Masai Ujiri: “Female empowerment is about action not words”

In the latest interview in our series focusing on gender equality, Masai Ujiri, the President of National Basketball Association (NBA) team the Toronto Raptors, talks about his successful efforts to promote women to senior roles within the Canadian franchise.

Masai Ujiri

Born in Bournemouth on the south coast of England in 1970, where his parents were studying at medical school, Ujiri moved to Africa aged nine months. A childhood passion for football gave way to a love of basketball as a teenager, and the opportunity to relocate to the USA to study at a junior college. He subsequently returned to Europe to pursue a professional basketball career and, over six years, played for teams in Belgium, Germany, England, Finland and Denmark before retiring in 2002.

His first foray into coaching came in the Nigerian national youth set-up before joining Orlando Magic as a scout. In 2008, he was appointed as the Raptors’ assistant manager before heading to the Denver Nuggets as general manager. He returned to the Raptors in 2013 and, three years later, became president. In 2019, the Raptors won the NBA title for the first time in their history.

Tell us about your early sporting story.

“When I was in school, I took football so seriously. I played for my primary school, which means you are among the best 11 kids out of thousands, so to play for my primary school was a big thing. Then when I started playing basketball, I was at the forefront of whatever my school was doing. When I was in high school, the [basketball] master made me the game’s prefect for the whole school, even though there were older boys ahead of me. And so now when I think back, it brings me back to where maybe [I developed] some of the organisational skills and leadership skills, and even working with people.”

How did you forge a professional career in basketball?

“I was fortunate enough to go as an exchange student to Seattle and played basketball in a prep. school. I wasn't very, very good – just [barely] good enough. I was then lucky to get into junior college in Bismarck, where I went for two years, then I went to Montana State University Billings.

“When they opened up all the rules in Europe, meaning that with a British passport you could play in all these countries as an EU [national], I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to go do this, I'm going to make money doing this, because now I’ve gained a little experience of college basketball.’ I was not very successful and I bounced from place to place. My career was trending the wrong way, and I was fighting my ego because I had always wanted to say I was playing professional basketball. I was in Denmark playing for a team with no future there. I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go try to go into something else.’ Luckily for me, I was made the Nigerian junior national team coach in 2002. I started going into coaching.”

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What is your philosophy in terms of gender equality?

“You have to empower the best people around you. Winning is helping people, winning is having impact. It is bringing people together; it’s not just winning a basketball game. Winning is seeing my daughter smile, watching my son grow up. Winning is seeing my friends happy, seeing my wife happy. People always say my wife and my daughter run things at home – they are the bosses at home. When we [men] go to work, we put on this big front like we run everything. Some of these women are the same women we are working with at work, and they run stuff at home. My simple maths tells me that they can run stuff everywhere.”

How have you implemented change at the Raptors?

“Women’s empowerment is not just talking about it; it’s doing it. We have to do it. Does a scout need to be a guy? No. It’s not necessary. Does analytics need to be a guy? No. There are ladies who do that. There are incredible, smart, diverse women everywhere. It’s just a matter of equality and the chance that they are given.

“When I looked at our business, it was male-driven. There was only one woman working for us when we took over. There are 17 now and we’re proud of that. And we won [the NBA championship], so what does that say about the business? It says that it doesn’t matter. For me, it’s that equality and opportunity that we have to give.”

What lessons have you learned?

“We always go to the norm, to the same places, to look for the same hires. Now we have to be intentional. When we came to Toronto, I was intentional in saying, ‘We’re going to hire women.’ We have to walk the talk. We can’t oppress these girls and these young women anymore. It’s not possible in this world. We’ve moved past that. Everywhere you look there are smart women. You have to empower people and, at the end of the day, we all have to respect each other. And I think when we do, this world will become such a better place.”

How excited are you ahead of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020?

“I look forward to watching the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics because to see that torch pass with people holding the flags of their country is special. When that happens, I know we’re getting back [from COVID-19]. We’re getting back to coming together. [We need to] make sure the Olympics happen because the world needs it.”

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