tennis-convo-kathleen-wu

On Thursday, the USTA Foundation announced its largest single fundraising campaign in history with the launch of “Rally for the Future”. The campaign, which seeks to raise $20 million over the next three years, comes after 2020’s Rally to Rebuild exceeded expectations by bringing in more than $6.5 million to support National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) chapters throughout the U.S. that were severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kathleen Wu, who became the first Asian-American woman to be elected USTA Foundation President in January, is the perfect person to direct this massive undertaking. From starting out in foster care and then later facing racial and gender stereotypes when she became a lawyer, Wu has turned challenges into opportunities. Throughout her 30-year career in litigation, she’s been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion advocacy, and she carried that over to her USTA involvement by serving as their national chair of the diversity and inclusion committee.

“I’ve had the grassroots experience from the beginning and have seen the USTA family from all different sides,” she shares. “There are many other national committees I've been involved on, as well, so I got to see the business side, as well. And I think all of that helps me sit in the position I do now.”

In this TENNIS Conversation, Wu takes us through the similarities between tennis and the court of law, the significance of kids seeing adults who look like them in visible roles, and why the time is now to get “Rally for the Future” off the ground.

I love that people are now saying equity in the middle of diversity and inclusion. So to me, the inclusion of the word equity really is everything. It’s making sure that all voices are heard. —Kathleen Wu

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First off: we’re in the middle of the European clay-court season right now. Do you enjoy the clay, or patiently waiting for the grass and the US hard courts to get around here?

Oh, easy answer. Clay. Two reasons. One, I love when I see them build the point. It feels more exciting to me than your power-serving fast-paced game, especially on the men's side. But the second reason, more importantly, is that my son was a tennis player, and he was raised literally by Argentine coaches.

And so I have this little guy in Dallas, Texas who, all he wanted to play on was clay, so it holds a special place in my heart. He made his way to college after seeing how being patient and learning how to really work the ball and play the point paid off.

Diego Schwartzman is smiling, somewhere. Your career pathway didn’t involve a tennis court, but it did take you to another court, the court of law. I'm wondering for you, is there a parallel between the two, when you consider that both require extreme discipline, a strategic vision, adjusting to what the opponent might be throwing your way, and there's even a judge that comes into play every now and then?

I do think that there are all kinds of parallels between tennis and the law. So it's interesting that you see that parallel, and yes, they both take a lot of effort to get good at, and tremendous amounts of discipline. And I think in general, athletes have what it takes to succeed in a business world, whether it's the law or any other endeavor.

I think about this sometimes because when I look at my litigation colleagues and realize that they have to be risk-takers because victory is never guaranteed when they're sitting in the courtroom. And for someone like me, a lawyer who works in transactions, no deal is ever guaranteed, either.

It's not the same solution for every client and the same would go in tennis when you are playing someone different. Do you enjoy that ongoing challenge and the lessons that you can take away, even in defeat, that can be applied the next time around?

That's my everyday world, for better, for worse. You have to look around the corner and you have to be strategic and help the clients realize what their problem is before they know what their problem is.

And similarly on the tennis court, the really good players can see four, eight points ahead. And so I think about that a lot when I'm doing my everyday work on how can I add value to this client and what can I see that they can't see just from all the different chairs I've had the privilege to sit in around the conference room tables, and similarly on the tennis court. It's the one who can see the furthest ahead to set the point up the right way. And in my role, that's the one who gets hired again for the next deal.

So that is why I feel privileged to do what I do for a living, because I'm sitting here as an Asian American woman lawyer in the middle of Dallas, Texas, having started my career here in the ‘80s.

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USTA Foundation

USTA Foundation

I'm curious first, what kind of representation do you recall seeing in your areas of interest like tennis as a kid, and how that might've impacted your trajectory as someone who has become a proven agent of change for not only women, but minorities in your field?

I didn't see many, probably any people who looked like me on the tennis court or early in my career. There were some women, but very few people of color. That did make me even more determined to make it, and pay it forward now that I'm in a position to do so, whether it's in the legal profession or in the tennis community. That's why the USTA Foundation speaks so much to my heart. A lot of people say, "Well, what portions of the USTA family would you want to be in?" And to me, as soon as I found out what the USTA Foundation was doing, I knew that was going to be my sweet spot. I can put a racquet in a child’s hand to give them the opportunity to take a lesson. It’s simple, but as a foster kid, I would never have felt emboldened or entitled to be asked.

