Monique Nelson bring global perspective to mainstream, sports

Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.


Monique Nelson has made her life’s work looking out for other people. As the chairman and CEO of UniWorld Group, the country’s longest-standing Black marketing agency, the Brooklyn native has taken her perspective across the world, from Beijing to Seoul, Guangzhou, São Paulo and Milan, to start. At UniWorld Group, Nelson and her team are focused on adding diverse perspectives into the mainstream, including working with ESPN’s The Undefeated and launching a new NIL program for Black college athletes in the fall. But this type of work is not new to Nelson.

Before taking over the agency from founder Bryon Lewis in May 2012, Nelson was the global lead for entertainment marketing at Motorola, making sure that people of color and poor folks were able to “participate,” in her words, in digital culture as it slowly took over the globe. Now 12 years into running the agency, she reflects on the international journey she went on to end up back in her hometown at UniWorld, and her work to address biases around exceptionalism and perfectionism of people of color globally.

Way before she traveled the world, Nelson was at home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a classically trained vocalist attending LaGuardia High School and working toward her future at Vanderbilt University. “I was fortunate enough to get the Posse Scholarship in my senior year, for schools that were looking for more inclusive campuses,” she recalls. The Posse Foundation is a youth leadership development and college access program that provides full-tuition leadership scholarships to public high school students, with Posse’s partner colleges and universities. Nelson, who currently sits on the New York Advisory Board for the foundation, was in its pilot for the program with Vanderbilt. “We had the second Black homecoming queen. We had the second Black Student Government Association president. If I look back on it now, that [experience] started my whole thought process of inclusion being the answer,” Nelson says. “Solving problems really is a whole lot easier when you have all the perspectives.”

Nelson left Vanderbilt to take her role at Motorola, where she made a point to ensure that people of color and of different socioeconomic statuses were considered in the burgeoning digital markets of new technology. “I really cut my teeth in technology; I was able to do that globally. There were a bunch of innovation centers around the world. One in Japan, one in Shibuya where they do all of the gaming, one in India, one in Milan for fashion,” she says. “This is probably like 2000, maybe ’99. For the United States, this technology was still a novelty. But you would go somewhere else and everybody already had a phone, and they were doing incredible things with it, accessorizing, matching outfits.”

Nelson credits her time abroad with giving her an international perspective, which was a steady advantage as she led companies to more intentional cultural fluency and nuance. “I was thankful to be on that team to be able to experience that culture mattered, everywhere,” she says. “I couldn’t do the same thing in Milan that I would do in the UAE or Dubai, right? I had to be very thoughtful about what culture meant—even though the phone was going to be ubiquitous; the people weren’t.”

Her current role has allowed Nelson to further her cultural fluency and advocacy work at UniWorld Group, the company’s oldest existing Black marketing agency, which was founded in 1969. She landed at UWG in 2007 as an account director, before quickly becoming the head of branded entertainment and integration, right around the same time the culture of the global internet was rising. She recalls Lewis valued how digitally minded her leadership was, something he was less fluent in due to their generational gap.

“We realized it’s no longer just going to be TV, radio, and print. You’ve got the internet, this digital space, that’s going to come to life.” This put her in another unique position to ensure underrepresented groups were considered, as these emerging technologies took over the entire world. “I was just kind of sitting in a lot of the meetings, just making sure they didn’t forget us, or they didn’t forget that Black people were going to be a part of this,” she says. “People of color were going to also participate, so don’t leave us out.”

When global brands and companies came scrambling to Black leadership agencies in the summer of 2020, Nelson and her team were beyond prepared. “If we weren’t built for this moment, I don’t know who works. It was just the quintessential moment where you think it’s dark. But I looked at that moment and saw true clarity,” she says. “People can actually see what’s happening, in this moment, and we’re going to take it as an opportunity to lean into our purpose. We had purpose before purpose was a thing.”

Today, Nelson is focused on being a strong example of leading with love for her two sons, and supporting her partner. She hopes future generations—and especially Black women looking to run companies and shift industries—will keep their network in mind, and value those who keep us grounded in reality. “I would say, strong partnership bond, strong community is key to being successful on any level,” she says. “You’re never great at it all the time. You just gotta have people around you that will be like, All right, excuse my French, but that wasn’t cool. Right? Just to give you that relief and that ability to be your best. Don’t be afraid to mess up. You make so much more progress when you make a mistake. It’s not always on you.

When it comes to brands that haven’t caught quite up to the type of equity Nelson advocates for, her advice is simple. “Brands that are truly customer and consumer focused are hypersensitive to this right now and are, should be, focused. If you don’t have a multicultural strategy or at least a POV on your diverse market, I don’t know how you’re going to be in business,” she says. “The brilliance of finding out facts, is that you found it; you can’t ‘un-find’ it. That’s what we’re trying to do, raise awareness. It’s never gonna go away. Difference and fear are always intertwined; they’ll never go away. We just have to know that they’re there and get people to deconstruct and be thoughtful about what that means at work.” 

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Naya Samuel is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.

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