While growing up in Cameroon, Francis Ngannou had never been in a gym and had no way to break into his desired sport. Undeterred, he left his native land and embarked on an arduous two-year journey to realize his dream of becoming a boxer. With little funding and no friends, he crossed the Sahara desert, slept in forests, foraged for food, took a dangerous boat ride to Europe, endured a two-month stint in a Spanish jail for illegal border crossing, and roamed homeless in France until he snagged a job next to a Paris gym. There, he found his true calling in mixed martial arts. Now, Ngannou is tackling an even bigger fight in his home country. He launched the Francis Ngannou Foundation to provide young Cameroonians with a place to find inspiration and take control of their futures. In January 2019, he opened what he calls the first fully equipped mixed martial arts and combat sport gym in Cameroon. The ultimate goal is “to arm these children with the skills to expand their horizons and realize their dreams.”
In July, Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time Formula 1 world champion, announced the launch of his Mission44 foundation. The nonprofit is committed to uplifting young people from marginalized communities in the U.K. by supporting organizations and programs that narrow the gap in employment and education systems, through partnerships, research, grant giving, and advocacy. Hamilton pledged approximately $28 million to kickstart his mission. Aiding the ambitions of underrepresented young people has always been important to him, as he was able to overcome his own disadvantaged background through opportunity and support. He hopes that his foundation will help to create real change for others in the same way.
What a difference five years makes. In 2016, Brehanna Daniels was a point guard for the women’s basketball team at Norfolk State University—being part of the majority white NASCAR world was not even on her trajectory. But that changed after recruiters from NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program came to her HBCU looking for interested students to join the sport’s pit crew. Daniels, who didn’t know much about the national auto racing league, suddenly found herself interested in the sport and decided to take a chance on the training program. Fast-forward five years, and she’s now the first Black woman to work in the pit crew in NASCAR. Although 15 pit crew members have been women, only three have been women of color. Daniels is proud of the progress NASCAR is trying to make when it comes to diversifying the sport and hopes to continue to see more underrepresented groups become part of the organization.
Shaquille O’Neal was a star player on the court and is a star player in the boardroom. The NBA legend seems unstoppable when it comes to making smart business decisions. He co-founded an ad agency called Majority, which is focused on diversity and inclusion. He also invested in Google; owns numerous restaurant franchises, including Papa John’s and Auntie Anne’s; and was a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings. The Hall of Famer also generously devotes his time and money to worthy causes, including his namesake foundation, which targets youth in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
In 2019, at the height of her success, WNBA superstar and champion Maya Moore swapped the basketball court for a criminal court to fight the biggest battle of her life. She dedicated herself to her ministry work and became a full-time advocate for Jonathan Irons, a family friend who had spent the last two decades in prison serving out a 50-year sentence, which stemmed from an assault and burglary conviction he received as a juvenile. Moore, who married Irons in 2020, was in the courthouse when a judge overturned his conviction, which led to Irons’ release in July 2020. The former baller so far has no plans of returning to professional sports, but instead intends to sustain her advocacy work by continuing “to tell Jonathan’s story well.”
When Sydney McLaughlin was just 16 years old, she earned her way to the 2016 Rio Olympics with a junior world record–breaking performance in the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. Five years later, she broke another world record at the 2021 U.S. trials, securing her spot in the 400-meter hurdles event at the Tokyo Olympics. In Tokyo, she smashed her world record in the women’s 400-meter hurdles finals and became an Olympic gold medalist. Off the track, McLaughlin gives back to her community by volunteering her time at the Central Jersey Chapter of Hope Worldwide.
For nearly two decades, Stephen A. Smith has been a mainstay on ESPN programs and specials, including his current turn as the featured commentator on the network’s popular talk show First Take. Coupled with hard work, Smith’s brash style, humor, and spirited insights have made him one of the highest paid sports analysts. The Winston-Salem State University alum also serves as an ambassador for HBCU Week, an annual event that offers scholarships and on-the-spot college admission.