Twitter's TJ Adeshola on Being Black In Tech, Cancel Culture, And Sports Media : The Limits with Jay Williams TJ Adeshola has been changing the game in sports media and tech for years. The Twitter Global Head of Content Partnerships got his start at ESPN, where he was grateful to receive guidance and opportunity from several Black mentors.

When he entered the tech world at Twitter, however, he didn't see many people who looked like him. From then, TJ's mission has been clear: to diversify tech spaces from the inside out – and he's been breaking those barriers as a leader for nearly a decade.

As he puts it, "If you're looking to build a winning team, you don't recruit five point guards."

TJ and Jay also discuss the current state of sports media, and how as a sports executive, he managed to maintain community and fandom during a pandemic that halted live events.

For sponsor-free episodes, weekly bonus content, and more, subscribe to The Limits Plus at plus.npr.org/thelimits. On this week's Plus episode, TJ talks with Jay about cancel culture, and how the Twitter team is tackling fake news.

Follow Jay on Instagram and Twitter. Email us at thelimits@npr.org.

Twitter Executive TJ Adeshola On Building Black Spaces In Tech

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JAY WILLIAMS, HOST:

Welcome to THE LIMITS. I'm Jay Williams. I'm going to ask you the same question I asked T.J. Adeshola. When I say Black Twitter, what do you think? I'll pause.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: Now listen to how the Head of Global Content Partnerships at Twitter answers.

T.J., when I say Black Twitter, what do you think?

T J ADESHOLA: I think of culture. I think of a community of people who drive and shape culture across the board. Not internet culture. Black Twitter determines how we talk. It determines what we determine is swaggy (ph) and isn't swaggy. It determines the music that we listen to. It determines whether or not we think LeBron James is the GOAT or not. Like, Black Twitter is the hub of culture, and it drives cultural norms.

WILLIAMS: Powerful words coming from one of the most powerful Black executives at one of the most powerful social media companies in the world. But I need to push back just a little.

Is LeBron James the GOAT?

ADESHOLA: (Laughter) This is why you...

WILLIAMS: Say it with your chest, T.J. Say it with your chest. Don't...

ADESHOLA: We not on "Get Up." We not on "Get Up" right now. We not on "Get Up." We not on "Get Up."

WILLIAMS: That's right. You're on my show. That's why I'm able to ask the questions.

ADESHOLA: LeBron James is my GOAT.

WILLIAMS: Woo (ph).

ADESHOLA: LeBron James is my GOAT.

WILLIAMS: I'm glad you finally got that off your chest, brother.

ADESHOLA: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: Yeah, we ask the hard questions on this show, even with my boys. And T.J. is a good friend. I've known him since the days he was an intern at ESPN, and I watched him hustle his ass off all the way to the top of Twitter. And as the Head of Global Partnerships, it's his job to connect fans to brands. We've all seen things go viral, but T.J. spends his days creating online communities around those things that people just can't stop retweeting.

But what makes T.J. more than just another executive doing his job is that he goes the extra mile. As a Black exec at one of the most powerful tech companies in the world, he stands out. Why? Because the tech world is dominated by white men. And every day T.J. is working his tail off to change that. Here's my conversation with my good friend and an inspiration, T.J. Adeshola.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: What up, baby?

ADESHOLA: What's going on, Jay Will? What's up?

WILLIAMS: All right. So, T.J., first off, I wanted to say congratulations. I've known you for a while...

ADESHOLA: A minute.

WILLIAMS: ...And I've watched the way that you've hustled. I've watched the way that you have strategically aligned yourself. And I have seen you come up, and I couldn't be more proud of you. And I know this is just the beginning. This is just the tip of the iceberg for what you have to achieve. But I would love for you to explain to my audience, what does it mean to be Head of Global Content Partnerships at Twitter?

ADESHOLA: First and foremost, thank you for having me on, my brother. It's March Madness. It's the most wonderful time of the year.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

ADESHOLA: So I'm excited to be on, and thank you for the flowers. Thank you for the kind words. It's really special when you have folks who look like you that inspire you on a day-to-day basis. You have been an inspiration for a really, really, really long time. So to receive flowers from you feels really dope.

