T'08

Andrea Perez

General Manager of North America Soccer, Nike

You can call anyone from Tuck and they’ll get back to you, you have this assurance that you will always know someone who knows someone who knows someone. It’s about the quality of the people.

Andrea Perez still remembers watching the U.S. women’s national soccer team make history. It was July 10, 1999. The spectacular rise of these athletes had captured the world’s attention like no other women’s sport ever had, and all eyes were on the World Cup. In the final game, the American and Chinese teams battled fiercely for 90 minutes of regulation and another 30 minutes of overtime in front of more than 90,000 howling fans in a sold-out Rose Bowl stadium. But the game finally came down to penalty kicks—a moment of unimaginable pressure.

An 18-year-old living in her hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, Perez was glued to the television. She watched goalie Briana Scurry dive to make a game altering save on the third penalty kick. Her idol Mia Hamm then nailed the ball square into the back right corner, and finally, Brandi Chastain made the game-winning goal, ripped off her shirt, fell to her knees, and shook her fists in what is now an iconic image of victory and a milestone in the ascendance of women’s sports. Perez screamed and cheered. These women were heroes, and girls around the world like Perez now knew what they wanted to do.

Sixteen years later, Perez has her dream job as general manager, North America soccer for Nike. And on a Wednesday in May, she was doing all the things she normally does: fly around the country, field calls, feverishly tap out text messages, and wolf down tacos between sprints to meetings. But that day was a little different, and she was nervous.

With Perez’s help, Nike and the Mia Hamm Foundation provided grants allowing 250 girls from an underprivileged East Lost Angeles neighborhood to participate in Soccer for Success, a youth development program. And on a sun-bleached California day, Perez and Hamm were slated to make the announcement to the girls and the media at a YMCA.

“I was freaking out,” says Perez. “I told my team, ‘Hey, I’m going to try my best to keep my cool, but if not, then someone come and tell me to keep my cool.’” She laughs, remembering the day, meeting Hamm, and seeing the looks on those girls’ faces when they got to run around with Hamm and national team players Amy Rodriguez and Christen Press. “It was insane,” says Perez. “I was like, where am I?”

This is a frequent refrain for Perez, who travels through the world in a whirlwind of enthusiasm that seems to open doors to remarkable opportunities like this one. Barely topping five feet, she has a penchant for loud athletic footwear, a knack for disarmingly casual banter, and a warm, friendly personality, all of which makes her both easy to be around and impossible to ignore. She is the consummate people person.

Her easygoing air, however, belies a powerful intellect that has fueled her meteoric path from administrative assistant in the Nike offices of her hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico—offices she used to run past everyday and dream about—to the halls of Tuck, and eventually to the headquarters of the sports giant in Oregon, heading up branding for tennis, the World Cup, and, now, the entire soccer division for the continent.

Along the way, she has become one of the rare marketing professionals who possesses both a deep understanding of business and strong insight into branding. From new apps to social media blitzes, her strategies are forward thinking in a company that is already a case study in innovative marketing. But for Perez, this is more than a job. It’s her dream, and not only because sports are what she loves, but because Nike is a place where she might actually have the power to do what she really wants to do—share the transformative power of athletics with every kid or grown-up who has ever wanted the opportunity to play, like she did.

“I don’t see my job as selling shoes,” says Perez. “That’s not what we do. That’s a consequence of what we do. I want to make soccer massive in America.” That may seem like big rhetoric and a lofty goal, but those who know Perez know that she is not someone who sits on the sidelines. 

When Perez was growing up in central Mexico, girls didn’t really play sports. But in her neighborhood, all of the kids her age were boys. Those boys were always moving, so Perez and her sister moved too. They rode their bikes around and played soccer and shot hoops and threw balls in endless games of catch. They played sports all day and watched them on television at night. Perez and her dad, also a lifelong sports fan, would occasionally make the long drive north to watch the San Antonio Spurs. Young Perez was mesmerized. There was something about the lights, the emotion, and the energy of the crowd that moved her. She loved watching the dramas of triumph and defeat unfold on the court far below.

Perez was not an exceptional high school or college soccer player, but she was good because she worked tremendously hard. And in return, she says, sports gave her everything. “Sport is a phenomenal way to reach a number of things in your life, from leadership skills to friendships to meditation and being more in your head to the ability to feel worthy and successful to having a great balance of life,” she says. “It’s the best hobby one could have.” She also learned, unlike many women in high school and college, that other women weren’t her competitors. She saw them as teammates.

Even in college, Perez already knew where she wanted to work: Nike. In 2003, she signed on in Guadalajara as a marketing assistant and quickly rose to product line manager. In 2006, she traveled to the Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, for the first time. This place, with its huge soccer field, gleaming basketball court, running trails, and bronzes of famous athletes, she knew, was her ideal habitat. s

As part of a special program, Nike arranged for Perez to go to the business school of her choosing on the condition that she would return to the company upon graduation. An inveterate question asker, Perez set about figuring out which would be best.

