school track team — "Cynt the Sprint." But when she was promoted to upper management at AT&T in 2000, her bosses told her the nickname had to go.
"I refused. I've never been Cindy [and] I preferred to be called Cynt," Marshall says. However, people in the office still called her Cindy at times, and she often had to let it slide.
It wasn't until Marshall moved her family from California to become president of AT&T in North Carolina in 2007 that she says she truly found her confidence and authenticity.
Marshall was set to give a speech to underserved kids at a local school. She called her mother and asked if it was okay to share their story of domestic violence.
"So I got up and I told the kids my story," she says.
"I realized that my story was inspiring. All of it. [From] my dad breaking my nose, [to] growing up in public housing projects, [to] being poor, my four miscarriages and my daughter dying. It was all okay to talk about."
After the experience, Marshall was inspired to be her complete authentic self in corporate America. And the first thing, she made "real clear" to all her employees in North Carolina was that "Cynt" was her preferred name, and she was not letting "Cindy" slide anymore.
"I just felt so comfortable being who I am," she tells CNBC Make It.
Marshall began to speak openly at work about her experiences, good and painful, and she realized that many of her colleagues had common experiences.
"I was vulnerable. I volunteered at places and advocated for causes that I hadn't previously openly supported. As a result, I became more real, down to earth and approachable" to everyone from employees to customers to "external stakeholders" like community leaders and policymakers, she says.
Her vulnerability and new mindset were crucial both when she was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 2010 (she's now been cancer free for about five years) and when she was appointed senior vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer at AT&T in 2015.
The goal at AT&T was to transform the company into an inclusive and diverse workforce. "Diversity is being invited to the party," Marshall has said. "Inclusion is being asked to dance."
In 2017, strategies Marshall implemented landed AT&T on Fortune's 100 Best Places to Work list for the first time, making it one of just two Fortune 50 companies on the list.
After 36 years at AT&T, Marshall wanted to try something new and decided to retire in 2017 to launch her own consulting firm specializing in leadership and diversity.
But soon Marshall got an unexpected text message from billionaire Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
"I honestly didn't know who Mark Cuban was," Marshall told the Dallas Observer in 2018. "But my husband and kids were like, 'Ma, you have to call him back now!'"
By 2018, Cuban, who purchased a majority stake in the Mavericks in 2000, was in crisis mode after an investigation revealed 20 years of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct issues within the Mavericks organization. He was on the hunt for a "strong leader," according to Marshall, to help him turnaround the company and was given her name by an associate.
According to Marshall, Cuban wasn't necessarily looking for a woman or a person of color. "He didn't care. I often say, 'Mark was not trying to make history. He was trying to make a difference for his employees,'" Marshall says. Cuban tells Make It he hired Marshall "because she is amazing, forceful, dynamic, nurturing."
Marshall drove to meet Cuban at the Mavericks' Dallas headquarters and says that as she was leaving, two female employees approached her and told her they needed her help.
"For me, that was it. I was going home to pray about it, but that was my sign right there," Marshall told the Observer.
Since taking the helm, Marshall has been focused on hiring a diverse executive team. There were no women or people of color on the Mavericks' leadership team when Marshall started. Today, 50% are women and 47% are people of color, according to a Mavericks spokesperson.
She also brought her authentic leadership style to the Mavericks. When she started there, the first thing she did was hold one-on-ones with employees. She wanted to learn about their lives, from childhood to adulthood, not just about their career aspirations.
"I [just] had a one-on-one with one of the vice presidents last night for two hours and probably an hour and a half of that was just personal talk," Marshall tells Make It on Jan. 30.
These days, Marshall says she tries to think of "the person first and the employee second" when making important decisions at the company.
As for the naysayers, who still exist, "I usually take the haters head-on. Sometimes, I ignore them," Marshall says.
In particular, there was one high-level executive who Marshall says predicted that she wouldn't last 90 days as CEO. In that case, Marshall called the executive into her office and confronted him.
"If something is directly impacting my workplace and others then I have to nip it," she says.
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