WILLIAMS: I feel like you just called me old, but that's cool.

ADESHOLA: (Laughter) Never.

WILLIAMS: I can get over that, you know what I mean? I'm still hip to the game.

ADESHOLA: Although I've never - you got a little salt and pepper in the beard. That's new.

WILLIAMS: Hey. Well, they told me that George Clooney can make it work, so, you know, I threw a little bit of it in there, just a little bit.

ADESHOLA: So my role - so as you know, historically or previously, I was the Head of Sports. I think that title was a bit more intuitive. I had a team that sat across the country, and we worked with the biggest, baddest publishers in sports media - ESPN, NFL, NBA, MLB - and helped them do dope things on Twitter. So my role is much broader now. So, one, it's global. And as opposed to just leading the sports category, I lead the entertainment category. I lead the news category. I lead the sports category and the music category around the globe.

So the - sports is still a component of that, but the scope has just gotten so much bigger, which means that my time zones are going to be a little weird. So if you see me in the streets and I look a little sleepy, just know that I'm adjusting to an expanded role, a new opportunity. I'm thankful for Twitter leadership, for the team, for entrusting me to lead this big, bold team. And we're going to do some dope stuff.

WILLIAMS: Take me through what it's like, about bringing brands and fans together. What does that actually look like, and how is it done?

ADESHOLA: Yeah, it's a good question that - I think the easiest way to describe it is think about the pandemic. There was a point where we were watching on television people playing HORSE in their driveway, right? There was this disconnect that existed because fans couldn't experience live sports the way that you and I have experienced live sports our entire lives. The role of digital, the role of social became so important, fam. Like, the NBAs and the NFLs and the ESPNs are reaching out to us saying, our bread and butter is live sports. For the first time ever, that bread and butter has been taken away.

So how do we engage these millions of followers that come to Twitter to retweet, to like, to engage with our content on a day-to-day basis? How do we continue to drive that affinity without live sports? So our role became further cemented in that moment because our superpower is really simple. We are the live conversation of the world. We are the world's greatest sports bar. We are the world's town square, if you will. So when I think about us connecting fans with really special moments, it's live-tweeting March Madness. It's "The Last Dance" coming on. And even though we're all quarantining at home, we sit as a community and tweet about how insane and amazing the documentary is. So our job is to bridge the gap between fans and consumers and things that they're passionate about.

WILLIAMS: It's really crazy because I will go to Twitter before I'll go to my own texts. And I'll have conversations with people via Twitter that I know, responding and back and forth with each other like it's a text message conversation, knowing that it's an open forum. But you made mention of "The Last Dance." that was during the pandemic. Tell me; how did you guys moderate that? - because everybody was at home during the pandemic. It's coverage on Michael Jordan, the most famous athlete in the world. It was something that was spoken about for months leading into it. Take me through the process of how you guys navigated that internally because it seems like that's bigger than the Super Bowl.

ADESHOLA: It was incredible, man. Shoutout to ESPN for understanding the moment, understanding the need of really society at that particular time. We were starved for sports content, bro. Like, we needed something to watch as a community and...

WILLIAMS: ESPN fast-tracked that, too, correct?

ADESHOLA: That's correct. That's correct.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

ADESHOLA: They listened. They listened. And they identified the fact that there was this opportunity to super-serve not only sports fans but people who just like storytelling in general. So they reached out to us and said, here's what we're thinking about doing. What can we do to amplify this? So our immediate thought was Chicago, documentary. OK, let's create a watch party that lives on Twitter.

So if you've lived in Chicago, you know it really well. We reached out to the homies at Lou Malnati's and said, all right, we want to create a watch party packet for everybody that we know will be involved in watching this documentary. So we got hundreds of Lou Malnati's pizzas. We sent them across the country, and we created a special event page on Twitter and a hashtag emoji so every time you type "The Last Dance," a goat would populate. And we just encouraged people to talk and to converse about "The Last Dance."

Furthermore, we elevated some of those most iconic tweets about "The Last Dance." So you're tweeting alongside D-Wade and Chance the Rapper and Jay Williams and an Estee, Portnoy, who's worked with Michael Jordan for years. And it felt like you were sitting in a bar, in a barbershop, at the crib with all of your friends, watching one of the most amazing sports documentaries of all time.

