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Changing the game

Portrait of Nora Elsayed (BSBA '25)

The girl’s shoulders were hunched, her face wearing an unquestionable look of defeat.

When Nora Elsayed (BSBA ’25) saw the girl, she saw herself.

Elsayed saw herself in every girl who enrolled in Evenin’ Out the Playing Field, a program she founded at Carolina to encourage more minority representation in white-dominated sports.

At Evenin’ Out the Playing Field’s first free clinic in November 2022, the day after the Carolina women’s field hockey team won its 25th ACC title, about 30 children of color signed up to learn more about field hockey. They tried on equipment and held sticks for the first time.

As the children lined up to practice drills, Elsayed heard that girl say, “I can’t do this. I just don’t know how to do this.”

The children had never thought about field hockey before. They didn’t think it was for them and had no reason to believe it could be for them.

Elsayed told the girl not to worry – it was OK. She had once been in her shoes.

The girl said, “All right.” She brought her shoulders down, lifted her head and ran through the cones on the field like nothing had ever been wrong.

“A lot of times, especially at a young age, people of color don’t want to think about or talk about representation,” says Elsayed. “You see it, but you let it go. You endure it.

“This clinic allowed them to feel like they have a voice and there’s a reason why they should have a voice. It allowed them to feel like they belong.”

Building a community

In just her first two years at Carolina Elsayed has made it her mission to foster a more inclusive UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and work toward a business world that looks more like the world it serves.

She’s a leader in the Business School’s first Black Affinity Group. The Business School’s inaugural Black Women in Business event in February 2023 was her idea. She’s a member of the Minority Business Students Alliance and serves on the Community Equity and Inclusion Board for the Undergraduate Business Program (UBP).

Elsayed, a Kenan Scholar and an Assured Admit, is working on a program to expose the Business School to more low-income middle and high-school students who aim to be first-generation college students, like Elsayed herself.

When she sees a lack of inclusivity, it never stops there. She gets going and gets it done.

When she had the idea for the Black Women in Business event, Elsayed pitched the idea to Catherine Okafor, UBP assistant director of career development and employer relations. They started planning right away.

Professor Allison Schlobohm listened to Elsayed’s idea for Evenin’ Out the Playing Field and connected her with Courtnie Williamson (BSBA ’20, MBA ’22), a former Carolina field hockey player who founded Beyond Our Game, an organization focused on eliminating racial barriers within athletics and supporting student-athletes of color.

Black Women in Business event

Elsayed (front row center, in green) at the inaugural Black Women in Business event

Williamson, who spoke to the children and their parents during Evening’ Out the Playing Field’s first clinic, was the only Black field hockey player for the first four years she played for Carolina. She became the team’s first Black captain in her fifth year, when just one other Black player, Kiersten Thomassey (BA ’24), joined the roster.

“I want and need to be actively fighting for something,” says Elsayed. “I can’t just stand by and watch. Changing the world from a business point of view and a sports point of view has been so important for me because I know that it matters right now and it’s going to matter for a lot of people who come after me.”

Evenin’ Out the Playing Field, co-founded with Carolina classmate Valery Orellana (BA ’25) has been in the works for years, born out of Elsayed’s experience as one of the few Black players on her high school’s field hockey team in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Elsayed loved the sport, but quickly discovered the one-or-two rule. There were always just one or two Black players on her team and on the teams they played. When she looked at the roster of the U.S. women’s national field hockey team, there were none.

“You see the sport mainly in higher income communities. The equipment is comparatively expensive within sports. The clubs are white, the coaches are white,” she says. “Field hockey is not really seen in communities of color. I thought that if we just bridged that gap, we’d see other players fall in love with this sport.”

Elsayed and her teammates partnered with their high school’s minority scholars’ program to offer clinics for athletes of color. In her application essay to Carolina, she wrote about her idea for the program that became Evenin’ Out the Playing Field.

“I said, ‘If you guys accept me, just know that I’m coming with this clinic,’” she says. “’It’s me and the clinic.’”

The good fight

Elsayed grew up in a family that never spoke of an uninclusive America.

Her parents didn’t want to see the country that way. Immigrants from Sudan, they came to the U.S. to provide better educational opportunities for their children. Elsayed was their first child born in America.

When her parents saw inequities in their community, they didn’t talk about it. It was much later that the family talked about moments where they were discriminated against or made to feel less than others, like when women clutched their purses as they walked toward them.

“My parents saw America in this very positive light because in Sudan, America was the dream,” says Elsayed. “The concepts of racism and exclusion were new to them. They didn’t speak English. They knew nothing about financial literacy. I’ve grown up seeing how hard they worked to instill themselves in a place that is nothing like them.”

A turning point in Elsayed’s life was the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The racism and inequalities her family never discussed became front and center.

Nora Elsayed portrait (BSBA '25)

“A lot of times, especially at a young age, people of color don’t want to think about or talk about representation. You see it, but you let it go. You endure it.”

In 2020, right after Floyd’s death and while she was still in high school, Elsayed organized a protest in Rockville, Maryland, that attracted 5,000 people and closed eight lanes of traffic. In Sudan, protesting is an automatic jail sentence and often a death sentence. That has happened to some of her Sudanese relatives.

It wasn’t easy, but once her parents understood the motivation for the protest and her work with the high school clinics, they were supportive. They still are.

“They told me to keep doing what I was doing and keep using my voice because it was something we would have never had in Sudan,” says Elsayed. “It helped them realize that they didn’t come here for nothing.”

Reaching just one

When Elsayed applied to Carolina, she knew there were not going to be a lot of people who looked like her.

She also knew there would be many people who think like her.

“That’s what made Carolina so attractive to me,” she says. “We don’t have the diversity in numbers that we should right now, but we have a huge pool of people who are passionate about so many different things that you’re bound to find somebody who is passionate about the same things you are. At the end of the day, it’s what is in your heart and your mind that matters.”

Elsayed wants to reach even more hearts and minds within the business world. She cannot envision her career without work related to equity and inclusion. She wants to be there when everyone sitting in a boardroom making big decisions looks different from each another.

She wants to work toward a time when even just one person in the room will offer companies an entirely different view.

“The dream for me is helping companies see the ways they can reshape their work culture and the very look of their workplace,” she says. “This effort is something that I’m going to continue for the rest of my life. What keeps me going is thinking about the fact that in the future, all of this work is going to mean so much to at least one person.

“Just having one of the girls from the clinic email me to ask what field hockey sticks I recommend shows that this work matters. These changes matter.”