Nike VP of DEI Jarvis Sam on Amplifying Diverse Voices in the Design Space

Since its inception in 1972, Nike has never shied from sharing its purpose, which includes a sharpened focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Jarvis Sam, who joined the athletic giant four years ago, is ensuring the efforts remain a priority and have a lasting impact for the better.

Sam, the VP of global diversity and inclusion at Nike, is attached to some of its most impactful initiatives, most notably the Serena Design Crew apprenticeship program aimed at promoting diversity in design and the WIN Program that hires retired WNBA players into positions with the company.

Last week, during a media walkthrough of the Serena Williams Building at the Nike world headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., Sam addressed how the Swoosh is addressing industry-wide DEI issues with FN, as well as the impact the Serena Design Crew has had on the company and more.

What are the issues concerning DEI within the greater design space?

“We talk about this concept of giving a seat at the table, and I think over the last several years, particularly the last two, the design industry has done a lot of work to celebrate and amplify Black voices, queer voices, Latino voices, etc. But how do we extend beyond simply giving a seat at the table to a voice in the conversation? And that’s where the real impact is great. When we talk about diversity driving innovation, it has to be rooted in the ability for these folks to have real impact and move beyond intent and move beyond just having them there. I believe this is the beauty of what we’ve worked on with Serena Williams Design Crew. These folks are apprentices who have an amazing ecosystem of onboarding buddies, mentors and managers here at Nike that support their work, but beyond that, they are the ones creating this collection. They’re not sitting on the sidelines watching someone else do it and learning the process. We recruit them because of their creative and entrepreneurial spirit that they bring to the table, so it is a driver of actually giving them that voice in the conversation. I think the design industry also has an opportunity to amplify intersectionality much more, recognizing that Black designers aren’t just a monolith of experience of background and history. Rather, we come from such different experiences from Black queer identities to the essence of distinction between a Black feminine identity versus a Black masculine identity, and as we start to think about the impact of the Black trans community on design and creative ethos, it’s how do we celebrate those nuances of experience collectively to really showcase the impact on design?”

How is Nike specifically addressing this?

“That’s the essence of what we call our secret sauce, it is our home court advantage in a lot of ways, programs like Serena Williams Design Crew — but it doesn’t start or stop there. The work of SWDC actually inspired the development of a new program at Converse called the Converse All Star Design Team. In that program, we recruit amazing professionals, also from underrepresented backgrounds, to join our Boston-based Converse team to develop a product that I think so many would say is the essence of creativity, the Chuck Taylor, and define what new approaches to innovation in footwear, apparel and equipment actually look like for Converse as well. It’s all about understanding what worked well, defining where gaps in opportunities may have existed and then continuing this process of launching and iterate to expand upon new products, projects and ideas that really help us to amplify that. Our strategy is one rooted in representation, education, development and community — specifically for education. While there is a ton of enterprise-wide education that we focus on, our design organization hones in on education and topics connected to microaggressions, cultural appreciation — which is vitally important creative spaces — so that as we look to celebrate the work of great designers from a variety of dimensions of diversity, we’re doing so through a lens where everyone benefits from the work in practice.”

Serena Williams Design Crew Nike
Serena Williams in selections from the first-ever Nike x Serena Williams Design Crew range.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nike

How would you assess the impact that the Serena Design Crew has had on Nike?

“We talk a lot about the work and the impact with the apprentices, but what I think is really such a powerful underpinning is our own design teams have changed as a result of managing three cohorts of SWDC. They’ve changed in how we think about onboarding talent. What are some of those critical nuances that can be learned on the job? Principally, the cohort one started in-person, went virtual with the pandemic, and cohort two navigated the entirety of their apprenticeship almost exclusively virtual. And now cohort three, starting on March 7, have been largely in-person in Portland. We’ve learned how to manage and navigate hybrid working for teammates and employees with a group of folks that have really defined the essence of our working experience. Similarly though, as part of the experience of going through Serena Williams Design Crew, you spend your first three weeks with Pensole Design Academy, now Pensole Lewis [College], where Dr. D’Wayne Edwards has launched an HBCU in Detroit aimed around this. It’s really redefined our understanding of partnership in this space as well, that it’s the whole lifecycle of not only where we source and recruit talent, but in the training program and mechanism that we allow the talent to enter through, and then ultimately how do we ensure that they have a really powerful landing here and that we’re managing their careers more effectively so that they can achieve their career aspirations. While not perfect, we’re certainly really excited about the progress, which I think can be best measured by the conversion of these folks from apprentices to full-time employees.”