WILLIAMS: Something that one of my friends and I were having a conversation about the other day is that - we were arguing about whether Twitter or any other social media construct should erase our history after, like, six years, right? And I'm just - I'm thinking about this out loud in real time with you. One of the things that happened to me - I had to be interviewed by Spike Lee the other day for a Colin Kaepernick documentary that ESPN is putting on. And he brought up tweets that I have from 2016. And it was so hard for me to even go back into context about where I was at that time or what I thought as my own brain has evolved in my thinking since then. I mean, think about 2016. You're talking about six years ago. I didn't have any kids. I wasn't married.

ADESHOLA: I knew you in 2016, too.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, you knew me back then. Exactly right.

ADESHOLA: Still a great human being, but life...

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

ADESHOLA: ...Was just different. Life was different.

WILLIAMS: Very different. So, like, what are your thoughts around that? - obviously, because people change. But to be able to go back in time and almost document, well, you said this 15 years ago, you find yourself, you know, on the defense, not even almost remembering what you thought or what that business' stance was 15 years ago. How do you even evolve around that type of thinking?

ADESHOLA: Here's how I would answer that question because it varies. So the propensity to recall some of those things is higher or lower. What I would say though, bro, is we are very intentional about, like - talk about sports, for example. Like, when that incoming rookie class or draft class comes in, we reach out to CAA. We reach out to Excel. We reach out to Wasserman. And we say, yo. Here's how to scrub your accounts. These humans are going to be treated as grown-ass adults even though they're teenagers, even though their tweets from five, six years ago may not be reflective of the growth that - and the evolution that has evolved in them.

So, you know, we have to hold hands. And when we talk to young kids, especially in this NIL era, I'm like, yo. Change your name from youngswag247365getmoney to ThomasJohnson or whatever you name is. You're a brand now. You have to be cognizant of the types of things you communicate, the types of things you tweet - also, just being a good human being, bro. We - for better or worse, I mean, you always hear things about, can you imagine if social media existed 20 years ago? And a lot of things would be different. But I'm really encouraged and enthused by the types of dialogue I hear younger people having, the types of shared accountability that is - has started to exist. I mean, the types of dialogue that I hear these cats have is very different than some of the stuff that we were talking about when we were coming up.

WILLIAMS: What's an example of that, T.J.?

ADESHOLA: Yeah. That's a good question. So, like, even - I think about, like, the level of education that exists around identity, right? Like, we start off every call at Twitter, and we say, hey; I'm T.J. Adeshola. My pronouns are he/him. I'm wearing a black bomber with two blingy gold chains and a turtleneck, and I need a shape-up. You know what I mean? Like, we'll - we're so cognizant of who we represent and who we coexist with and how people identify and what makes people feel seen. That - it would - 10 years ago, five years ago - I'm Jay Williams, and my pronouns are he/him - people would be like, yo. What are you talking about? Cats were on television saying, no homo. Like, things like that, just really insensitive things - that's not flying anymore. And I'm really enthused and encouraged by that. Like, the level of awareness seems to be increasing. And to me, that's a really positive sign. And those are discussions I'm having with young men and women across the globe as they think about how to use this really powerful tool called Twitter in meaningful and thoughtful ways.

WILLIAMS: It's rare to get an executive being so candid on how a company thinks through these huge cultural issues. T.J. and I dug deeper into cancel culture and what Twitter's responsibility and role is in it. You can hear that in The Limits Plus episode dropping for subscribers on Thursday. If you're not already subscribed, follow that link in the description of this episode. We're going to take a quick break, but when we come back, T.J. and I head into the boardroom, where he's one of the few Black executives in an overwhelmingly white and male tech world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: One of the things I've noticed - and there are so many sensitivities to this issue - is that from an executive perspective within media and sports media, there's so many times where I'm in this room of C-level executives, and I'm the only African American in the room. And it feels like it's an industry that is so unfortunately gatekept and so closed off to people of color. I'm curious how you got your foot in the door, first off. And then secondly, were you aware? And how did that make you feel about the pressure that was on you to be that representative for the Black community, in a way, in those kind of upper-echelon spaces?

