With more than 400 students and young professionals representing more than 100 different colleges and universities, 38 states and eight countries joining via video conference, the Denver Broncos hosted the team's inaugural Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Career Huddle on Thursday.
Over the three hours that followed, a range of Broncos staff members — including Hall of Fame safety Steve Atwater, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Brittany Bowlen, Vice President of Football Administration Rich Hurtado, Vice President of Ticketing Sales and Service Marc Jackson and many of their colleagues — shared their invaluable perspectives on working in sports and the challenges they face, as well as advice for breaking into their industries.
"Under the leadership of Denver Broncos President and CEO Joe Ellis, diversity, equity and inclusion is a key priority for our organization," Executive Director of Community Development Allie Engelken said as the program began. "The concept for this professional development opportunity was born out of internal discussions with our players, coaches and staff last summer, and we're excited to introduce you to the team behind the team. You will hear from a diverse representation of some of the best and brightest Broncos employees spanning roles both on the football and business sides of our organization. Today's virtual event is aimed to bring together collegiate students and young professionals to learn more about working in sports, specifically for a professional team's front office."
As the keynote speaker, Atwater took it from there, beginning by touching on the concept of the seminar and why he felt it was so important.
"It's about ensuring fairness, building equal access for all people to opportunities in all areas of an organization, from the company's hiring processes, to compensation, to its fairness in promotions and professional growth," Atwater said. "In everyday terms for young people, it might kind of like saying, Hey, there's going to be a party and everyone, regardless of our differences, is invited. That is, actually, diversity. And everyone who is invited to the party — again, regardless of our differences — has equal access to the music in advance and gets to contribute to the playlist. That would be the equity part of it. And then when you get to the party, everyone has the opportunity to dance with the music that we all selected together … and also feel truly welcomed, respected, supported and valued. That's the inclusion part. As you know, there's currently a big push for DEI in the workplace, and this is an ever-evolving process that you guys, I'm sure, will benefit from."
Later in the afternoon, Bowlen echoed Atwater's comments in discussing why this is such an important part of the organization's goals and discussed how the team plans to continue their efforts.
"Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a strategic focus for our organization," Bowlen said. "It's something that we're going to continue to work on. It's always moving, [and] it's never going to be done. We're always going to have work to do, and there's a lot of exciting things that we're doing. I mean, look at this. This is incredible, learning from our colleagues. I think even just people who work with the Broncos could be joining this and learning so much from it. It's pretty incredible.
"Right now, we're really focused on awareness and education, but that moves into processes and policies. In this last year, we formed a DEI committee. … We also wrote a strategic plan for DEI and submitted it to the league office. We created a 'Critical Conversations' series for our staff and, so far, we've had a lot of positive feedback on that. And probably the most exciting thing we've done thus far, and I did this in partnership with [Director of Human Resources] Aracely [Gomez] and the HR department, but in the coming weeks we'll announce our VP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. We're excited to bring them on board."
For those who couldn't join the seminar, the Broncos will make the videos available here on DenverBroncos.com, and a brief summary of the three discussion panels can be found below:
Behind the X's and O's
Hurtado, Director of Player Development Ray Jackson, Data Scientist Emily Kuehler and Behavioral Health Specialist Dr. Nicole Linen formed the first panel, which offered perhaps some of the most tantalizing information because of how closely they work with the team's players, coaches and personnel staff.
Looking at his role and what traits are valuable, Hurtado noted that it takes more than just technical savvy.
"In my role, obviously numbers and being comfortable with numbers is important, but you can't just be a numbers person in my role and be successful," Hurtado said. "You have to have people skills … because on a day-to-day basis, I'm dealing with a lot of different groups. I'm dealing with coaches, I'm dealing with scouts, I'm dealing with the executive staff internally, and of course, one of my main things is, in my role, building and maintaining relationships with player agents. And if you don't have those relationships, it just doesn't work, no matter how good you could be at negotiating a contract or crunching numbers. I think people skills are extremely important. And I think the other thing is curiosity, just being very curious all the time. You always want to ask questions, always want to learn something."
Later, when session host Alexis Perry asked each person what advice they'd give guests on how to find careers in sports, Linen discussed the importance of taking pride in the quality of one's work, the ability to do that quality of work persistently and the need to stay connected with people in the industry.
