Black History 365: Nnenna Lynch

Nnenna Lynch is the New NYRR Chairwoman Nominee

Nnenna Lynch is having a full-circle moment: She has been nominated to take the post of chairwoman of the New York Road Runners (NYRR) board of directors, the organization announced earlier this morning. 

Lynch has been on the NYRR board since 2014 and currently serves as the chair of the NYRR Youth and Community Impact committee. 

Lynch’s appointment is historic: She becomes the first woman and the first Black American at the helm of the board. It’s a watershed moment for NYRR, whose roots start with Ted Corbitt, a Black Olympic marathoner and the organization’s first president.

“There’s a wealth of very deep talent among women; there’s a wealth of incredibly talented African Americans, and certainly there’s a wealth of very talented African American women. It’s really exciting to be one of them and to have the opportunity to lend my experience and talent to a phenomenal organization to the extent to which it inspires others,” Lynch told Women’s Running during a recent interview on a bench in Central Park. “I’m still getting my head around this piece of it, that I represent more than just who I am.”

As chairwoman, Lynch will help set high-level strategy and ensure that the organization continues to work toward its mission of inspiring people to run and building up communities through running. 

In addition to serving on NYRR’s board, Lynch is the founder and CEO of Xylem Projects, a mission-driven real estate and development firm focused on creating sustainable and affordable housing and developing mixed-use projects in transitioning neighborhoods. She started her career in developing affordable housing and served on the board of the New York City Housing Authority. Prior to Xylem, Lynch worked for former Mayor Mike Bloomberg to set economic development and policy.

“I think it’s such a happy fit because so much of what we do [at NYRR] really ties in with what I’ve done prior to Xylem when I was working in government, doing affordable housing, and working in communities. It draws so much of my experiences. It’s the intersection of impact and business,” she says.

Lynch will succeed George Hirsch, who has been chairman of the board since 2004. She officially takes the position in June 2023, after the board approves her nomination at the annual board meeting. 

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A Lifelong Love of Running

Lynch’s ties to running go back to childhood. Lynch, who went to school in the Upper East Side, started running at the age of 10 in Central Park, which she lovingly calls her childhood track.

“It was a classic sort of schoolyard experience where I realized I could beat all the boys in my grade. I always knew I was fast,” Lynch says.

“I have an older sister who started running and the father of a friend of hers wanted to get them into a running program. He found a coach who worked with youth. My sister first joined the team, and I would follow her to practice but wasn’t signed up so I waited around. The coach noticed me and said, ‘Hey, you’re able-bodied. Get out there.’” 

At first, Lynch’s parents and sister were adamantly against her joining the team and even encouraged her to do ballet and tennis instead. Although she had given them both a try, she knew her place wasn’t on the court or on stage, but out on the track. 

“The way they saw it was that this was my sister’s thing. But I had a taste of what it was—the team, the coach—and knew this is what I wanted to do, and eventually, everyone accepted it,” Lynch says. 

Lynch thrived on the track and that “schoolyard experience” quickly flourished into a decorated collegiate running career. Lynch attended Villanova University, where she won five NCAA titles in track and field and was a seven-time All-American distance runner. Lynch went on to compete in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Trials and was a finalist for the 3,000-meter and semifinalist for the 1,500-meter. 

Running remains a big part of Lynch’s life. As a busy mom of two and CEO, Lynch manages to pound the ground five to six days a week. Except she isn’t focused on time or distance during this season in her life. 

“Honestly, it’s not about performance. It’s mostly about health and well-being. My favorite runs are ones that are long and slow,” Lynch says. “What I love most about running is the experience of being outside. I find it incredibly relaxing and meditative.”

That’s not to say that Lynch hasn’t had some harder-effort runs under her belt, too. She recently ran the NYRR Brooklyn Half Marathon in May and the New York Mini 10K—the first official women-only road race—which celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this month. 

Serving on the Board of New York Road Runners

Lynch became involved with NYRR through Mary Wittenberg, former president and CEO of NYRR and race director of the New York City Marathon, who recruited her to join the board. Although the organization’s deeply rich history in running and the iconic New York City marathon were major selling points to get involved, Lynch says it was their youth programs was what cinched it for her. 

“One of the things that I wasn’t aware of when I originally sat down with Mary and what really pulled me in was this focus they had on youth and community. As someone who started running as a youngster, that was the appealing piece of getting involved in an organization that had that community and wanted to foster youth,” Lynch says. “So over the time I’ve been on the board and as chair, we’ve been focused on deepening and furthering our impact.”

