Technically, Women’s History Month ended on March 31 but for the Milwaukee Bucks, women are making history every day.
The franchise, which on the court is pushing to claim its second championship in three years behind record-setting superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, is a rarity not just
“I’ve worked in all four sports leagues so I can say that’s not common at all,” said Executive Vice President of Business Operations Raven Jemison. “Especially at the junior and maybe entry-level manager levels, you’ll have some diversity there but once you start getting to the decision-makers, at the (vice president) level and up, you just don’t see it that often in sports.”
Perhaps nobody knows more about how far the organization has come in terms of staff growth and its diversity than Kareeda Chones-Aguam.
The daughter of Jim Chones, a Racine, Wis. native who starred at Marquette before playing 10 years in the NBA, Chones-Aguam came to the Bucks after playing four seasons at her father’s alma mater and graduating with a degree in communications in 1998.
“It was tough because there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me,” Chones-Aguam said. “So in terms of mentorship, having somebody who looked like me who I could emulate, no, I didn’t have anything like that so it’s so comforting and rewarding to be part of an organization that really tries to bring the best talent in the world to our team.”
And that’s a key point: though the franchise is striving to make for a more diverse operation the emphasis isn’t on hiring to “check a box” but instead, to hire the best and most talented candidates while at the same time, trying to assemble a staff that is representative of the community the Bucks have called home since joining the league as an expansion team in 1968.
“Our goal is to match the community we’re in and pro sports has never really aggressively gone out to recruit and grab talent because it’s always been kind of inbred and bred from within,” team president Peter Feigin said. “So it’s been an all-male industry for 50 years and it’s hard to break that mold but these are consummate professionals and people we think have the capacity to be the best, to be leaders.”
Much like the team itself underwent a rebuilding process leading up to its most-recent stretch of winning ways, the business operation needed its own rebuild after former Senator Herb Kohl sold the team to a group led by Wes Edens, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan in 2014.
At the time, the Bucks’ business operation consisted of 90 employees and didn’t even have a dedicated human resources director.
Rectifying that was one of the new owners’ first orders of business upon taking over and to fill that position, they looked to the corporate community where they found Kelly Kauffman, a native of Kenosha, Wis. and self-proclaimed “life-long Bucks fan.”
Kauffman had a substantial list of lofty tasks ahead of her when she came aboard just a few weeks before the start of the 2014-15 season. First and foremost was evaluating what was already in place in terms of staffing and what would be needed moving forward and it didn’t take long to recognize that the organization was sorely lacking in terms of diversity.
Of course, they were far from the only professional sports franchise in that position.
“We were underwater when I first started and close to starting the season so the first round of people we hired, we were just trying to get people in as fast as possible to get the season up and running,” said Kauffman, the chief human capital officer. “We posted something on LinkedIn about a sales class and we just got destroyed in the comments by people saying ‘great job hiring 20 white guys,’ or ‘the team is really looking out for women and minorities.’
“It was brutal but we deserved it and it was eye-opening because we knew we had to do a much better job of being proactive and finding people who weren’t necessarily looking to be in sports, but we could show them what a great opportunity this is.”
That’s how Sumathi Thiyagarajan found her way to the Bucks 18 months ago. Thiyagarajan had worked in the healthcare industry and then for Marquette University before she was hired to be the team’s vice president of business strategy and analytics.
“During the interview process, there was such openness and understanding about really valuing family,” Thiyagarajan said. “They said ‘we want great talent so come join the Bucks’ and it’s been phenomenal and it’s offered an opportunity for me to show my kids what moms can do. I think it’s transformed the way they look at me and look at my role.”
There’s a great sense of pride that comes with those breaking those barriers and at the same time, an even greater responsibly to not just excel in those roles but also provide guidance – the kind of mentorship that wasn’t available to Chones when she first came to the organization – for the next generation of female executives and leaders.
“It’s an incredible opportunity,” senior vice president of ticket sales and service Jamie Weinstein said. “These seasons can be long, they can be tough sometimes but I feel a responsibility to stay in (the industry) and be an example.”
The female influence on the Bucks isn’t limited to the business operation, either.
On the basketball side, Sidney Dobner is Milwaukee’s head video coordinator while head of nutrition Susie Parker-Simmons makes sure the players are eating and hydrating properly and Lisa Byington describes all the team’s action to its growing legion of fans along with longtime sideline reporter Zora Stephenson.
Then, there’s Suki Hobson, who as the Bucks’ head of strength and conditioning is as vital to the team’s success as Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton or any player on the roster.
Hobson came to the team in 2015 as a strength and rehabilitation specialist. Today, she’s the only female to hold her position in the 30-team league and while she hopes to see more in the future, takes pride in what the Bucks are doing, as well as being a part of it.
“There are some amazing females getting opportunities here,” Hobson said “Hats off to the organization for being brave enough to let it happen.”