"I'd say three things," Linen said. "The first, I got this advice my friend and mentor, Dr. Kensa Gunter, who does very similar work. And she says, 'Do good work.' It's easy to want to dream to do something like this. This job seems very sexy and lots of people are interested. Like Ray said, there's 32 teams and a lot of people who are vying for a position like this. But if you just do really good work, people will start to notice you. But the second thing I would say is be consistent. And so if you can do good work and you continue to do good work, people figure out who you are and the work that you're doing. And then the last thing, like Rich and Ray said, is to network. You may not get this opportunity right out of college, you may not get it the first few years out of college; but if you stay consistent and do good work and make sure that you're kind of running in the right circles and obviously have the proper licensure, there's nothing that you can't accomplish."
Breaking Barriers: Women of the Broncos
The second panel featured Director of Special Events Anna Marie Martinez, Senior Marketing Manager Marisol Villagomez, Senior Director of Partnership Marketing Sandy Young and Assistant Player Performance Coach Emily Zaler.
The session largely focused on the experiences of these four women working in pro sports — their role models, the stories of their successes and challenges, their advice for other women hoping to follow in their footsteps and much more.
At one point, Zaler, who broke new ground with the Broncos as the team's first female full-time coach, was asked if there was a piece of advice that really guided her on her path in pro sports.
"Something that really stood out to me back in 2008, the first time I heard it, and it's still with me today is learning to make something out of nothing," Zaler said. "For me, I can give an example of that or what I mean by that. It's not waiting for opportunities to come to you and waiting to be called for an opportunity in the NFL, if that's where you want to work, or in professional sports, regardless. But really trying to create your own opportunity. So the question I've been asked numerous times since joining the organization is, 'How did you get your foot in the door?' And it's taking that initiative into your own hands and not waiting for a team to knock on your door, but putting yourself out there and reaching out to teams proactively and being persistent. If you don't hear back, you start following up until someone takes the time to respond to you. And we're seeing more and more women being hired within the league that are following that same process. They're creating those opportunities for themselves, and they're not waiting for people to come to them. So wanting to make something out of nothing is something I learned very early on in my career, and I really encourage other women, as well as anyone on this call, to follow that same process.
As their session closed, the four panelists answered an important question about how men can be allies for women in the workplace.
"I come back to trust and respect," Young said. "Those are the two things. If you trust and respect your colleagues regardless of circumstances, situation, background — if you get to the point where you trust, respect and can advocate for your colleagues, that's the best thing you can do for anybody you work alongside with. So if somebody is getting treated differently or feel downtrodden because they had a bad experience with something, if you can become an ally and an advocate and stand beside them and ultimately give them a voice, that's awesome. But at the end of the day it's really about trust and respect for me."
Inside the Front Office
To close the day, the session featured four key members of the team's business staff: Bowlen, Gomez, Jackson and Senior Director of Marketing Ted Santiago.
Like the other panelists, they discussed their personal stories of how they came to work in sports, the importance of diversity in the company and other topics, like how the team adjusted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the young participants, one of the most valuable bits of info may have come from Gomez, who discussed the importance of an impactful cover letter and how candidates can separate themselves during job interviews.
"I think often times we have candidates who apply for positions and don't quite understand what the purpose of a cover letter is," Gomez said. "But I can tell you there are times where you have hiring managers that don't necessarily know the connection between your resume and the job that they're hiring for. Especially if you're applying for a position that you haven't necessarily had in the past. So I think that's really relevant, and I would also say take a look at that job posting. Look for skill sets that you personally have and make sure that those are highlighted in the resume. And then finally, if you're called in for an interview, make sure that you're able to speak to that skill set that you have and provide compelling stories and examples of how you have that skill set, because that will definitely set you apart from other candidates."
What managers desire in an applicant is hard to nail down, but Jackson highlighted five specific traits that he views as important for anyone who hopes to work in sports, or really in any industry. In fact, he said that when he was interviewing with the Broncos, he was able to identify each of these characteristics, which made him confident that coming to Denver was a good decision.
"The first is positive attitude," Jackson said. "The second is work ethic, in terms of … having a desire to roll up your sleeves day in and day out, regardless of what happens. Passion for not just this sports industry. Sure, when I wake up in the morning I turn on ESPN, but the passion needs to extend beyond that, particularly in whatever your discipline is. It could be the passion for the fan base, the passion for creating new ideas and campaigns, like for Ted in marketing. For my specific group, it's the passion to engage with the marketplace and basically try to identify opportunities that make sense for prospects or businesses and then present compelling value proposition that make sense for all parties. The last two are being coachable or a desire to grow and develop, knowing that it's not always easy and that there's going to be good days and bad days. But being coachable and opening to learning, having that passion for that is also important. And the last one is just leadership, which is a combination of all of them together. I think if you have those pieces, you're going to be successful."