Danielle Cantor Jeweler

photo by Michael B. Kress

photo by Michael B. Kress

by Danielle Cantor

As executive vice president and partner of F.A.M.E. sports agency and an NBPA Certified Agent, Danielle Cantor Jeweler negotiates multi-million-dollar basketball contracts and endorsement deals for NBA players. Jeweler grew up in the Washington, D.C. area near her grandparents, whom she cites as significant influences in inspiring her leadership philosophy and her love of Judaism. Her other major influence was sports: She was a competitive soccer player in high school and in college, as a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s Division I women’s team. Jeweler describes herself as a “highly competitive, type-A-plus-plus personality,” which – along with the values she gleaned from a deep connection to Jewish spirituality and athletic teamwork – has guided her to the pinnacle of success in her field. She has kept her roots in the D.C. area, where she and her husband are raising their two young daughters in Potomac, Md. Jeweler is a member of the leadership council for PeacePlayers and has served on the boards of Most Valuable Kids, the Roy Hibbert Foundation, and Little Smiles. She also somehow finds time to coach competitive youth girls’ soccer, and teach a class in management and entrepreneurship at the George Washington University National Law Center.

What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced on your journey to the top of your field?

It’s a challenge facing my industry as a whole: The athlete representation business has become so competitive that it's corrupt. With the implementation of the rookie wage scale and other systematic changes in the financial structure of the NBA and the athletes’ contracts, it became more difficult to differentiate yourself as an athlete agent. Track record, experience, and talent meant nothing anymore, and these young athletes chose – and are choosing – their agents based on who is throwing the most money at them or promising them the most enticing perks. When my partner and I started to sign top athletes early in my career, other agents would come in and undercut us – charge a lower fee or literally offer money to sign the players – and we refused to compete with that. I'm a highly ethical person – this goes back to the Jewish values that were instilled in me at a young age – and it's extremely difficult to operate, with my moral compass and value system, when the industry standard has changed.

Did you consider moving in another direction?

No, but I'm constantly trying to get ahead of the curve. I believe that I can clean things up – and I may be wrong, but I'll never know until I try. So I'm planning on attacking it head-on,

and I have a new proposal on how to structure the sports agency model that I think will cause disruption in the industry. But in the meantime, I only want to work with athletes who have high character, understand my approach, and appreciate the value I bring. Though there are fewer of those than there used to be, it's more rewarding, and I know that I'm doing the right thing and not succumbing to the pressures of the industry.

Why stick with it?

At the end of the day, I know that I make an impact on my clients’ lives. I sign these young men when they're 18, 19 years old, and I'm still working with my guys when they're retired and transitioning to ‘life after basketball.’ The most rewarding part of my job is definitely the relationships I build with young high school and college athletes as they continue into the NBA and after their NBA-playing days are over. I try to teach them to be mensches. It’s cliché, but it’s true. I am proud of the relationships I maintain with all of my clients, and the way they respect me and value my guidance and advice. It’s rewarding to see them mature and learn through the process and knowing I played a part – even a little one – in shaping these young men along their journeys to success.

More than a few high-profile athletes have had very public falls from grace – personally and financially. How do you protect your clients from missteps?

Financial literacy always was, and still is, the most important thing I wanted to teach my clients (together with some of the best partners and advisors in the finance industry). These guys never learned how to balance a checkbook; they have no concept of money. And they were not taught the importance of tikkun olam and giving back, so equally as important is helping them identify a cause in the community that truly resonates, instead of just saying, "You're going to donate money because you need the tax break," or "You're going to volunteer, because everyone has to." I spend so much time with each client trying to connect to something that gives him a sense of fulfillment off the basketball court, so he feels he's making an impact and using the platform he has. I don't mean social media, I mean making a true impact. Growing up in the Jewish community, those values were just instilled in me at an early age. It was always in my DNA.

In this industry that is literally rife with locker room mentality, you must have experienced some discrimination or been treated differently than your (male) business partner.

Absolutely – but I probably didn't notice half the time. As I was playing sports with my older brother and his friends growing up, and later as I came up in the business, I never thought, "I don't belong here," or "I'm the only woman." In meetings with NBA owners, general managers, front office executives – much older, very successful men – I never spoke unless I knew I had something really valuable to add to the conversation. That's how I earned their respect. Younger executives often feel like they need to say more to prove that they belong there; I never worried about that.

I do remember vividly sitting courtside at a game, years back, with my business partner and the team owner. It wasn’t until the owner’s (much-younger, third or fourth) wife asked me a question about "our" house – I told her, "I don't live with David," and she said, " Oh, so he bought you a place?" – that I realized she thought I was his mistress. That probably happens a lot more than I realize, and I just don't pay attention to it. All these years later, I go to arenas and the owners and general managers know and respect me. It took a lot of time, probably much longer than for any male in my position, but I have a name for myself now.

Have you represented any women?

Early in my career I did represent two high-level female soccer players, but that was more of a labor of love because of my background in and passion for soccer. As I learned, this is kind of a niche industry where you become a specialist, in a way. The collective bargaining agreement for each sport is a huge document, and to say I'm an expert in the NBA CBA is an understatement. It's how I made a name for myself – learning and understanding the governing rules for our league. I wasn't even a basketball fan growing up, but this is where I felt I could add the most value.

Speaking of women's soccer, equal pay for women athletes was in the news after this year's Women's World Cup. What do you have to say about the gender pay gap?

It's an important issue to me. Sometimes feminist groups approach me to talk about what I've accomplished as a female in a male-dominated industry, and they don't love my answer: "I don't make gender a thing." I just believe that what I've accomplished, I have accomplished because of who I am, and I would have accomplished it if I was male, female, black, white, young, old, whatever. Pay should be based on talent, value added, experience, background, and work ethic. Women should make the same amount of money as men for the same work. The fact that we're having this conversation in the year 2019 is ridiculous.

Before you became your own boss, were you earning as much as your male counterparts?

That's a question I probably never thought about. In my business, you're always underpaid until you get to the top, so I was probably never properly compensated anyway. But I don't think that was a gender thing.

Is it a struggle to excel at a high-powered job in a high-profile industry and still be a present parent?

Work/life balance is an ongoing challenge for me, because it's my nature to always want to be the best of the best in my job and as a mother. At some point, I had to learn that I couldn't be everywhere at once, and that was a really hard pill for me to swallow. I don't know how to do something halfway; I only know how to go a hundred and ten percent overboard when I commit myself to something. That was the hardest thing for me in becoming a parent – to learn how to feel like I was all-in in both aspects of my life. It took a while, it was hard to navigate that, but I think my job makes me a better parent. And being a mother has made me much better at my job, especially in seeing my clients through a different lens. I'm a lot better at multitasking now, and I am very mindful about being one hundred percent present in the moment – when I'm with my kids, and when I’m working.

Aside from your uncompromising integrity, do you have a leadership philosophy?

My leadership philosophy has a lot to do with teamwork – lifting others and empowering those around me. That really goes back to my early years playing team sports. One of my soccer teams would gather in a circle before each game, put our hands in the middle, and say, "Together!" That's a really important word in my life. I always find it more rewarding to be part of a team and to feel you're all accomplishing something together. The results are better when it's a collaborative effort. It's just not fun to 'win' alone.

More of the 2019 Women to Watch Honorees: