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Lesa France Kennedy on NASCAR’s Race to Diversity

Photo: Courtesy of Ray Reyes

When it comes to diversity in sports, “there is no finish line,” says Lesa France Kennedy, the executive vice chair of NASCAR. Here, she discusses her path to leadership in a male-dominated field and how NASCAR promotes diversity every day.

What do you feel is the importance of incorporating those with diverse backgrounds into business?

Diversity inspires creativity, drives innovation, and propels businesses and industries forward. It’s critical for success in today’s marketplace, and that most certainly includes the business of sports. For NASCAR, we need our workforce to represent the same audiences we’re trying to reach in terms of cultivating new fans. Diversity both on and off the track is a top priority for us, and that commitment will never waver.  

We place a strong emphasis on early identification, specifically, and engaging with diverse candidates early in their careers. The NASCAR Diversity Internship Program is a great example. Each summer we identify talented students from across the country and introduce them to the world of NASCAR. Many of our intern graduates are now full-time employees and making a difference within our sport every day.

Has there been a moment in your business career where you feel you were met with adversity you needed to overcome?

While I have enjoyed being involved in a family business, my father made it very clear from the beginning that family members were to receive no special treatment. Back in the early ‘80s, there weren’t as many women in our industry, and oftentimes I had to find ways to be included. In any job, it takes time and energy to prove yourself and be able to see where you can add value to the team.

You have been referred to as one of the most powerful women in sports and one of the most influential women in business; what factors have contributed to your success?

Having a mentor is so important. Having someone you can learn from and who can help you navigate challenges can fast forward your career.

Working with a great team is mission critical. NASCAR puts on some of the biggest sporting events in our country, and it takes a lot of dedicated and passionate people to provide top family entertainment. We are fortunate at NASCAR to have strong leadership and teamwork at every level throughout our organization.

What does it mean to you to be a woman in a male-dominated industry?

You know, I used to get asked this question a lot. I don’t hear it as often these days since there are now so many opportunities for women in our sport. It makes me proud to see how much it has all changed.

Where does the sports industry need to evolve in your opinion?

We’re seeing progress at NASCAR and across the broader sports landscape when it comes to diversity, but we’re always looking to improve and this remains a key priority for us. We look at diversity like this: there is no finish line. We must be persistent in our commitment to making sports truly reflective of our country.  

Have you looked toward a certain role model in the business industry?

My role model was my grandmother, Annie B. France, who was NASCAR’s de facto CFO in the beginning. After graduating from college in 1983, I returned home to Daytona Beach and wanted to learn from her. We shared an office for one year in the ticketing department. She was famous for her way of doing business, which included stashing cash in cigar boxes and keeping two sets of books – the one she shared with my grandfather and the real set. We worked together to modernize many of the office operations and processes, particularly how tickets were sold. She was focused on the way our fans experienced the races, and she prided herself on getting to know them personally. I learned from her that through these relationships we received the best marketing feedback.

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