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The Wright Man for the Job

Jason Wright on Diversity, Faith and Trusting Your Gut

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by Melinda Gipson; Marty Shoup, Blue Lion Multimedia

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

On October 12, the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce’s committee on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility held a packed summit on “Building a More Equitable Loudoun Economy.” And, for once, everyone was smiling.

In part, the affirmation of the crowd mirrored the presence of the guest of honor, Jason Wright, president of the Washington Commanders. Whatever he’s doing to make the former “Redskins” a more open and inclusive workplace, it’s working. But also, there appears to be a reluctant recognition that diversity has won a seat at the head table in how business in the county is conducted, and it just feels good.

Arienne Thompson Plourde, Google Data Center Senior Program Manager for Global Social Impact, sponsored the event and detailed how her company sees its own future in DEIA. Recently, Google helped Virginia's Alpha Street Baptist Church Foundation welcome more than 6,000 students and their families to the University of the District of Columbia where they could experience the largest HBCU festival in the nation and compete for more than $4 million in scholarships. Google also partners with Mobile Hope to help homeless youth and is providing more than $350,000 in grants to Code VA to support computer science education and teacher development in the commonwealth.

But offering more opportunities for the underprivileged to excel doesn’t mean there isn’t farther to travel. Arienne reminded her audience, “As I stand here this morning, just two miles from the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont, I can't help but think about the dreams of my ancestors who toiled under duress, under threat and under a system that sought to strip them of their humanity. What would they think of all of us in this room, celebrating the differences that once marked them for lifelong enslavement? Could they imagine the thousands of minority-owned businesses that help make Loudoun County one of the most prosperous in the country? How loudly might they cheer to usher in the Chamber's 2024 board chair who will be the first woman of color?” (It’s Angela Mitchell of ARM Consulting, LLC.)

Her hope is that, “we make them proud by coming together, affirming one another, and looking not to rest on our laurels but to always strive to be better, to be more inclusive, more welcoming, and more just.” While she may never know what they make of all this, “I am certain about one thing we owe them our very best effort.”

Jason Wright is already the first black team president in NFL history as well as the league’s youngest. Before that he was among the youngest partners at McKinsey and Company’s Washington, D.C. office where he presented a roadmap for evolution to the then Redskins. As Co-Chair of the Greater Washington Partnership’s Inclusive Growth Strategy Council, he is helplng to address gaps in income, services, employment and access to capital for lower income populations in the entire region.

His own confidence in himself built as he says he changed the dialog in his head from asking whether he belonged – in the NFL as a player, in his case – to that he belonged, and that he could build his competence even when he occasionally failed. It took that level of confidence to take his current job when it was offered, because the organization was “an absolute mess.” But then, he realized that, fundamentally, the job was going to be all about people. “And when it’s about people in the workplace, an inclusive work environment is the key to productivity.” In other words, diversity, equity and inclusion for him is an economic imperative, not only a moral one.

“I actually don't believe in the goodness of the human heart to sustain us. I think the good intentions, they fade really quickly when things become inconvenient.... When it is about a business imperative, when it is about growing all businesses black, white, yellow, green, or purple, then all of a sudden it becomes sustainable over time.”

Over the course of his consulting career, Jason says the organizations he observed that took diversity seriously became more profitable. “In fact, the data says that the Fortune 100 companies that are the most gender diverse are 20% more profitable, and those that are the most racially diverse are 36% more profitable.” So, “this stuff actually makes money over the long run.”

Breaking it down into the policies, people and programs that offered everyone equal opportunities became the key to success, he asserts. Parental leave, adequate pay and the freedom to air negative experiences started the ball rolling. “Once we got the policies right, we were able to really evaluate our folks. We did proper performance reviews, but we also looked at the composition of our workforce. I do think we had a lot of well-meaning people in the organization, but it wasn't functioning well. I didn't have the kind of culture that could sustain and future for us to build a winning team and to build a profitable business.” It took an 80% turn-over to get the right mix. He allows, “not everybody was the obvious bad actor. There were some of those and those and those firings were fun.”

More seriously, he says, “We've been intentional about bringing in diverse perspectives, demographically, and experientially. And we now have the most diverse leadership team in the NFL. Our leadership team is 40% women, very significant for our organization.”

And the profit? That’s coming. The team has more than doubled its season ticket member base and third in suite sales in the league behind just the two teams that played in the last Super Bowl. Finally, sponsorship sales have grown 30% year over year. “That to me is a signal that trust is building in the small business community that we are treating people differently than we did in the past.”

Others in the league have started to take note. “I don't think they expected such a swift turnaround, but you see that I'm now not the only black team president – that are three others!”

Being able to first baseline and then measure improvement helps. “We baselined our culture when we came in. It was ugly. It was one of the worst scores on employee health and culture surveys that I'd seen in my time. It's now above the median for the industry. But if we hadn't measured that, the leaders of my departments wouldn't feel accountable to improving culture and part of that is an inclusion index.” Next, he advised, mandate diverse slates in the hiring process. “You don’t mandate diverse hiring – that’s a bit draconian, but you can mandate diverse slates -- if you say we want half of the slate of candidates to be women and people of color, and you don't actually take a decision until you've actually seen candidates from those backgrounds, all of a sudden, you're like, oh, that's way more talent out there than I thought!”

Few who have tracked Jason’s career over the years realize that he’s also a seminarian. We knew, so we asked, how does his faith impact his leadership style? Following a smattering of applause, he said, “There's a scripture in James it says rejoice when you face trials of many kinds. For those trials are created perseverance, perseverance, character. And when those things see their full maturity, you're in Christ. Okay. I think what faith has done more than anything is help me to remain level headed when everything's spinning.

“What I walked into was a very chaotic and challenging environment. It was hard to understand what to prioritize. It was hard to understand how to construct the organization when so many things were up in the air when there was an external narrative that had been going long before I got there. And I think what faith have helped me to do is see that there's a benevolent God, who cares about me, who cares about this organization, cares about this area, and that benevolent God is going to see this to a good outcome, irrespective of me.” Whether in his own time or after, Jason’s faith gave him the patience to appreciate that, “something good is gonna happen at some point.”

Without feeling that he shouldered the entire burden of change allowed him to be clearer in his thinking – he could better structure the problem because he wasn’t doing it out of anxiety. “I think more than anything, faith has given me the intellectual separation to be a better and more dispassionate leader and to make some really hard decisions that had to happen.” Sometimes, “you’ve got to go with your gut. Faith has helped me to feel confident going with my gut.” Whether it’s underlying spiritual wisdom or guidance, “I’ve found that the times I've overridden my gut with unnecessary logic, I've been I've been wrong. Those have been my biggest mistakes.”

To general laughter, moderator Karl Rush, Loudoun’s Chief Equity Officer, added, “plus you recognize that practicing diversity brings you closer to God.”

One week following the summit, Washington Commander owner Daniel Snyder was called to testify before the Congressional House Oversight Committee virtually and behind closed doors regarding both alleged financial and sexual misconduct. A Snyder spokesperson, citing the team's dramatic 2-year transformation under Wright expressed hope for the organization's "bright future." 

  • Jason Wright
  • Karl Rush and Jason Wright
  • Theo Stamatis, Chamber Government Relations Mgr.; Yasmeen Shields, Membership Mgr.; Jason; Arienne Thompson Plourde
  • Gerald Moore Sr., founder of Mission Fulfilled 2030, which seeks to engage at-risk youth in STEM
  • Kindra Dionne, owner of Fifty Leven Winery, consultant and YEA mentor
  • Jason Wright
  • Jason Wright