Now 50 years old, what does it mean to both consumers and to the broader industry that a company as massive as Nike is dedicated to DEI?

“Growing up, Nike, Jordan and Converse undoubtedly had an impact on my life because for me, it was a brand that I always saw as representing the various facets of my identity as a queer Black man, representing the essence of how my parents and grandparents saw their connection to sport and athleticism. When we talk about sport having the power to change the world, it’s because sport has often been used as a vehicle to navigate many of these complex conversations around gender equity, racial and social equity and justice, and currently, conversations of how do we promote LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport? Nike having a critical voice here, it matters because it has a reverberating impact across our industry. Take, for example, following the murder of George Floyd, so many of my friends who work in the industry but not at Nike said, ‘We sat around and watched. What will Nike do? How will Nike respond? And so it creates an opportunity where we use our brand voice in powerful ways and can show consistency and congruence across our team and talent strategy, our work in product, our work in brand, and then ultimately having position and to the consumers through retail and digital spaces, it has an impact on the felt experience of all the different stakeholders, from signature athletes to employees to consumers, on how we think about and show our connected commitment to this work, whether in support of racial and ethnic minorities, our work that we’ve done for years with Flyease, providing accessibility to individuals with disabilities, and of course, work that we do, for example, with military communities or native and indigenous populations with our N7 product. Being able to showcase your identity with the footwear that you wear, with the apparel that you wear, but also knowing that the company that is behind that product creation and development remains committed through a holistic strategy, it’s meaningful to people because that’s the crux of genuine engagement and authenticity.”

Where is Nike making its greatest investment in terms of addressing DEI within the design space?

“I don’t want to lose sight of the investments that we’re making in education. I often say education is the critical prerequisite to empathy. We’ve got to draw a distinction between empathy and sympathy. People have become really good the last several years at sympathy: I feel sorry for, thoughts and prayers to. Empathy is a voluntary, yet committed and intentional approach that says, ‘I need to know your story, your narrative and your journey so that I can understand the essence of your equity experience. We’re not from the same starting point, and so to get us to progress forward as individuals and as a team necessitates me understanding that. And although I will not ever live in your shoes, how can I understand your experience and in what it means in terms of decision making?’ I want to underscore that because the investments that we’re making in education for our design leaders, as well as our designers, is so critical because what we want to happen is all of our footwear and apparel products to be created through a lens that is connected to real authenticity. We talk about this with our Be True product, with our BHM product, where you need to reflect the culture in the community and amplify their voices, but it’s critical that we do this with all of our work. So we’re making significant investments to ensure that folks understand the power of education and development, so we’ve launched a mentorship program that extends to our design organization so that we can ensure that women and communities of color have a clear and equitable shot at achieving their career aspirations here, and that they’re celebrated specifically in design. When you think about a function that is the driver of the impact of the company, it is rooted in design. They have to be the epicenter of empathy, the epicenter of innovation, and so equipping them with the capabilities and the resources to do that is something I’m so proud of from a DEI lens.”

Nike, Be True, Pride, 2021
The 2021 Nike Be True collection includes footwear and apparel, created and inspired by the LGBTQIA+ community.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nike

What is the next barrier Nike is focused on breaking?

“We remain fully committed to fighting against discrimination in all its forms. And particularly, we believe that sport represents a powerful vehicle to do that. We have a clear strategy that’s aligned around amplifying representation, education, development in community, and we believe that by honing in on those areas from the very beginning it allow them to navigate emergent topics that might arise without necessarily having to be reactive. It allows us to look at our repertoire and see where have you been proactive in supporting, for example, LGBTQ+ community? Where have we developed truly global strategies that impact how we talk about certain conversations around social identity and social impact? By focusing on those areas, we believe that as these different barriers arise, we have the opportunity to navigate them head on. If we continue to center ourselves on that baseline approach, that we are part of their journey of creating that equitable playing field for the future, it will be something that carries us through. Now let’s be clear: Nike alone can’t solve the world’s challenges around racism, homophobia, heterosexism, etc. However, we believe that the voice that we have in sport and the influence that it makes on other similarly situated companies and league and federation partners and broadcast partners will enable us to develop a clear platform and help us navigate this.”

What will the future of design at Nike will look like?

“Equity illuminated. It’s the idea where culture is so celebrated and yet so nuanced that we inspire people to move toward whatever their aspirations are, where design becomes a creative hub for individuals to identify what their starting point is, think through the essence of their marginalization, but position it through such a beautiful form of celebration of identity where the workplace becomes a playground in a lot of ways for celebrating those creative and spirit that really embody and encapsulate what a culture of belonging is.”

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