How former USTA CEO Katrina Adams broke barriers and went from pro tennis player to the C-suite

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 22: USTA President Katrina Adams speaks during the Louis Armstrong Stadium Dedication Ceremony at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 22, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
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Katrina Adams never envisioned being a trailblazer. Yet she's had a lot of firsts in her career. She is the first Black commentator on the Tennis Channel, and served as president, chairman and CEO of the United States Tennis Association for an unprecedented two consecutive terms from 2015-2018. She is also the only Black woman to ever hold that position in the organization's 135-year history. In addition, at age 46, she was the youngest person to ever lead the nonprofit governing body of U.S. tennis, which owns and operates the United States Open and other tournaments.

Her latest accomplishment is a debut memoir titled "Own the Arena" which was published in February. The book details her "twelve match points for thriving when you're the only one." Perhaps her biggest piece of advice from her book that can relate to any job is "never say never." She says, "If you have a goal or a dream, strive for it, it is attainable, but you have to work hard and persevere. You also need to network and understand who your stakeholders are in whatever business or industry you are going into."

Adams describes her path as unconventional. She's the first former professional tennis player to run the USTA. After competing for 12 years on the Women's Tennis Association Tour and winning 20 career doubles titles, she wanted something more and wasn't about to let anything get in the way.

She credits having several strong mentors who helped her get ahead, and discusses the importance of having a "personal board of business people and friends, acquaintances for many years that you trust and have expertise in areas that you might not be so strong in. Being able to lean on them and ask questions along the way, plus having people to push you to go the extra mile is huge," she says.

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"Just because it hasn't been done before you, it doesn't mean it can't happen to you. But when you get there, make sure you aren't the only one or the last one to get into that position if you are in fact different from everyone else. Own it and make sure that you protect it and strengthen it, so that others would love to follow in your footsteps that may look like you," Adams tells CNBC.

She admits facing some pressure as the first Black woman to lead the USTA. "There's always pressure because you want to leave a strong legacy behind. The pressure was felt because of all the firsts, but I took it in stride. Pressure is a privilege."

Adams also acknowledges that climbing the corporate ladder is not an easy task for Black women, whether in sports or business. There are currently only two Black female CEOs in the Fortune 500, Roz Brewer of Walgreens Boots Alliance and Thasunda Brown Duckett, who was appointed CEO of TIAA in March.

While she feels there has been some improvement for women of color on the sports management side, she said there is still a long way to go when it comes to diversity in corporate boardrooms. "Progress is being made, but there are so many brilliant women of color in particular that are in these companies that have the expertise and more knowledge and experience than some of their male counterparts who just aren't getting that opportunity," Adams says.

She explains that she believes there is an interest in diversifying the C-suite at companies  overall. "Sadly, they don't know where to go. Even though we have headhunters, it's even hard for these people to find qualified and experienced candidates for a C-suite position or for a public or private board."

As for her future, Adams expresses a strong interest in returning to the boardroom outside of the sports realm herself. She currently serves on the board of GSE Worldwide, a talent representation and sports marketing agency. She's also executive director of the Harlem Community Tennis and Education Program and is a color analyst for The Tennis Channel.

"I'm inspired by the empowerment that I'm seeing across the spectrum. Again it's slow, even for myself as I'm still trying to break into a board of a corporation. But it's coming and I have to be patient."

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