Kevin Warren was named chief operating officer (COO) of the Minnesota Vikings in February 2015, making him the highest-ranking African-American executive working on the business side of an NFL team and the first African-American COO in the NFL. Warren has worked as an attorney, a sports and entertainment agent, and a law professor. He also spent several years with front-office operations with the St. Louis Rams and the Detroit Lions before joining the Vikings in 2005. He sits on numerous boards, including the Notre Dame Law School Advisory Council and the University of Minnesota Board Of Trustees, and he is a lifetime member of the Fiesta Bowl Board of Directors.
Warren and his wife, Greta, have a daughter, Peri, a college sophomore who’s a volleyball powerhouse, and a son, Powers, a high-school senior who’s active in football and hockey. The family lives in the Twin Cities area. Between meetings in his active schedule, Warren sat down for a few minutes to talk about how teamwork, family legacy and philanthropy inform his life.
NORTHWESTERN MUTUAL: HOW DID YOU LAUNCH YOUR CAREER? TEAMING HAS BEEN A HUGE PART OF YOUR LIFE — REPRESENTING TEAMS, BEING WITH TEAMS, BEING ON TEAMS AND THE LEGACY OF TEAMS IN YOUR FAMILY. WHY IS TEAMING IMPORTANT IN YOUR LIFE? HOW HAS IT MAXIMIZED THINGS FOR YOU
Kevin Warren: That’s a great question. Teams are a really big part of my family’s history. My father is my real hero; he played at Arizona State University in the 1940s, and then took some time off to fight in the war, and then came back. My struggles pale in comparison to what he had to endure.
He was on the team in the mid-’40s that had a major impact on breaking the color barrier in college football because Arizona State (which at the time was Arizona State Teacher’s College) was scheduled to play Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso). There were two black players on the team: my dad and my uncle. Texas Western said, “When you come next week to play, don’t bring your black players; we can’t guarantee their safety.”
My dad worked with the administration, and played a major role in saying that there are times when you stand up and say, “This is my team and this is not right.” Arizona State shocked people: They ended up canceling the game, saying, “If you say we can’t bring our black players, then we’re not coming to play.” And that was the catalyst that ultimately led to Texas schools hosting black players at games.
I’ve learned so much from my father’s willingness to influence the university and stand firm.
N.M.: HOW CAN WE AS INDIVIDUALS LEARN FROM BEING IN A TEAM ENVIRONMENT?
K.W.: I’m intrigued by team activities. Individuals have power, but a team? That’s when you put yourself in a position to get a cataclysmic impact from relationships. It’s where you can have 1+1 = 25 instead of 2. That is the power and the allure of why I am associated with teams.
N.M.: HOW MUCH DID YOUR FAMILY INFLUENCE THE PERSON YOU HAVE BECOME — A PERSON WHO GIVES BACK SO MUCH TO THE COMMUNITY?
K.W.: I really owe it to my parents. They did an incredible job keeping the seven of us (I was the youngest) incredibly hungry, but also incredibly humble. Both of my parents were very unique from a charitable standpoint. Especially my mother. She was a schoolteacher, a librarian. She created a book scholarship for her students who went on from her elementary school to high school.
Individuals have power, but a team? That’s when you put yourself in a position to get a cataclysmic impact from relationships.
Once I started school, I spent a lot of time with her and was often with her at the library. That’s where I developed my love for reading — but it was also in the library that I would see how she would mentor a lot of young people. Again, my parents didn’t have a lot of money; they were rich from an education standpoint and a relationship standpoint, but not from a financial standpoint.
That really impacted me. I learned that regardless of where you are on the financial ladder in life, you need to make sure that you do truly sacrifice and help individuals who didn’t get the same start in life.
N.M.: HOW DO YOU ACT UPON THOSE LESSONS YOU LEARNED FROM YOUR MOTHER?
K.W.: My mother would have luncheons for these students, after they’d graduated from high school and were going on to college. (Pause as he collects himself.) At my mom’s funeral, there was a list of these students she’d helped — and they actually came to her funeral. So you’re talking about 45 years of students, people who were in their 40s and 50s who came back to honor her. That really just impacted me as I sat there, thinking this was the brightest person I’ve ever interacted with. She might have just been a librarian and an incredible reader … but when you think about the impact you can have on reaching back and helping people, you just never know.
That’s one of the main reasons my wife, Greta, and I started the program in giving backpacks and school supplies to Lucy Craft Laney Community School in Minneapolis. You never know: There may be some future doctors, inventors or leaders among those children. If we can encourage them with some backpacks, supplies and books, it will really make a difference.
N.M.: YOU ARE VERY DEVOTED TO PHILANTHROPIC CAUSES. TELL US ABOUT CAROLYN’S COMFORTS.
K.W.: My older sister, Carolyn, had a major role in raising me because she was 17 years older. She ended up getting breast cancer about seven years ago, battled that off, and then ended up getting lung cancer and, despite fighting, died in 2014 from brain cancer.
One day when we were talking, I asked her how she would like to see us help. She began telling us stories about when she was going for chemotherapy, how she would see elderly and young cancer patients having to take two and three buses from different parts of Arizona to get to their doctors’ offices in Phoenix. They would be sick and they would have family out of town who couldn’t come see them or help them. So Greta and I came up with the idea of starting a fund, in conjunction with the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, where we would be able to provide financial assistance to families in need.
Since we started it in January 2015, we’ve awarded 110 grants already. We’ve paid for everything from travel for families to see their kids to eyeglasses — really just whatever the patients need. The hospital has total latitude to make the determination to help people who are really dealing with someone in their family who has pediatric cancer. We’ve committed a million dollars to do this, and I’m looking forward to continuing to work with the hospital to build this up so this can carry on forever.
N.M.: YOU’VE BEEN A STRONG GIVER AND PHILANTHROPIST IN YOUR LIFE. THAT REQUIRES PLANNING. HOW HAS FINANCIAL PLANNING ALLOWED YOU TO LIVE MORE CONFIDENTLY, TO LIVE YOUR LIFE DIFFERENTLY?
K.W.: One of the main reasons financial freedom allows you to live your life differently is that it eliminates one of the huge stress points in life that most people have to deal with. I’m a big believer that if someone doesn’t have their financial house in order, that it would be very similar to running a marathon in dress shoes. Sure, they’re still shoes, but it doesn’t mean you can’t make it to the finish line and it will be a difficult experience.
So having a clear financial plan, financial advisors and affiliating with an outstanding financial company like Northwestern Mutual, it’s allowed our family to really focus on the accumulation of additional wealth, and, from a charitable standpoint, to help others. It’s allowed me to focus on my career and working and not having any stress associated with financial issues.
HOW KEVIN WARREN PRIORITIZES
Focusing (though I’m not perfect or near perfect) on trying to hear God’s voice every day.
Starting every day trying to leave every situation, every relationship better than it was when I came into contact with that relationship or situation.
Ensuring I empower my family and those people close to me. I basically serve as their jet fuel to help them achieve their goals.
Focusing on exercise in my life as it allows me to think and to be as productive as I can. I’ve been blessed. I graduated from law school in 1990, so I’ve been working for 26 years, and I’ve never missed a day of work due to health reasons. And in my 18th season with the NFL, I’ve never missed a home or away game — pre-season, regular season or playoff game — in my entire career.
Raising a family in which long-term financial stability is very important.
Thanks to Timothy Radden for suggesting his client Kevin Warren for this interview.