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Making a mark for oneself in a male-dominated domain is no easy task. And especially in the world of sports. But, Odessa (OJ) Jenkins, who had a love for football since childhood, turned this perception around and proved that a woman can achieve any dream she sets her heart and soul into. And not just sports, today, she has also proved her mettle in the corporate world as well by donning multiple hats, the most recent one being the President for Emtrain, which delivers workplace culture analytics through its online training platform to prevent bias, discrimination, harassment, and ethical lapses in the workplace.
In this exclusive interview, Women's National Football Conference founder, CEO + Head Coach of the Texas Elite Spartans, and one of the most influential women in the world of sports, Odessa (OJ) Jenkins who recently joined Emtrain as the company’s President talks about her dual career as a football pioneer and now C-Suite executive, why her personal passion melds with a company seeking to diminish bias, harassment, and gender issues in the workplace, and how her background will go into training others on what inclusion really entails.
Jenkins has 22 years of coaching and leadership experience, is a 5X National Champion, 2X USA National Team captain, 2X Gold Medalist, and is heralded as one of the top leadership experts in the country.
Jenkins is a tireless and successful advocate for women and girls to break down barriers in all walks of life. She brings the same focus to the workplace she has on the football field. In this interaction, she discusses both this move as well as her work as the face of women’s professional tackle football.
Here are the excerpts from the interview.
You are the Founder of the Women's National Football Conference and CEO + Head Coach of the Texas Elite Spartans and have now joined Emtrain as the company’s President. You are the only women's tackle football pioneer and one of the only black, female, openly gay execs heading up a Silicon Valley enterprise tech company. Tell us about your journey which is so exciting and different?
I love teams, I love sports, I love technology. I was made to be where I am today. My approach to life started with my mom. She was a working-class woman who often had three jobs at the same time. Always working hard to provide for her family. But she also worked hard to provide for her community. She was often involved in activities serving the community as well. She was always leading something. She taught me that it’s really important to use all of your gifts. There are 168 hours every week. Use them to the best of your ability to serve other people. And that’s what took me from being a student-athlete at Cal Poly to being President of Emtrain, with many interesting stops along the way.
What are some of the parallels or similarities you can draw between your new role at Emtrain and your work as the founder and CEO of the Women’s National Football Conference?
You might not think there are a lot of similarities between a culture tech platform and a football league, but there are.
Both organizations are filled with high-performing people who are innovative and who are activists. At Emtrain, we are activists who work hard to show the corporate and societal value of respect, ethics, and inclusion. It takes more than just being able to deliver data-backed training solutions. It takes a belief in the veins of the company that what we are doing is right. The same holds true for the amazing athletes in the Women’s National Football Conference. Every one of those athletes is an activist in her own right. When you strap on a helmet in a sport that is dominated by people who are not like you, you are taking an activist stand every time the ball is snapped.
In addition to the activist mindset in both organizations, I believe both Emtrain and the WNFC have solutions that some might think are ahead of their time. But the truth is, in both cases, they are exactly where they need to be.
Emtrain’s founder and CEO Janine Yancey has actually described you as an "activist" and sees you as having the ability to create true change in corporate workplace culture. What role does passion and activism have in creating more positive workplaces?
Products and services are great. And to successfully help a company grow, you have to be smart there. But to be a truly transformational company you need to have executive leadership whose purpose is bigger than the top or bottom line. I am always governed by my ‘why’. My ‘why’ is rooted in the people I’m serving and the mission that we are trying to achieve.
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As you’re also the head coach of the Texas Elite Spartans, do you feel there are similarities between a coach’s mindset and that of management? There are definitely similarities between a coach’s mindset and that of corporate management. As a football coach, I’m a lot of different things: manager, therapist, CEO, strategist. It’s the same in the corporate world, too. You’ve got to wear a lot of hats. And in both cases, the way to get the most out of people is to lead with love while also holding people accountable.
How do you see the state of DEI in the tech world today and specifically Silicon Valley? What role do you hope to play there?
I think a lot of tech companies are trying to address Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, but they’re taking a very “tech company” approach to it. As a result, we are failing ourselves and each other when it comes to creating diverse and inclusive workplaces.
The “tech company” approach is to simply say, “We’re low on diversity, so let’s just add more people of color and make sure we count all the LGBTQ people we have on staff.” That’s a start, but inclusion has to be so much more than just a numbers game.
We need categorical change beyond just the numbers. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is about shifting power, who you listen to, and who you give seats to at the table. Business leaders have a lot of work to do to ensure that they are truly listening to what is happening within the culture of their companies and then acting in the best interest of all stakeholders. And they have to do this by investing in the tools and the people who can go beyond checking a box that shows you’ve hired more people of color.
How do you plan to balance your role with the Women's National Football Conference and your new job with Emtrain?
I have the same 24 hours in a day as anyone else. I’ll balance it just like a single mom balances her work and her household. I’ll balance it just like the entrepreneurial man balances the side business he’s trying to grow. I’ll balance it the way anyone does when they look at their true purpose and make it work.
Given the rightful attention on issues relating to DEI in the workplace, could you share a few words of advice for the C-suite executives looking to create a more diverse and equitable workforce and the potential outcome of those efforts?
First, realize that there is no part of your organization that DEI doesn’t touch. To understand this, you really need to do a true assessment of what Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion look like in your business. It’s numbers, yes. But even more than that, it’s also an assessment of attitudes, institutions, and behaviors that are keeping every employee from feeling like they belong.
Second, you have to commit the resources--money and time--to those who you’ve given responsibility for creating a more inclusive workplace. This means investing in people, and it also means investing in the tools--technology and otherwise--that are important to truly measure your workplace culture, and whether the changes you are making are impacting that culture.
Lastly, my advice is to have courage and confidence. You will make mistakes. You are human! But it is important to begin that journey, as difficult as it may seem. It’s good for business, and it’s good for people.