It’s February 10, and the U.S. women’s hockey team is about to face off against the Czech Republic at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Almost 7,000 miles away in Dallas, Stephanie Jackson (EMBA ’18) is watching with friends and family. They’ve prepared snacks and stayed up late to catch the game live — for this game and all of the U.S. men’s and women’s hockey games. In a few weeks, they’ll do the same for the U.S. national sled hockey team at the Paralympics.
For Jackson, the diversity of the women’s team is as exciting as their skating skill and speed. As USA Hockey’s first-ever director of diversity and inclusion, she has a perspective on breaking through barriers that aims to be wider and deeper than whatever happens in Beijing.
“We’re working really, really hard to make sure that hockey is something that everyone can consume in any way they want — as a player, as a fan or as an employee of a hockey organization,” Jackson says. “We want all of our communities to understand that they are valued and included.”
USA Hockey is the governing body for ice hockey in the United States, which means it’s the official representative to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation. The organization’s primary focus, however, is on the support and development of grassroots hockey programs, especially youth programs. A few years ago, USA Hockey stepped up its efforts to be a more diverse, equitable and inclusive organization to better reflect current U.S. demographics. This move was not entirely unprecedented. In the 1990s, former men’s national team coach and NHL coach Lou Vairo led a task force on diversity for the Colorado Springs-based organization.
Jackson’s hire represents USA Hockey’s expanded DE&I efforts, which have grown to include not just race and socioeconomic status, but gender, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, ethnicity, nationality and language (diversity); issues of justice, fairness and distribution of resources (equity); and opportunities to participate fully in programs and decision making (inclusion).
“DE&I is not a ‘nice-to-have,’” Jackson says. “And it’s not just about socio-emotional value. It also has business value, strategic value.” The key is figuring out how and when to emphasize each aspect of DE&I, and Jackson, who also holds a Master of Social Work degree, says her experience at Mendoza helped her do that.
“When I got to Notre Dame, I had no business background at all. I was stuck on the warm and fuzzy side of things,” she says. “When you really do business for good, you have to ask, what is your objective? What core values do you need in alignment with your objective? What does DE&I mean for things like key performance indicators? What outcomes are you trying to reach? Ultimately, what is your purpose?”
Jackson came to USA Hockey after seven years at Nike, where she advised senior leaders and executives on diversity and inclusion initiatives and designed and implemented DE&I strategy for employees. She learned about the USA Hockey position from a friend at the National Hockey League who thought Jackson’s work experience and abundant patience would make her a good candidate. Jackson cautiously agreed to let her friend forward her résumé. “I told her, you can send it over, and if they want to talk, we can talk.”
They wanted to talk.
Jackson joined USA Hockey in 2019, ultimately won over by the opportunity to move from a corporation to a nonprofit — and to be a part of the Olympic movement. “Working in a sport that represents your country is special,” she says, and watching the U.S. national teams compete in the Beijing Games has left her feeling hopeful and empowered. She’s taken those feelings to the office, where she collaborates with colleagues throughout the organization to create advancement and opportunities for girls and people of color to play hockey, and for more women and people of color to work in hockey.
“We’re looking at fellowship and internship opportunities, professional development of women already working in hockey, and designing ways to increase representation at every level of leadership,” Jackson says. She helps ensure the organization’s messaging, policies and practices elevate DE&I. “We are always trying to figure out how we can be better about making sure USA Hockey provides the best possible experience in hockey. For everyone.”
While DE&I positions are not new, they’ve had a higher profile in recent years. According to the 2022 LinkedIn Jobs on the Rise report, diversity and inclusion manager is the second-fastest growing job title in the past five years. Sue Arthur, CEO of CareerBuilder, recently told the Society for Human Resource Management that “DE&I will take a front seat in 2022” as companies and organizations continue to address these issues, and as individuals expect to see more leadership in DE&I from companies and organizations.
“Working in a role focused on diversity, equity and inclusion provides a chance to highlight important issues that organizations and companies sometimes put on the back burner,” Jackson says. “Organizations acknowledge that DE&I is important but they may not have the capacity to devote the appropriate level of attention to the issue within their established leadership structure. It’s helpful to bring someone on to look at the structures, to talk about those systems and microsystems and ecosystems, to ask questions — to figure out what in the system is holding certain groups back.”
For people interested in careers related to advancing DE&I, Jackson says it’s essential to value different perspectives and to understand that there’s more than one way to achieve a goal. Additionally, she says the job requires persistence, flexibility and good communication skills. And more than anything, it requires understanding influence and how it works is vital for DE&I success. “If you are not someone who knows how to increase your influence or how to build relationships with the people who can drive that influence home, it will be a struggle.”
The work of transforming organizational culture is fluid and nonlinear, and it requires a sense of what is appropriate in a specific context at a specific time. “You have to be willing to both mold the culture and move with it,” she says.
While it can be rewarding work, it’s not easy. Jackson says it can feel like change isn’t happening quickly enough. While DE&I officers need to have the desire to see their initiatives advance, she says the reality is many senior DE&I roles have a shelf life of just a few years. “People in these roles get exhausted,” she says. “It can be hard to create buy-in, and there’s often a lack of resources.”
Resistance by some individuals or groups within an organization can be challenging. “People resist things when they don’t understand, or when they feel something doesn’t pertain to them or benefit them,” she says. The most useful strategy she’s found is to educate and engage people. That can take different forms depending on the organization, the individual and the situation. “People can and do come full circle, from being a resister to being somebody who recognizes what they can contribute,” she says. “When people understand the point of transformation and what they can do to help that transformation take place, it’s easier to get them to buy into it.”
While Jackson has made significant strides down the path of DE&I in the sports world, it wasn’t a path she was ever aiming to take. “Every role that I’ve had, it’s been because of someone saying, ‘Hey, you’ve done good work at this place. Have you ever thought about...?’ Whenever an opportunity came along, I’d say, ‘Well, let’s just see what this is about.’”
Jackson is quick to credit her network as the key to unlocking many of those career opportunities; as an undergraduate English major at Howard University, she was conscientious about building relationships, and those relationships have served her well over the years. “My career hasn’t been about pursuing a particular goal or passion,” she says. “But it’s been one where I’ve been able to use my skills and my curiosity to move from one stage to the next. And it’s been wonderful.”