During her time as chair of the youth and community impact committee, Lynch helped lead the transition of the Mighty Milers program, in which kids had a goal of running a total of 26.2 miles throughout the school year, to Rising NYRR, a nationwide program that helps kids from Pre-K to 12th grade become lifelong athletes. The Rising program provides age-appropriate education to help kids build physical literacy.

“You don’t have to start with running. When you look at what kids do, some of it is running-based, but it’s really games like tag. So we created curriculum that teachers and parents can use that help kids develop physical literacy but doing it in fun ways,” Lynch says. 

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Looking Ahead: What’s Next for NYRR

When Lynch becomes chairwoman next June, she plans to take that same forward thinking into all of NYRR’s programs and events, which includes 37 races. In addition to overseeing executive management and high-level strategy, Lynch’s job is to ensure that the organization continues to stay true to its core mission of inspiring all runners and building up communities through running. 

But more importantly, Lynch is thinking more broadly on how NYRR can improve accessibility and inclusivity.

“When you think of the overall history of the organization—[it] started in 1958 and the marathon started in 1971—it took a while for the marathon to become this iconic event, so if I think about where we are in the evolution of our community events, I would say we’re still pretty early on,” Lynch says. 

“The larger goal is to broaden and deepen our impact, so it’s about thinking through that lens for every event we do. How can we deepen our impact with youth, with seniors, with otherly abled athletes? That’s something as chairwoman, I will continue to beat the drum on.”

For example, one area of focus for Lynch is expanding NYRR’s Open Run program, which are community-led runs and walks held at parks in all five boroughs, and how they can widen their reach within different communities in New York City and elsewhere. 

“We’re always thinking about what is New York? Who is New York? How can we broaden our reach to New Yorkers and beyond,” says Lynch. “We’ve had interest from other cities about replicating Open Run. Our youth programs are national. We’re cultivating relationships here, but we have mechanisms to support remotely.”

The pandemic has also forced the organization to innovate ways of building community. NYRR partnered with the running app, Strava, in 2018 to allow runners from all over the world to take part in their races wherever they are. Creating and cultivating a community through technology is an area Lynch is also hoping to grow. 

“As the world’s premier running organization, there’s a lot of work that goes into maintaining that status. So we are always looking for new ways of reaching people, new ways of expanding our efforts. I think we’ve done quite a good job of embracing technology, so continuing to leverage what’s out there is one of the ways we want to connect and build a community,” Lynch says.

Lynch’s nomination signifies a period of rebirth for NYRR, which has received criticism in recent years for failing to address diversity issues within the organization and the running community. 

When former CEO and president Michael Capiraso was forced to resign in 2020, it brought a reckoning within the organization to take a closer look at ways its events and programs can do a better job of promoting diversity and representation. This is also top of mind for Lynch when she becomes chairwoman. 

“I think it starts with listening and making sure we have strong, deep ties with organizations and people within the community. Some of the feedback really was a wake-up call that we need to reinforce those efforts and deepen those efforts with various run clubs. It was an opportunity to reflect on how we can do better. There’s no doubt that there’s a commitment—from me personally and the board,” Lynch says. 

NYRR started taking some steps to create a more diverse and inclusive environment for their staff and the broader running community before Capiraso’s exit. It hired Erica Edwards-O’Neal as the senior vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion in 2020. In early 2021, the organization put in place a new diversity, equity, inclusion, and social responsibility framework. It’s also launching a community council for staff and community members who can weigh in on how to make its platforms a more inclusive environment, particularly reaching the Black running community.

“We’re going to be doing more listening and more acting, and the greater infrastructure we’ve created with both the committee on the board and the SVP role will help further those efforts,” Lynch says.

While Lynch is 12 months out from her official start date, she is already working closely with Hirsch and the rest of the board to hire a new CEO to replace Kerin Hempel, who became interim chief executive and president in 2020. They hope to select someone in the next few months and have a new CEO by the end of the year. 

“We’re looking for a really energetic individual who can build on the amazing strength of the organization and take us to the next level,” Lynch says.

As the gatekeeper of NYRR’s mission, Lynch doesn’t see the organization’s fundamental mission changing in any way, but looking at what it can do better. 

“The question is how we can continue to grow, amplify, and deepen the work we do.”