ADESHOLA: Another incredible question. You made me lean up. Like, I had to get my posture right for this one. So two things - I was really fortunate to have incredible mentors at ESPN. They had an open-door policy with me. There was Ros Durant, Kim Wilson, Charita Johnson, Rob King, Wendell Scott, Keith Clinkscales. They're just incredible, incredible people that were leaders at ESPN who looked like me. And John Skipper was always down with the homies, always. So, you know, I had the opportunity to watch the game. I had front-row seats watching the game at ESPN at the peak of his powers.

So I was naive enough to think it was regular to not only have a group of executives who look like you but furthermore to have a group of executives who look like you who open the door for you to have a seat. Those are two very different things. It's one thing to see a person of color occupy a space, which is incredible. But to then have a person of color who occupies that space but then responds to your email or opens that door or takes the time to chop it up with you - that's a level deeper that many of us don't have the opportunity to tap in with. So when I left ESPN, I transitioned to Twitter. And tech as a whole is super, super, super-white.

WILLIAMS: And male-dominant.

ADESHOLA: And male-dominant. Right. So I recall coming to San Francisco for new hire orientation. I'm seeing cats with, like, with Birkenstocks in office. I'm seeing cargo shorts and black tees. I'm like, yo. This is - do you have Teva sandals in the office?

(LAUGHTER)

ADESHOLA: Like, this is different, you know? Like, what are we doing here? You know, like, ESPN - I was lucky if I could wear jeans on Fridays. I was lucky if I could wear jeans on Fridays. I come in here, and these cats, like, are moving very different. I said, all right, well, I know that I can at least be my full self at work every day because nobody's going to judge the way I show up. The only thing that people are going to judge is how I perform. So I started wearing J's every day or sneakers every day and jeans and hoodies and bringing my full self to work. And I realized, like, the comfort with which I would bring myself to work empowered me to actually be, like, a better version of myself. Like, I didn't have to think about wearing a stuffy tie or a stuffy suit. So when I sat in the room, I was just getting to the money. I was just getting to the performance. I wasn't trying to project something that I wasn't.

And because of how I was brought up at ESPN, I made it a point of duty to join our business resource group called Blackbirds. Shoutout to Blackbirds. And I would get coffee with them, and every Black employee at Twitter just to say, yo. Here's what I learned at ESPN. Here's what I'm trying to build here. This is the community that I think is important for us. And over the years, Blackbirds turned into this international brand, and interns and middle-level employees started to branch out and bring on new people. And then that empowered me to, like, be really bullish and aggressive in our space to say, oh, there's not enough people who look like me.

You know what, Jay? I get - you and I get asked to, like, do panels and all that thing a lot. I get asked to do panels and discussions - sports and tech, sports and disruption, sports and coach - all that - all the time. And from time to time, people would be, like, damn, T.J.'s on another panel, or, damn, dog, you on another panel? And my response to that is usually twofold. One is, you have no idea how many opportunities and panels our comms team declines. That's one. Two, there's not enough people who look like T.J. and Jay Williams out here.

WILLIAMS: I agree.

ADESHOLA: You know? If there was more T.J.s and more Jays, I wouldn't be asked to be on a panel every damn week. That wouldn't happen. And I would be so happy to not be asked to be on a panel...

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

ADESHOLA: ...Every week because I know there are other people doing it. I'm on a relentless mission to make sure that the only call that they can make for a brother in tech or person of color in tech is not T.J. It's very important for me that I'm not the only cat on the panels because if I'm the only dude on the panel time after time after time, that means that the industry is not doing its job. It means that I'm not doing the job. It means my white counterparts aren't doing their jobs. There's an opportunity for us to get really intentional about making sure that there's more than one me, quite honestly.

I think about the timeline. When a crazy play happens or a Drake album drops or a Gunna album drops or a Kanye album drops, all these teens are tweeting out lyrics and memes with Druski. But then if you look behind the curtain, they don't look like the people that they're tweeting about. And that's not to say that every social media manager should be Black, but it is to say that there shouldn't be any league without one social media manager of color. And unfortunately, that's the case in some of these leagues. That shit's got to change, bro.

