The Grades You Make and the Hands You Shake

Corinne Milien, Founder of The Winning Edge Leadership Academy Photo via Corinne Milien

Corinne Milien, Founder of The Winning Edge Leadership Academy Photo via Corinne Milien

Some people tend to think of their professional and personal networks as a one-way street. That is to say that there are those who just want to know how their friends and colleagues can help them. Corinne Milien, Founder of The Winning Edge Leadership Academy and Event Supervisor for ESPN, is proud to say she does not fit that mold.

A Miami born, Atlanta raised daughter of Haitian immigrants, Milien admits that a career in sports did not enter her mind at an early age, due to her family’s financial situation and focus on academics.

“In my parents’ eyes, they didn’t come here for me to play sports. They came to this country for me to be a doctor or a lawyer or a principal of some sort. I didn’t really grow up playing a lot of sports because my parents couldn’t really afford it. The first time I ever really paid attention to sports was when my parents would send me to Haiti to be with my grandmother for the summer.”

“Being a third world country, Haiti didn’t and still doesn’t have power all the time, but there would be power in my grandmother’s town of Gonaives when there was a soccer match on TV. That made me think that if sport is powerful enough that a town will literally go without electricity all day except for the two hours when the game is on, it can be an incredible thing.”

Throughout high school, Milien dabbled in softball and golf to stay out of the house as much as possible. However, it was upon enlisting in the Air Force after graduation when sports began to take over for her. Milien competed in track and field during basic training and upon being stationed in Germany, was a member of the Spangdahlem Air Base basketball and track and field teams. It was during this time in the military that her philosophy as a leader began to form.

“I think it taught me that you don’t have to do what’s popular. That’s not what a good leader does. When I was in Germany, I was coaching JV high school basketball at Bitburg High School and I had the base commander’s, the highest ranking official there, daughter on my team. She wasn’t a bad player, but she expected to be the captain of the team because of her father’s rank. I didn’t make her a captain and I guess she thought she would go to her parents and then her parents would come to me and I would make her a captain.”

“That didn’t happen. What ended up happening was her father was very impressed with me not doing what I thought he would have wanted me to do and he ended up being the one who nominated me to attend the Air Force Academy. So that’s when I realized that not everybody is going to like the decisions that you make, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a good leader. For me, I believe my purpose in life is servant leadership. When I didn’t make that girl captain of the team, it wasn’t because I just didn’t want to, it was for her to not get everything that she wanted and for her to grow from it. I think most of the decisions that I’ve made in the positions that I’ve held have been about how I can help somebody else.”

After two years in Germany, Milien returned to the U.S. and accepted her commander’s nomination to attend the Air Force Academy where she played basketball for the Air Force Academy Preparatory School and then became the head manager for Air Force women’s basketball, which inspired her to pursue a career in sport. After a year at the Academy, Milien transferred to Bemidji State University in Minnesota where she graduated with a B.A. in sport management in 2010 while working as a student assistant with women’s basketball and working in the media relations department specifically with women’s hockey, track & field, volleyball, softball and men’s basketball.

Milien had little time to ponder her next career move as she was offered a graduate assistant position with the University of Tennessee women’s basketball program before graduation, where she would learn lessons in leadership from one of the greatest coaches of all time in the late Pat Summitt.

“I graduated from Bemidji State on May 15th. I had to be in Knoxville to start work on May 17th. I was basically in charge of getting two freshmen, who were top 10 recruits, moved in, along with getting camps ready for over 1,000 kids and coordinating efforts to host recruits…and none of the coaching staff were in town."

“My first week at Tennessee, Coach Summitt was at the beach in Destin, Florida. She made me cry almost every day via telephone. She actually had to ride her bike into town, since there wasn’t cell service at her beach house, to use the phone at a local café. So I learned really quickly how to be resourceful and I think that’s what she wanted. She really challenged people and wanted to get the best out of them and put you in a situation where you may not think you know what to do or how to get out of this or how to get this done, but you’re going to find a way because she expects you to.”

As those who played for her and coached under her can attest, Coach Summitt personified transformational and servant leadership. Milien dedicated herself to following that example as a professional.

“One of the things that Coach Summitt told me that I will always carry with me was that she used her players for four years of their lives and she expected them to use her for the rest of her life. For her to say something like that, she really did care about her players and I wanted to make sure that was the brand that I carry about myself as well: that I really am here for other people. When I would assist in the recruitment of young women at Tennessee and they would come on campus, I would tell them and their parents, regardless if they come here or not, I’m going to make sure that I’m a resource for them. I still support all the students that I helped recruit at Tennessee by keeping in touch via social media, sending birthday text/calls, swinging by their skills camps or their WNBA games. I get joy out of seeing other people succeed and achieve their goals.”

