The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A former NBA executive uses basketball principles to push for diversity in the boardroom

John Rice, a three-year starter for Yale basketball and a former NBA executive, is the founder and CEO of Management Leadership for Tomorrow. (MLT)
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When John Rice competed in varsity basketball, first in high school at St. Albans and then as a three-year starter at Yale, his most valuable contribution as a natural point guard was not directly related to scoring, passing or defending.

The D.C. area native certainly was capable in those important components of the game, but diagnosing the performance of teammates and relaying how they could improve, whether that be an adjustment in mechanics or something more cerebral, became his calling.

Decades since leaving behind Division I basketball, in addition to a promising career in the NBA executive office, Rice, 55, continues to share that instinctive skill from his playing days in his professional life as founder and CEO of Management Leadership for Tomorrow. The nonprofit’s mission is to elevate people of color, in particular Black, Latinx and Native Americans, into executive positions through the principles of athletics — especially basketball, which Rice still plays regularly in pickup games.

Some of his most memorable runs were at the White House during the Obama administration, one of the benefits of having a sister, Susan Rice, who served as national security adviser from 2013 to 2017.

“On a very granular level, I think what I’m uniquely good at is helping other people see what their gifts are, even before they see them,” John Rice said. “That’s helped me build an organization that’s built around coaching people up to be high performers in the professional world.”

Since its inception in 2002, Bethesda-based MLT has provided immersive career training to more than 8,000 students through seminars and one-on-one meetings with instructors, placing professionals from underrepresented minorities on high-level management tracks in the technology, finance and education sectors.

Among its alumni, MLT counts executives at Google, Goldman Sachs and Boston Consulting Group.

“What they gave me, I can’t measure it,” said Jorge Roberts, CEO of a Dulles-based aviation firm who initially dropped out of college in Mexico but graduated from Harvard Business School after completing the MLT program in the early 2000s. “I just wouldn’t be in the position I’m in if it weren’t for them and John Rice.”

“It means so much to me,” said Taylor Brown, a female African American health-care consultant at Deloitte and an MLT alum who graduated from Georgetown in 2017. “It does not feel like we’re in competition with each other. It feels like we’re all on the same journey together.”

The genesis for MLT initially struck Rice, who graduated from Yale in 1988, during a class at Harvard Business School. Looking around the room at his peers, Rice took note of the dearth of African American representation and wondered what he could do to promote a more inclusive and equitable future.

His mind wandered to his basketball days, when Rice had coaches refining all aspects of his game and he in turn served as a de facto coach on the court as the primary ballhandler. Rice soon began developing a business model before placing it on hold for more immediate opportunities.

“I knew I didn’t have enough experience or relationships to try to build something that would be meaningful then,” Rice said. “I knew I needed experience in the private sector. I was raising money trying to figure out what this could be while starting my career.”

Rice’s first job out of business school was with Disney in Miami, where he worked in the company’s fledgling Latin American division. It was an ideal fit for Rice as a Latin American studies major. But he soon found his way back to his basketball roots as director of NBA Latin America, also based in Miami.

Rice helped launch the NBA’s consumer products licensing arm in Latin America and became a rising star in the league’s corporate office. Among his allies was David Stern, the late commissioner, with whom Rice’s relationship was so strong that he did not hesitate to ask for a sabbatical to continue growing MLT.

Rice had secured a grant for $300,000 and requested three months of unpaid leave, to which Stern agreed, with the caveat that upon his return Rice would become director of NBA Japan. At that time in the late 1990s, Japan was the largest international market for the league.

“I had never even been to Asia, knew nothing about it,” said Rice, who wound up spending two years overseeing NBA Japan. “My impression of Tokyo was they don’t like Black people there. I’ll be the tallest guy there. Why would I want to do that? But from a career standpoint, it made a ton of sense.

“That said, I knew if I stayed there for another five or so years that I would regret kind of not knowing where I could have taken MLT. If I jumped out and took a shot at MLT, I felt confident even if I couldn’t go back to the NBA, if it failed, I could get a really good job. I’m going to make a no-regrets decision.”

Rice never did go back to the NBA and since has transformed MLT from its nascent stages with one employee to a nationally recognized organization. Its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives have made it one of the most in-demand corporate resources, especially in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing.

MLT raised $50 million in the last fiscal year, according to Rice, who chairs a governing board that includes Grammy-winning musician John Legend. The two became friends decades ago when Legend, then known as John Stephens, was a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kevin Garnett is a member of the advisory board. Rice did not get to play with Garnett, but he did play with Kevin Durant and James Harden during an Obama birthday cookout.

“The relationships I developed playing basketball have been so important to the success of MLT,” Rice said. “Some of the key folks who are on my board who have been major donors, that network of relationships from pickup basketball and what that’s led to, we probably wouldn’t have been able to build MLT without that.”

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