WILLIAMS: You know, I'm with you. One of my really good friends is a C-level executive for a Fortune 100 company. And he said something to me before the pandemic even happened that - I just think I was a little bit taken back by the fact it was him saying it to me when I've had other people in my life of color who didn't say something like this to me in this tone.

He said, Jay, when I hire people of diversity, I hire with intent, knowing that I am going to hire diversity. Like, I'm going into the game knowing what the scouting report is, and I'm looking for that. And he's like, you know, that intent - before, it came with, whoa, that's - you know, that's a style of - you're being biased. And he's like, yes, I am being biased because we need more of that kind of thought process in the way that we think collectively. If we are reflecting what our country is as the populations of Blacks and Latinos continue to rise, why wouldn't I want my organization to be a reflection of that? So why wouldn't I hire with that type of intent? And I didn't hear a lot of Black executives say that to me. That was a Caucasian executive saying that to me before the pandemic, and it blew my mind.

ADESHOLA: If you're looking to build a winning team, you're not going to recruit five point guards. If you're looking to build a winning team, you're not going to recruit a quarterback at every position. It's important to be diverse. It's important for your decisions to be informed by a broad set of opinions, and it's important for your team to not be homogenous and monolithic.

If I'm recruiting the same type of person time after time after time, my ideas are going to be trash. They're going to be deluded. They're going to be bland. They're going to be swagless (ph). They're going to be flavorless. They're going to be - no vibes. And I see that a lot across tech, across media in general. A lot of y'all companies are swagless and vibeless (ph) and cultureless (ph), and the product sucks as a result of it. And it's because your team isn't diverse. So that's got to change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: Part of why T.J. is so passionate about opening doors for underrepresented people is because other people opened doors for him. After the break, T.J.'s big break and how he got his start. I'll give you a hint. If you want to be like him, you have to wake up at 5 a.m. We'll be right back.

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WILLIAMS: You know, I think one of the reasons why I always love talking to you, T.J., is that you are a consumer of the product. You've always been that. So take me way, way back. Tell me about how you fell in love with sports media.

ADESHOLA: Sheesh. God, nobody's ever asked me that. This is why you get paid the big bucks, baby.

WILLIAMS: I'm saying, T.J. I'm saying.

ADESHOLA: This is incredible. Let me kick my feet up. So growing up, we all watched ESPN every single day. Every single day. "SportsCenter" Top 10 was something that we routinely consumed. I recall - I'm dating myself, but I used to love the Seattle SuperSonics with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. And my father recorded the sixth game finals series of Bulls vs. the Sonics on VHS. And, bro, I would watch those games all the damn time, just over and over and over again.

So I established a really deep love for sports early, watching it on television, primarily ESPN, but then watching the Braves on TBS and TNT. And what was so dope about the Braves, even though I didn't live in Atlanta - you know this - growing up, the Braves were super-Black. It was Dave Justice, Terry Pendleton, Fred McGriff, Ron Gant, Deion Sanders. So you're watching this sport and you're like, yo. They're really swaggy. Like, this dude just played a football game on Sunday, and now he's suiting up for a baseball team, right?

So my initial interaction with sports media was by way of television and then reading box scores in newspapers, reading Sports Illustrated. And it just developed this curiosity in me. All right, like, how is this thing going to evolve? How can I participate in this? I missed way too many left-handed layups to know I wasn't going to hoop moving forward, but I did know that my passion was strong enough for me to want to work in sports. I just didn't know how to go about it.

WILLIAMS: And what was your first taste at it? Like, actually seeing it from the inside out about how the industry worked. And I'm curious - you know, a lot of people have the outside-looking-in perspective, but how did your perspective change when you saw it from the inside out?

ADESHOLA: So when I went to the University of Georgia...

WILLIAMS: By the way, congratulations. I haven't officially said that to you.

ADESHOLA: This ain't a championship ring, but it's a ring nonetheless.

WILLIAMS: You guys have won the championship in college football. Congratulations.