After receiving her graduate degree in 2012, Milien assumed her current role with ESPN as an event coordinator. ESPN owns and operates 29 college sporting events (13 bowl games, three Labor Day kickoff football games, 11 basketball events, and two award shows) throughout the year and, for a number of them, Milien has her hands in almost every aspect of their planning and execution.

“This year, I managed a team that operated the MEAC/SWAC Challenge, an HBCU football game over Labor Day weekend. My second event of the year, my favorite, is the Champions Classic, which is Duke, Michigan State, Kansas and Kentucky every year in a different city. I’m also part of a team that operates the Wooden Legacy, an eight-team, three-day basketball tournament in Anaheim over Thanksgiving. The last event of the year for me is the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, which is the MEAC champion vs the SWAC champion in the Georgia Dome. We do everything, but play and coach in the game. Marketing, promotions, budget, team operations, ancillary events, social media, contracts, all of it.”

Working in this position has granted Milien the opportunity to showcase her multitude of skills on a large stage and allowed her to have one of her favorite experiences of her career in 2014. 

Milien at the 2014 Armed Forces Classic Photo via Corinne Milien

Milien at the 2014 Armed Forces Classic Photo via Corinne Milien

“I’m a veteran and two years ago I got to be a part of a two-man team to manage the Armed Forces Classic basketball game at U.S.C.G. Air Station Borinquen in Puerto Rico. It was Louisville against Minnesota, so Rick Pitino was coaching against his son Richard. The game took place in a Coast Guard hangar and we built an entire court in there. We put down the floor, we put in seats, we put in lights, all while the base was still operational and search and rescue missions were being deployed from the hangar. We got to be a part of something really great. As a veteran, it was amazing to bring my favorite sport to my brothers and sisters in the armed forces, the people who just appreciate the acknowledgement. I got a chance to really connect with a lot of the men and women stationed there, while exposing the players to the service men and women who serve our country. Plus, I couldn’t have asked for two better teams to work with in Louisville and Minnesota. It really became a family affair with the entire Pitino family making the trip.”

Throughout her experiences in sport, Milien began to notice a gap in opportunities for women and people of color. This observation prompted her to create The Winning Edge Leadership Academy, alongside Maria Taylor of the ESPN. The Winning Edge provides mentorship, networking and financial assistance for this underrepresented group.

“I was an adjunct professor of sport management at Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university in Charlotte and I had some juniors and seniors in my class that didn’t know the athletic department on their own campus. When I was in undergrad, I was working in the athletic department. When I was at Tennessee, there were people who had been working in the athletic department for four years. Those students already had so much more experience than my seniors who were graduating at the same time as them. I realized that the system failed them a long time ago and sitting in a classroom can only do so much for these students as they prepare to enter their post graduate journey.”

“I didn’t want to be that person who just complained women and people of color were not being hired. I wanted to create viable candidates by providing resources and a network of influence.  It’s not enough to say hire more diverse candidates. I wanted to give them no reason NOT to hire more diverse candidates. We all know experience is the difference maker for candidates especially for young professionals in sports, but women and people of color weren’t gaining a lot of experience so the Winning Edge creates and provide these opportunities using our network.”

Growing that network came as a result of Milien’s ability to grow relationships through her integrity and exceptional abilities as a servant leader.

“I’m pretty unassuming, physically, being only five-foot-six-inches, surrounded by above average people most of the time. The only thing people really notice about me is my smile, which is like 1000 watts. That’s why I’ve built my brand on two things that I think have helped me build relationships.”

“The first is my word. If I tell you I’m going to do something, there’s no doubt in your mind that it will get done. The second is that I genuinely care about other people. People know that about me and when they speak about me to other people, they want to get to know me. They know I’m not just here because I want something from you, I want to know what I can do for you. That mentality has opened more doors and created more opportunities for me than anything else than I have done.”

Milien’s demeanor and personality has helped her grow her career in impressive fashion and has alerted her to the challenges of making an impact in the sport industry that the next generation of sport professionals must be prepared for. Above all, she says confidence is key in networking as well as in one’s body of work.

“It’s not going to be easy. Things don’t happen overnight. I think the biggest thing for me was taking risks and having confidence in myself. Pretty much every step I’ve taken along my journey has been because I took a risk and I had faith that I was going to make it out okay. In sports, it’s not about the grades you make, it’s about the hands you shake. Put yourself out there and let people know that this is what you want to do. The more people who knew what I wanted to do, the more helpful they were when opportunities came up.”

In trying to become a better leader or just trying to find a job, Milien can attest that being genuine can open more doors than anything else in this business.

“Just be authentic. People can see through the nonsense. We work in an industry where everybody is a fan, and executives and people who have been in the game for a long time can see the difference is someone who is a fan and someone who is ready to work from a mile away. If you can just be who you are, the opportunities will come.”

Follow Corinne on Twitter here.

Connect with Corinne on LinkedIn here.

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