Expanding on that for a second. You once wrote a story about how Billie Jean King would have been a great lawyer. One of her many life mottos is that one has to see it to be it. As USTA Foundation president, do you see your impact, being more than just someone who can get the job done in that you are a tangible extension of its mission? There may be a kid who identifies with you and sees this person “looks like me” in a visible leadership position?

Yes. Something tells me that there are higher profile women and people of color that young people would look to in tennis before they would look to me, but assuming they get beyond the Naomi Osaka's of the world, I'm glad to be a role model for anybody who's looking to move up in the USTA family of volunteers. I do think it makes a huge difference when you can see people who look like you. I've seen that both in the tennis world and other volunteer work that I do, and of course, in my day job. So I'm very proud from my vantage point that I've seen significant progress in this area amongst the highest levels of staff and volunteers in the USTA family. I'm just one of the women and people of color who've taken on a leadership positions and I definitely won't be the last, I hope.

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We all hear about the concept of diversity and inclusion… companies promote the ideal of working to achieve this. Just because you've been so heavily involved, whether it's in the legal field or at USTA, and stand in the shoes of a minority woman, can you tell me what diversity and inclusion is to you?

Oh, I love this question. First, I love that people are now saying equity in the middle of diversity and inclusion. So to me, the inclusion of the word equity really is everything. It’s making sure that all voices are heard. And tactically, how do you do that? You go about trying to scrub out the unconscious bias that has reached into almost everything that people do. Making sure you talk to the people in the margins and they're invited to the table. It's the people in the center of the room that seem to always get the attention, but it's the people in the margins that seem to get forgotten.

And as we sit here in the middle of Stop Asian hate crimes, Black Lives Matter and everything going on in this country right now, it's the people in the margins. Those are the voices that have been muffled, and those are the voices that we need to hear.

Absolutely. Keeping with 2020, it forced everyone to adapt or be left behind. So when you stepped into this new role in January, how encouraged were you by what was achieved last year with Rally to Rebuild, given the challenging landscape?

Obviously it was quite inspiring to see how many people stepped up last year to help us with the fundraising. I was so proud that the board exceeded all expectations. $6.5 million in the middle of a global pandemic when philanthropic purse strings had shuttered, was pretty remarkable. So inspiring that you get this sense of energy and you just want to keep doing that, but with new challenges. So I'm hugely optimistic, but cautious about 2021.

We've set some pretty big goals for ourselves, but I also feel like you’ve got to put it out there. If you don't put it out there, you're not going to try and do it. I see the numbers increasing. I see the children who, now more than ever, need the benefit of after-school programming that we do. So we have to have a big goal. I feel like it's incumbent upon us.

USTA Foundation

USTA Foundation

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That momentum you speak of, it’s something you never want to lose sight of. Today, USTA Foundation announced a new campaign, Rally for the Future. What makes now the right time to undertake the most ambitious fundraising campaign in foundation history?

I'll try not to talk your ear off, but I don't think we as a nation have a handle yet on the academic losses that American children have experienced during the pandemic. Children will be the ones that have been most affected, likely in those communities where the kids were already falling behind. Remediating those academic losses is a massive job that is going to take resources of every level of government, and every parent, every teacher, every single educational institution, but there is also a role for organizations like the USTA Foundation. And I intend to make it my mission to pull every lever I can, that we have, to bring educational resources to those communities hit the hardest by the academic losses because that's our future.

In addition to providing the educational resources and the academic support, the foundation also brings tennis to the communities that otherwise wouldn't have access. So I firmly believe that tennis plays a role in the academic recovery, that they go hand in hand and it's uniquely situated, unlike many other sports that way.

Lastly, if you had to make a closing argument for why someone should get involved with Rally for the Future right now, with everything going on, what would you tell them?

We talk about what the game of tennis gives, but I've seen it firsthand from personal experience and my grassroot efforts that tennis teaches resilience, discipline and a healthy sense of competition. It can teach kids to be leaders, how to be a teammate, and they get fitness to boot. I have a hard time coming up with a better prescription for helping American kids as we come out of the pandemic era.

These kids are facing a gigantic challenge right now that will make a difference to our entire country and the trajectory of where we go. Rally for the Future is really about that, our future as a country, and I can't think of any better use of philanthropic dollars.