ADESHOLA: I appreciate that. I appreciate that. There was a big group of us - myself, Maria Taylor, Elle Duncan, Taylor Rooks. It's good to be a - it's great to be a Georgia Bulldog. In any case, I went to University of Georgia, and there was an opportunity to just learn the game - like, the production work, what it looks like to be talent, what it looks like to script. And while I was there, interestingly enough, ESPN "College GameDay" came to campus for a Georgia football game. Georgia was playing Auburn, and I remember waking up at 5 a.m. and going to just observe. I went to watch by myself.

And I looked, and I was like, yo. Who's the boss? And I identified a gentleman who looked - appeared to be calling shots. And I pulled up on him. I was like, yo. I want to work at ESPN. I've been watching this operation for hours. It's incredible. It's fascinating. Can I get an internship? He was like, how long you been standing over there? I said, about three, four hours. He was like, all right. Here's my business card. Shoot me an email. I shot him an email. A month later, I'm on Bristol campus, interning as a student at the University of Georgia, and I learned how the sausage was made, as they say.

WILLIAMS: I've never known that. That's like a - it's like a real-life version of a cold email. You just walked up to somebody and just said, hey. I want to have an internship.

ADESHOLA: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think he was - so one thing, I stroked his ego a little bit because I was like...

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

ADESHOLA: I pulled up on him. I was like, hey, bro. You the man, dog. Hey. You the man out here in these streets. I see you. You know what I mean? You know, I gassed my guy. I gassed him. So he peeped the vibe, and he was like, all right, man. Like, he seems like a cool kid. He obviously woke up at 5 a.m. And I think he was really, really keen on the fact that some college student is focused enough to wake up at 5 a.m. and not only do that but then has the confidence and the courage to pull up on any old dude to ask. He was cool on that, and I got an internship that turned into a career at ESPN, which I wouldn't trade in for the world. It's where I met you - and, yeah, and then transitioned to Twitter, leading a sports category that didn't even exist at the time.

WILLIAMS: I'm curious. While you're at ESPN, I know that you've always seen things before they happen, to a degree. What made you see tech, and what made you see Twitter? - because, I mean, you jumped ship to join Twitter back in 2012.

ADESHOLA: I knew that there was a bigger opportunity for me just because I had learned so much, and I felt like I had just something different. I felt like I had a secret sauce, if you will. And then I was broke, so that expedited my decision to look for other employment opportunities. And once I found it at Twitter, you know, with the blessing of God, it really, really, really took off.

WILLIAMS: And as a person in a leadership position at a company that is forever changing the minds of how people think, do you feel an extra weight that everything you do carries repercussions to a degree? How is that to live with? - because, I mean, you're in a position of power.

ADESHOLA: Yeah. I would say I'm a dude, but I'm built for it, you know? I'm built for it. I mean, I think about - I mean, I've watched you do so many incredible things on the court. I've watched you walk into hostile environments - i.e., College Park, Md. - and do the unthinkable. You were built for it. Everybody wasn't built to do what you did. Everybody wasn't built to go through what you went through, which is why you wrote the book that you did. I'm built for this weight.

WILLIAMS: T.J., I love you, brother. And please keep thriving and keep inspiring because I - you know, knowing your story and seeing where it's going - and I say that because it's going, and it's going to continue to go. I know you're not only going to help so many people, but also your legacy is being something that is being established, and it is beautiful to watch. So I appreciate you, brother, and thank you so much for coming on the show.

ADESHOLA: I appreciate you having me, man. Let's do this again.

WILLIAMS: Yes, sir.

My brother T.J. Adeshola. That's a name you want to remember. Trust me. He will continue to rise and thrive in this industry. Thanks to his whole team for making this happen. And remember to subscribe to The Limits+ for more from my conversation with T.J.

THE LIMITS is produced by Karen Kinney, Mano Sundaresan, Leena Sanzgiri, Barton Girdwood, Brent Baughman, Rachel Neel, Yolanda Sangweni. Our executive producer is Anya Grundmann; music by Ramtin Arablouei. Special thanks to Charla Riggi and Edward Wyckoff Williams. I'm Jay Williams. Let's stay positive and keep it moving.

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