Carolina Panthers President Kristi Coleman moves up from the sidelines

People Sports

August 31, 2023

Top cat: Coleman is one of just two women leading NFL teams.

by Michelle Boudin  |  photographs by Krista Jasso

Kristi Coleman, president of the Carolina Panthers, is used to being the only woman in the room. It’s been that way throughout her career.

“I was at a work dinner with the Charlotte Business Alliance, and the guy beside me said: There are 15 people here, and you’re the only female,” Coleman recalls. She hadn’t even noticed. “You don’t necessarily think about it every day. My whole career, even when I was at Deloitte in finance, I’ve mostly been around men, so it’s never been a thing.”

The mother of two young boys interned at Deloitte while getting her master’s degree in professional accountancy at Clemson University — where she also attended undergrad — then moved to Charlotte in 2008 to join the firm as an audit manager. The Panthers were her first client. She got to know the organization well, and in 2014 the team’s controller called her with an unexpected offer. He was moving up to director of finance and wanted Coleman to take over as controller.

“It wasn’t a yes, I’m in! It was actually a very hard decision for me,” Coleman says. At Deloitte, she was on track to become a partner. “And I know what this track means for my family, and I really want this for my career,” she says.

But she couldn’t easily envision what career growth might look like working for the Panthers.

“People don’t leave in sports. It’s a small company, so it’s not like your path to the top is laid out for you — maybe you would move up, maybe you wouldn’t. So I had to think about that.”

She needn’t have worried. Two years after joining the team, Coleman was promoted to director of finance. Before that, she led the due diligence process for what was then the largest sale in NFL history, when Jerry Richardson sold the Panthers to hedge-fund manager David Tepper.

Expecting her second child during the sale, she worried her own job might be on the line. “You hear about other team sales and nobody gets to stay, so I was scared through the process,” Coleman says. “I tried to just do my job, but you have those thoughts: I’m pregnant, they’re probably not going to keep me. And you worry about that.”

Once again, her worries were unfounded. While she was on maternity leave, she got another unexpected call. This time it was from the team’s chief financial officer, Mike Dudan, who told her he was leaving — and to expect a call from Tepper.

“I panicked … It was the definition of imposter syndrome. I thought I’m not good enough. She called her mother, who assured her that she knew the business better than anyone. “And she said, ‘Do you want to train your boss, or do you want to be the boss?’ I decided at that point, if he gives me the opportunity, I’m taking it — and he did.”

Coleman served as CFO of Tepper Sports & Entertainment until February last year, when she was promoted to president of the team, succeeding Tom Glick. She’s one of only two women in that role in the NFL. The other is Sandra Douglass Morgan, president of the Las Vegas Raiders, who has become a close confidant.

“She’s phenomenal. It is nice to have a fellow female that you can call upon. She came to Charlotte [in March] for International Women’s Day, and then I went to Vegas and did an event with her. We talk at the owners’ meetings, and we’ll hop on a call occasionally. We’re both new in our roles, and we’re comfortable with each other.”

Coleman is at every home game and almost every away game, where she says it’s important to observe how other teams do things. On home turf, she’s known for regularly walking the building and chatting with employees. “I like to walk around the building — I like to know the staff, and at least say hello if I can. You want the employees to feel seen and heard,” Coleman says. “It’s part of what makes it a good place to work.” She’s able to do it all, she says, thanks in part to her supportive husband, Wade, and her extended family, several of whom live near her SouthPark home.

Like many in the Queen City, she has high hopes for the upcoming season. “With the hiring of Coach [Frank] Reich, we’re building a culture here of one team, one family. And then you trade up for the No. 1 pick for [quarterback Bryce Young], and it’s exciting. There’s hope, and a renewed feeling in all of uptown and the city.”

So far, the No. 1 draft pick is living up to the hype, at least off the field. After the NFL Draft, the team hosted an event for PSL holders. The players held a practice, then signed autographs. “He had a longer line than any of the other players,” Coleman says.  “And after that was over, he said to the setup team, ‘How can I help? Let me break down the tables, let me help you clean up.’ He’s just so nice and obviously a leader. I think that says a lot about who he is, and we’re hoping he’s just as great on the field.” 

On top of the excitement of a new coach and a new quarterback, the Panthers have a new strategy, Coleman says. The five pillars are creating a great place to work, being fan-focused, having an impact on the community, having a commercial mindset and, of course, winning. They also have a new executive team that is predominantly women.

“That’s what we’re building here — we’re building a culture where we all respect and care for each other, and I think that’s really important.”  SP

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