Jarvis Sam EMBA’22: Embracing Authenticity

Throughout his career and during his time in the IE Brown Executive MBA, Jarvis Sam (he/him/his), the Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at Nike has been on a journey of self-discovery. But in his pursuit of finding his authentic self — there is no finish line.

Jarvis SamAs a Houston, Texas native, Jarvis Sam's upbringing — one that bridged two worlds of city and country — deeply shaped his identity. If you ask him about his background and who he is, don’t expect a standard biography (you can find that on his LinkedIn). Instead, Sam will talk about the values instilled in him from a young age like justice, freedom, equity, community, family, the sanctity for identity and the ownership of it. He’ll tell you teachers are the unsung heroes of everything (shoutout to Ms. Hill and Professor Worth). And he might talk about his family’s long history of participating in speech and debate, the skill he credits for his career success. 

As an undergraduate at Rice University, Sam jumped at the opportunity to study just about every subject he could. He started with history, picked up public policy, then rounded the bases with sports management. 

Now, as Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at Nike, Sam leads the DEI practice area at the company where he leverages historical understandings in the sports industry to lead change. On paper, his education and career has come full circle. His resume includes the likes of big tech companies, such as Snapchat and Google. But only from a glance at his long hair, braids colored in every shade of the rainbow, does one recognize his greatest strength as a leader — his authenticity. But for Sam, discovering his authentic self first took putting on a face that was not his own. 

Learning to play the game.

At the start of his career, Sam remembers not seeing Black or queer men that looked like him in positions of authority. He constantly questioned whether he could bring the essence of Black culture and queer identity into the workplace. As he advanced in various roles, he observed a singular perspective unfolding — one that many marginalized communities like women, people of color and sexual minorities experience at work. “You start to believe a narrative that the only way to be successful is to assimilate.” Sam analogizes, “You must learn the rules of a game to which you played no part in crafting, and then jump into the game.” 

Exhausted, Sam came to a realization. “When I finally began to understand the culture to which I wanted to be a part of, I no longer had to think about this construct of assimilation. I could be myself.” He elaborates, “It was in that moment, I realized my authenticity is actually the biggest value add that I provide in any room and any space that I’m in. As leaders, what we represent has limitless potential. From how we look, to how we dress, to what we say, to our actions and behaviors, it's meaningful to people. I know that me owning the full essence of my identity as a Black, queer man is purposeful to so many.”   

“ It was in that moment, I realized my authenticity is actually the biggest value add that I provide in any room and any space that I’m in. ”

Permission to rewrite the rules.

When Sam reflects on this turning point in his career, in true fashion, he describes it using a metaphor about a common practice we’re all familiar with from school: permission slips. As children, we learn we need permission to go on the field trip to the art museum or participate in sports. We learn that we must look to leaders for permission for everything. And as adults, we often carry this way of thinking into the workplace.

Sam understands the importance of what he represents when he shows up everyday as his authentic self — a permission slip.

“When we show up as our authentic selves, dressing how we want to and behaving in ways that are aligned to our culture and community, we’re giving that permission slip. We’re giving that nod to others that may be early in their careers or some that may be super tenured but never felt comfortable or in spaces of psychological safety, to be themselves. We grant that.”

From day one at Nike, Sam has felt congruence with the company’s mission and what it stands for. “I share Nike's belief that we are at our best when every member of our team feels respected, included, and heard – showing up as themselves to do our best work every day.” As such, when deciding where to study his MBA, Sam sought an institution and program with those same values.

 

In a league of its own.

When pursuing an MBA, two things had to be true for Sam. He wanted the flexibility to continue working full-time and a curriculum that went beyond the experience of a traditional business education. Brown University’s joint executive MBA program with IE Business School offered that.

“I wanted a program that wasn’t going to force me down this rabbit hole of purely deep finance and accounting. Rather, I wanted to learn those fundamentals and how they could apply to my work.” Sam also wanted a space where he could learn a deeply social, scientifically-informed and humanistic-empowered approach to doing and understanding business. He was intrigued by the program’s curriculum which not only focuses on issues of sustainability, DEI, and climate change but also examines how historical events impact the modern world.

“ I wanted a program that wasn’t going to force me down this rabbit hole of purely deep finance and accounting. Rather, I wanted to learn those fundamentals and how they could apply to my work. ”

During his study, Sam realized the biggest benefit and differentiator from other programs was Brown’s partnership with IE Business School in Madrid, Spain. In a world where corporate and academia are still navigating how to do things truly global, the opportunity to develop a deep understanding of the difference between translation and localization was crucial for Sam. “The rest of the world knows how to do localization better than the US, and certainly better than US based institutions. IE is able to push Brown’s perspective. When you have a Spanish institution playing an equal role in developing the curriculum and thinking about how to teach, train and position English language coursework, global nuances are considered and amplified.” 

On top of its global impact, Sam says the IE Brown Executive MBA sparked a renewed love for writing as well as incredible bonds with classmates, like Herb Courtney, Jacques McClendon, and Samira Behrouzan. “The program brought together a network of folks who I’ve been able to navigate conversations with. Socially, I've acquired several new friends from the program, but professionally I have grown beyond my horizons to think differently and to help encourage and inspire them to think differently about our work together.”

 

Final thoughts: The ball is in your court.

Sam offers two pieces of advice for prospective students. 

The first, nodding to the athletic giant’s famous slogan, he says tritly, “Just do it.” 

The second, “If you are entering this through the lens of looking for a traditional executive MBA program, this is not the one for you. This one is going to force you to think differently. This one is going to force you to do a lot of writing and public presentation. You are developing scholarship that I believe is the expectation of traditional liberal arts education, but through a truly global business lens.”

He explains, “Take the time to identify your pull factors.” For Sam, there were nine; his eight nephews and one niece. His goal by earning an MBA is for them to understand the power of education and the limitless potential that it offers. “And so, I’ll leave you with this. Figure out your why. Then as you're going through the program, maximize the heck out of that to your fullest potential.”

 

“ If you are entering this through the lens of looking for a traditional executive MBA program, this is not the one for you. This one is going to force you to think differently. ”