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Between Two Classes: Mark Tatum

“There were many children born to soldiers in Vietnam that were not brought back to the US. Not a day goes by where I don't think about how different my life could be.”

We’re excited to share this special fourth edition of Between Two Classes, an interview series where we explore how members of the HBS community see the world and why.

This interview is with Mark Tatum (MBA ’98). Mark is the Deputy Commissioner and COO of the National Basketball Association. Mark holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and an undergraduate degree from Cornell University. We caught up with Mark in between two classes (panels) at HBS’s Entertainment, Media, and Sports conference.

What motivated you to come to the conference today? Are there any panels that excite you? Are you looking to learn anything?

Tatum: I came to HBS because I wanted to get a job in the business of sports. And I remember back then we didn't have a conference, but we did have a Business of Sports class taught by Professor Stephen Greyser. And I remember wanting to get a job in sports and figuring out how HBS could help me achieve that dream.

Fast forward to today, I know there are students here that also want to pursue a career in sports. And I think it's important for me to be here and give back, to talk to students and share my experiences of how HBS helped facilitate that transition into sports for me. There were so many HBS graduates that were extraordinarily generous with their time to help me. Coming back is an opportunity to give my time to students here, who are just like me from 25+ years ago.

We certainly appreciate you being here! There are many students at the conference today that would like to have a career path similar to yours. Do you have any advice for them as they embark on that path?

Tatum: There are so many people that want a job in sports, but there are not many jobs in sports. I think it's a matter of putting yourself in a position where you can be in the right place at the right time. It's building your network. It's talking to people. Narrowing in on where your skill sets are the best fit for a particular opportunity. Identifying the unique experiences that you bring to the table.

I played baseball in college. My first job was at MLB because I understood the game. I also had a background in packaged goods and marketing at Procter & Gamble and Clorox, and my transition into baseball was selling corporate sponsorships to companies like the CPG companies I worked for. That was the story I was able to tell that allowed me to transition into the role. So I would tell HBS students to think about your story. 

We’d love to shift to some personal questions. Your childhood is something that really struck me. Can you tell us about your childhood and the impact it had on you? 

Tatum: It had such a huge impact on me. I come from a very multicultural background. My father is Black. He grew up in Kingston, Jamaica and came to the U.S. when he was a teenager. He joined the United States Air Force and went to Vietnam during the Vietnam War. That’s where he met my mother – they fell in love, got married, and had me. So I was actually born in Vũng Tàu, Vietnam. 

And I think the remarkable thing is the courage that they had as young twenty-somethings. My mom was 20 years old and my dad was 23 years old when I was born. My dad made a big life decision to bring my mom and me back to the US, and that gives me an appreciation for how different my life would be had he not made that decision at such a young age. Not to mention my mom had the courage at 20 years old to leave her family and come to the other side of the world. Unfortunately, there were many children born to soldiers in Vietnam that were not brought back to the US. Not a day goes by where I don't think about how different my life could be. And by the way, my parents are still married to this day, 54 years later. 

I also think growing up with these different cultures was impactful. I've always had this curiosity and appreciation for different cultures given my background. That’s made my work in helping grow the global business of the NBA so enjoyable.

You’ve obviously had an impressive career in the NBA. If you weren’t doing what you do now, what else might you be doing? 

Tatum: Well, my dream growing up was to be a professional baseball player. I was going to be a second baseman for the New York Yankees. At Cornell we had a game against San Jose State, which was ranked eighth in the country. And that's when I realized I better study really hard in school because those San Jose State guys had a shot, and I don't. Maybe in a different life I’d be a pro baseball player. 

One last question. If you could put a message on a billboard for HBS students to see, what would it say?

Tatum: I would say: Be Great. My personal philosophy is that I want to do things that have never been done before. And I think everyone here at HBS has the potential to do great things. I would just say to HBS students, go out and be great. 

Jay Bhandari (MBA ’25) is originally from Houston, Texas. He graduated from Georgetown University in 2018 with a degree in Economics. Prior to the HBS MBA, Jay worked at thredUP in San Francisco and at Blackstone in New York.

Sam Berube (MBA ’25) is originally from Dover, Massachusetts. He graduated from Brown University with an honors degree in International & Comparative Political Science in 2019. Prior to his matriculation at HBS, Sam worked in corporate strategy at the McDonald's Corporation in Chicago, and for BCG in Boston. He is also an avid landscape and wildlife photographer.

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