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Wonder Women of New York 2022: Tonya Cornileus

Tonya Cornileus
Tonya Cornileus (Image credit: Melissa Rawlins/ESPN Images)

The calls kept coming and Tonya Cornileus kept ignoring them. After all, why deal with an executive recruiter when she was happy as director of executive development ad organizational effectiveness for Turner Broadcasting System in Atlanta? 

“I ignored the calls for a few weeks and then during lunch one day, I picked up the phone and it was the recruiter,” Cornileus recalled. He persuaded her to look at the job description if only to help recommend other potential candidates. “I’m reading the job description and it doesn’t give the company’s name but then it said, ‘the worldwide leader in sports.’ I said, ‘Oh my god.’ ”

Too Good to Pass Up

For Cornileus, who had grown up in Eustis, Florida, competing in everything from track and field to basketball to girls’ powderpuff football, the notion of working for ESPN was a game-changer. Despite hesitation over moving to Connecticut, the offer was one she couldn’t refuse. “I consider that one of the best decisions I’ve made,” she said. 

Twelve years later, Cornileus is VP, development, inclusion and wellness at ESPN. She serves as a key part of the human resources senior leadership team, advising senior management on such issues as learning, organization development, talent management, diversity, inclusion and wellness.

“Tonya is a dynamic leader who has helped drive diversity into the fabric of the ESPN culture,” said Paul Richardson, senior executive VP and chief human resources officer for The Walt Disney Co. “Her efforts in enhancing the leadership capabilities of our staff — and commitment to employee development at all levels — have been critical to ESPN’s ongoing success.”

It’s always about tapping into people’s potential, their goals and dreams.”

— Tonya Cornileus

Cornileus had studied broadcast journalism and telecommunications at the University of Florida. While she was job-hunting after college, a friend suggested she go to Miami and try teaching. It was a natural fit, as both of her parents had been educators. 

“It was one of the poorest communities, but I fell in love with the idea of education as a change agent for young people’s lives,” Cornileus said. She stayed with teaching for much of the next 11 years, even as she got married and moved around due to her husband’s military career. (Her daughter now teaches middle school science.)

Teaching middle-school students who were at a huge transition point in their lives helped prepare her for the corporate life at ESPN. “I oversee all of our company’s learning and development from young professionals just beginning their careers all the way up to C-suite executives,” she said. “But it’s always about tapping into people’s potential, their goals and dreams.”

As with teaching, she initially ventured into the corporate space just to try something different — and learned that she loved that, too. 

While working as VP, training and organizational development for Aegis Communications Group, she earned a master’s degree in HR and organizational development from the University of Georgia. Then she got a job at Turner, which let her travel less while raising her two children and earning a Ph.D. 

“I went to graduate school because I noticed that getting everyone working at their best was not just about gaining skills, there were cultural aspects that impact how a person experiences the workplace and how they’re going to perform,” Cornileus said. “You can’t just do training. There has to be learning and organizational development.”

More Employee Engagement

At ESPN, she is proud of having influenced and facilitated tremendous employee engagement. The company now has nine employee resource groups and three affinity groups, with about 2,700 employees actively engaged in one or more. Hundreds are involved in ESPN’s mentoring circles. 

For the past two years, she has helped guide ESPN toward becoming a more inclusive, diverse and equitable workplace. There has been a shift from training employees in an array of workshops and programs about unconscious bias to a focus on inclusion, she said, as the company sought to move beyond awareness to action. 

Cornileus is still juggling, giving back by mentoring younger people (from high school age up), serving on foundation boards and creating a scholarship in journalism at her alma mater and another in her late mother’s name in her hometown. 

“I don’t see any of it as work,” she said. “I really love being helpful to other people on their journeys. My life mantra is, I want the world to know that I’m here and that I care.” ■

Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.