Ibe Imo writes on Melcolm Ruffin’s (MBA ’20) journey to becoming a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree.
In New York City, December 3, 2020, Melcolm Ruffin (MBA ’20), age 29, became a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree. Ruffin’s career is another rendition of Black masculinity in American sports and entertainment. Realizing his hoop dreams would never come to fruition, he chose to play off the court. Ruffin tackles defining moments and leads by closing diversity, equity, and inclusion gaps in sports and entertainment.
At 49 degrees, it was a warmer than usual fall morning, and another day of virtual meetings—the new normal during the global Covid-19 pandemic. Ruffin got out of the shower to find several incoming text messages. “Congratulations” from friends and family. Unsure of the context, he read through each SMS. There was one with a screenshot from Forbes magazine. “That was when I put it together.” Forbes honored 600 leaders from 15,000 nominations across North America. Ruffin was one of the revolutionary leaders.
The journey to Forbes began from simpler days in Maywood, Illinois, a Westside suburb of Chicago. In the fall of 1991, Ruffin was born to Gina Ruffin, United Airlines flight attendant, and Mark Ruffin, a Chicago-based jazz journalist. Ruffin’s birth coincided with the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) 45th season, when the Chicago Bulls won their first championship. Maywood is a predominantly Black community and hometown to several professional basketball players.
“Growing up, we did not have much of anything,” Ruffin said. His parents worked hard to provide for Ruffin and his two older brothers. They understood and impressed the importance of education on their three sons. They also found small but meaningful ways to find fulfilment in their careers. “All my parents had was the joy in their careers. That looked like happiness to me.” Having a journalist dad meant access to different newspapers and magazines. By middle school, Ruffin was selected to write and deliver a speech. “It was fascinating to find articles marked up and try to understand what was interesting about them.” Though his father was still years away from awards and nominations in journalism and jazz, Ruffin’s interest in reading and media was growing.
In 2005 in Chicago, Ruffin was 14 years old and navigating self-identity. Like many young Black boys in America, he aspired to be Shaquille O’Neal (Shaq). “Basketball was simply accessible.” The evolution of Basketball is parallel to progressions in racial equality in the United States—before and after the civil rights movement. Frequent portrayals by the media have created interlinkages with Black identity and iconism. This homogeneous masculinity standard paints a linear and singular path to success for young Black boys. Although the average American male is five feet nine inches, professional NBA athletes are about six feet seven inches tall. Ruffin was not discouraged. His chance of becoming a professional player was low, but not zero. At 14, Ruffin was only five feet 10 inches tall. “I used to wear basketball shorts under my jeans. Always ready for a pickup game.”
Playing hard, Ruffin made the varsity team at Proviso East High School. Proviso East’s basketball program is renowned with notable alumni like Jim Brewer of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Michael Finley, vice president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks. Making the varsity team at Proviso East was a dream come true. Progressing into freshman year, this dream was slipping away. Ruffin was good, but not good enough. “I was fortunate to have enough vulnerability for self-honesty,” he said, recalling the moment he realized he would never be Shaq. Ruffin had to find other ways to maximize his strengths.
Mama-always-knows-best, his mother enrolled him at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA). IMSA ignited a spontaneous intellectual curiosity in him. He completed seven semesters of physics and a class in gender studies. “I gained a deeper understanding of the world, at molecular and interpersonal levels.” Ruffin was learning to think critically and problem-solve. He developed a pastime—scouring through ESPN magazines.
Ruffin immersed himself in the most recent NBA news, standings and team stats. It was an easy way to impress and participate in grown folk’s conversation. “They called me walking ESPN.” One day, Rufin was flipping through an ESPN magazine, he stumbled on a story that featured the top U.S undergraduate sports management programs. “I realized there was a business side to sports and entertainment.” Carefully reading through each university’s ranking, he cut out the page and stored it safely. Ruffin decided he would apply to select universities from that list.
Late in the summer of 2009, Ruffin gained admission to University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass Amherst). At UMass, he would study sports management. He thought to himself he could shape a management career in professional sports and eventually work at the NBA’s basketball operations. But Ruffin’s hoop dreams had evaporated in the past, so he needed a backup plan. He began taking additional courses to also double-major in operations and information management. Melcolm could follow another career path in corporate operations strategy or supply chain if sports management did not come to fruition. UMass’s experiential learning and alumni support created a springboard to gain real-life sports management experience. As an undergraduate student, he interned at Octagon, a leading consulting practice in athlete and personality representation, and at Philadelphia 76ers, a top sports franchise with leaders from the NBA and the National Football League. It was a surreal mixture of reality and imagination. While at UMass, Ruffin also became president of the association for diversity in sports and co-launched a sports management career fair.
