Trailblazing as a woman of color is nothing new to Martina Ballen (‘80). Growing up in a segregated community in Southern Pines, NC, though not Catholic, Martina’s parents enrolled her in a Catholic elementary school to ensure she had a more integrated educational experience. “I learned early on how to navigate in a setting where I was the only person of color, or one of a few,” she recalls.
Her past experiences prepared her for when, in 1987, she became the first African-American woman to become a senior administrator, serving as the Director of Finance in the Department of Athletics at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I came to a place steeped in tradition in terms of athletic success, but also managed and run primarily by men. I didn’t see many people who looked like me in senior and executive roles, and as a young person, I had to figure out what success would look like for me.”
Martina has, indeed, figured it out. As Senior Associate Athletic Director and Chief Financial Officer, she is responsible for a budget of nearly $100 million; helped launch Tar Heel Trailblazers, a program honoring former African-American student-athletes who paved the way for others; and is the founder and chairperson of the Carolina Athletics Diversity Committee. As a devoted advocate for continuing inclusion at UNC-Chapel Hill, she has also mentored women and minorities so that they, too, can achieve success.
Did you have a mentor when you started in your position in 1987?
I had a wonderful female colleague, Dr. Beth Miller, the senior [female] administrator. She really helped me to learn the business and provided a significant amount of emotional support. There are just not that many females in leadership in Athletics – the higher you go [up the ladder], the fewer you see. Dr. Miller’s perspective as a woman in high-level administrative role was especially helpful.
When you founded the Carolina Athletics Diversity Committee, what particular issues did you hope to address?
Diversity education and training is extremely important in an organization, especially regarding implicit biases. We wanted to make sure that we were able to help the Athletics staff to understand diversity and that it touches all of us in different ways. I didn’t want it to be just about race or gender but rather all different forms of diversity. To be truly successful, you need to appreciate and understand the attributes of each team member.
We also thought it extremely important to tell the stories unknown to many regarding the success of many of our former African-American student-athletes. We especially wanted to establish a tradition of recognition in some way during the month of February, which is Black History Month.
What did you learn from the other committee members over the years that has been most helpful in implementing your initiatives?
It’s definitely a team effort. Many of us share the same concerns, so it’s good to know that we think along the same lines.
What kind of challenges did the committee face in some of its endeavors over the years?
It’s been a slow process to improve diversity in our organization, especially among our staff. [Now, however,] as part of our most recent strategic plan, one of our key objectives is to improve inclusiveness, diversity, and transparency in decision-making.
The Tar Heel Trailblazers program is one of the committee’s signature initiatives. Can you provide some examples of the program’s greatest successes?
I think the Trailblazers’ greatest success is a wonderful [enduring benefits] for our current students), borne out of engagement in the program. To watch them, as they get to know and learn about the honorees, is to witness the birth of a connection. The young students come to realize that they are walking a path that has been cleared of considerable obstacles by those before them. You can see the connection form and appreciation take root as they spend time with the Trailblazers.
As for the honorees, it is quite moving to see the looks on their faces as they realize UNC remembers their contribution. Ricky Lanier, [UNC’s] first black football player, was nearly moved to tears as he expressed gratitude for the honor, [stating,] “I didn’t think anyone remembered me.” That sentiment has been repeated every year of the program. To make that tie for those Tar Heel “family knots” may be the most gratifying aspect of being involved with Trailblazers.
I am proud of the accomplishments that I have made professionally, but more importantly, I am proud that I have set a positive example for my sons and other young people looking to make inroads in careers and professions that aren’t very diverse. It’s always encouraging when you witness success for people who look like you.
I am also proud of being a 2011 recipient of the Harvey Elliott Beech Outstanding Alumni Award and, most recently, receiving the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.
What special interests do you have during your off-time…and what draws you to them?
I have always been interested in fashion, art, and interior design. I guess that is the creative side of me.
Recently, I took a DNA test to learn more about my biological ancestry. My younger son and I enjoy learning about family history and understanding where we come from. It is on my bucket list to see regions of the world where I have a DNA connection. This information will help me to better understand my own personal story.
I am also interested in supporting autism awareness. My older son is on the autism spectrum and my family and I look for ways that we can make a difference, not only for him, but for all individuals on the spectrum.