“I started thinking about what is the experience I want and why am I doing this?” she says. “I started hearing these things that you can call anyone from Tuck and they’ll get back to you, and I’m like, that’s the kind of people I want. You have this assurance at Tuck that you will always know someone who knows someone who knows someone—or something. It’s about the quality of the people.”

Tuck was a seminal experience for Perez. She acted as a visiting executives fellow, hosting CEOs and entrepreneurs. She immersed herself in the late Professor Kent Womack’s managerial decision-making class. “It taught me so much about human behavior,” she says, “including my own.” And in Communicating with Presence, James Rice challenged her and her classmates to not only consider the direction of their careers but their lives. What kind of leaders did they want to be? How would they craft their own stories? “Everything that I’ve done right has been based on that class,” says Perez,” “leading with openness, vulnerability, presence.”

Returning to Nike, however, was difficult. She wanted to be in brand marketing but was assigned to e-commerce sales, a division that, at the time, had very little traction for the brand. It had nothing to do with her interests, but nonetheless, she learned. She gained an understanding of the complexity of the organization, a better grasp of the cultural nuances in the various countries where she worked, and she learned how to do a lot with a small budget. Within a year, she got the offer to leap to branding.

Perez loves branding because it’s all about stories, the ways in which humans understand the world. And she’s good at branding because she understands and enjoys humans. She is the sort of person who asks a personal question and listens intently to the answer. It’s not uncommon for her to unselfconsciously stop a surly teenager with an unusual outfit on the street, chat him up, and convince him to let her take his photo—for research purposes. She is constantly studying the ways in which we move through the world and relate to it—and those insights allow for a unique perspective in both branding and business.

“She’s not thinking about profit margins and business dynamics,” says Dennis Lasko, T’08, a friend of Perez’s and co-founder of Pantry, a new Boston retail shop that sells kits with the exact quantities of fresh ingredients needed to cook a meal at home. “She’s thinking about the person’s experience and the person’s interaction, and that shows through in the work that she does.” 

Over the years, Perez has built a series of innovative projects on her march through Nike’s ranks. As the global brand director for Nike Tennis, she was tasked with the ambitious goal of reaching a million social media followers with almost no budget. Perez was able to see that there was no one out there speaking to tennis fans on an inspirational level. Most brands were simply reporting the news. She led a campaign to give tennis fans what they wanted—stories—in ways that didn’t break the bank. At Wimbledon, for example, Nike typically rents a house where the company’s sponsored athletes drop by to pick up their gear. On the spur of the moment, Perez had an idea: build a makeshift photo studio in one bedroom to grab behind-the-scenes shots of the stars for social media—the kinds of images fans love.

“It’s really classic Andrea. She just sees something that could happen and makes it happen,” says Kaia Davis T’16, one of Perez’s mentees at Nike. “Afterwards, everyone is like, ‘Why had we never thought of that before?’” Under Perez’s watch, Nike Tennis became the company’s most popular Facebook page in terms of engagement.

Later, she spearheaded the effort to roll out a special-edition Roger Federer shoe celebrating his 287 weeks as the No.1 player in the world. Every person who bought a pair of the limited-edition shoe—only 287 pairs were made—received a card telling the story of that particular week in his run and an autograph by Federer. Now, the shoes cost as much as a retro Jordan on the secondary market.

She developed the marketing plan for the Nike Training Club app, which now has more than 10 million users, and during her tenure as the senior brand director for Nike Football and the World Cup, the company’s marketing efforts broke viewership and engagement records for the industry. For the Women’s World Cup this past summer, she spearheaded Nike Underground, a cool pop-up space in which customers could try out new Nike technology on an indoor soccer pitch—all part of the #NoMaybes campaign, which released an inspirational video of U.S. national team members and helped Nike’s content become 121 percent more associated with the tournament than even the title sponsor, Adidas, during that time.

Perez thrives on the excitement of introducing the new U.S. women’s soccer team uniforms, meeting stars like Maria Sharapova and now, getting to sit courtside at games that she once dreamed about as a kid. But even more than all that, she loves to watch the looks on people’s faces when they connect with sport—and that is what motivates her. She has seen those looks at the Nike National Training Camp, where young soccer players come to play with national team coaches, players, and scouts. She has seen it on days like that Wednesday in May, when 250 East Los Angeles girls got the opportunity to play. And she has seen it at races like the extremely popular women’s half marathon in downtown San Francisco that Nike sponsors every October.

Perez has never worked that event, but she has run it many times. After the race, she loves going over to the Nike store in San Francisco, where the company hangs a wall-size banner with every participant’s name listed there for the world to see. Sometimes Perez will just stand there after the race, in a rare moment of stillness, and watch. Women come up and peruse the names and eventually find their own. Often they’ll take a photo. Then they smile, because this is proof that they actually did this thing—they are athletes.

Perhaps it’s so moving because this is what Perez does all of this for: the idea that if you have a body, you are an athlete. And if you are an athlete, you can learn and grow into a bigger person than you were before. Perhaps watching these women makes her tear up because she remembers that she too is an athlete. She too is part of the story. 

Continue Reading