During the NBA’s 66th season (2011–12), Shaq announced his retirement and LeBron James’s prominence was rising. The paradoxical issue of diversity and inclusion gaps in American sports and entertainment business became one of Ruffin’s realities. In the 2011–12 NBA season, the player’s racial composition was predominantly African American, a progressive and consistent pattern since the civil rights movement. Even though the league is celebrated as a trailblazer, having the highest percentage of Black players of any major North American professional sports league, there are still few Black general managers, coaches, and owners. Ruffin was perplexed. “Black representation in sports is predominantly for athleticism. It shouldn’t be exclusively that,” he said. There was a tremendous opportunity to make a difference. Ruffin realized he did not need a double major. By 2013, he completed his bachelor’s degree in sports management. Ruffin graduated summa cum laude.
With directly related experience, stellar academic performance, and a genuine interest in basketball, Ruffin checked all the boxes. He applied to a role with the NBA’s basketball operations. “I was far into the interview process, when the recruitment team went with a different candidate.” This was a defining moment for Ruffin; here he was again, straddling between basketball and business. Was he still not good enough? Ruffin paused to think, “I had to understand my strengths and find ways to maximize them.” Career paths are truly rarely linear. Seemingly thrown off track, Ruffin tried grounding himself. If there were doubts in his abilities, he could at least figure out his purpose and what was meaningful to him. Ruffin was passionate about basketball and understood how he could make a difference. Ruffin reapplied and received an offer of employment as an associate in the NBA’s rotational entry-level program. He moved to New York City.
In fall 2015, on a Thursday evening, Ruffin took pivotal steps. He rented space at Latitude Bar & Grill on 8th avenue in Manhattan and invited 15 guests. “There is a need to create spaces where Black and Brown professionals and advocates for diversity and inclusion can convene and build authentic relationships,” Ruffin said. The night out at Latitude Bar & Grill was a success and an incidental inauguration. He co-founded Sports and Entertainment Equity Network (SEEN)—a non-profit organization supporting Black and Brown professionals in sports and entertainment.
It takes a village. “A lot of people invested in my success,” Ruffin said, acknowledging former classmates, mentors, close friends, family, and “strong Black mentorship.” Throughout his time at UMass and the NBA, he met and built relationships with Black executives, some of them HBS alumni. They served as lighthouses and bridges, even introducing the possibility of applying to HBS. Ruffin was inspired. Taking the GMAT and applying, he gained admission to the MBA program. Late in the summer of 2018 Ruffin arrived in Boston, Massachusetts. He joined fellow MBA candidates at HBS’s Spangler Center.
HBS’s curriculum and global community challenged him further to develop his career in sports management and content strategy. At HBS, he realized that SEEN was in fact a venture. Partnering with Harvard Law School’s Entrepreneurship Project, SEEN’s co-founder and volunteer leadership team, they “started taking steps to build out what SEEN is today.” With an enhanced organizational structure, they registered SEEN as a 501(c) (3) non-profit. Continuing his studies and work at SEEN, Ruffin was also elected to serve as co-president at HBS’s African American Student Union. By spring 2020, Ruffin completed his MBA program and accepted a role to lead athlete content strategy at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) in New York City.
By December 2020, SEEN was a community of over 1,200 minorities and allies. “The goal is to advance Black and Brown talent while removing financial barriers.” Ruffin led a partnership with UMass Amherst to offer fellowships to eligible SEEN’s community members—a full ride to the Isenberg’s Master of Science Sport Management program. Ruffin hopes graduates from the fellowship would become future leaders and change representation at the industry’s highest levels.
Ruffin’s Forbes candidacy is a culmination of efforts throughout his career; building out the NBA’s G League, helping recruit the highest Black student population at HBS, leading athlete content strategy at CAA, and building a supportive community for Black and Brown professionals. Hard work, opportunity, and focus helped Ruffin make the Forbes list. His driving force is service. Indeed, “there could be more opportunities for people to find fulfilling careers that align with their aspirations, strengths, and available opportunities.” Looking forward to future goals and accomplishments, Ruffin says, “I hope my life is not only defined by professional accolades. Personal fulfilment and family happiness are my number one priority.”
Ibe Imo is a feature writer, HBS Online participant, and Harvard graduate student focused on journalism and digital storytelling. His storytelling chronicles inspiration from utter humanity. Ibe enjoys outdoor activities, including kayaking and trail cycling along the Charles River. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.