Goal IX Newsletter

Spring 2005, Volume 11, Number 2

Diversity at Nike, Inc. - Jim Carter, Vice President and General Counsel

Minority Counsel Program 2005 Spring Meeting
Luncheon Keynote Speech April 15, 2005


Thank you for the opportunity to be part of this event… I would also like to thank you for the opportunity to share with you our experiences with diversity and the initiatives that we believe truly help connect our vision to success at Nike. At Nike, we have a passion for success, just as the athletes associated with us do. And our Mission statement captures the inclusiveness with which we approach our work and employees. Our mission is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete, with "athlete" being noted as follows: "if you have a body you are an athlete."

Personal Story

Jim Carter

Many years ago, before I started working at Nike, I handled some of Nike's litigation as an outside lawyer. During those years I met and spent a number of days with Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike. Bill had been the University of Oregon track coach for many years and had many very successful teams, including four NCAA men's championship teams and many, many excellent distance runners. Many of these runners were Olympians and world record holders, including Steve Prefontaine who died at 25 before he had the opportunity to reach his full potential as a distance runner. There is no doubt about the passion that Prefontaine brought to sport. No more doubt than there is about the passion that Tiger brings to golf.

I mention the runners, because Bill made their shoes. Bill was obsessed with weight just as much as he was about tapping the passion of the athletes he coached. Even the slightest reduction in weight, down to an ounce, could make a significant difference in the weight carried by a runner over even one mile. One ounce over a mile meant 55 pounds to the athlete and did impact the runners' performance. Everything on a shoe was subject to scrutiny for weight reduction. Nike even developed a shoe called the "minimalist" with lightweight fabric in an effort to lighten the runner's load. For Bill it was truly about using his skill to help the runner from the inside and from the outside.

Competitive edge

It's with this backdrop that I think of diversity at Nike. If we are to stay competitive, how do we maximize our competitive advantage? How do we reduce the weight on those who are burdened? The burden of stereotyping, of lowered expectations, of unrealized dreams, of limited access. Maybe it's just a few pebbles in a pocket as opposed to a fixed glass ceiling, but in the long race, it's a handicap, so how do we streamline so as to foster a competitive advantage. How do we coach to help the athlete and also to help the athlete help himself or herself.

Often when I read about diversity in the business community, I read the words "business imperative". I am sure that we have used those words at Nike. But what does it mean to be a business imperative? Just that the issue of diversity should get priority attention? If we make diversity a business imperative, how does that actually make a difference for the people feeling the weight of prejudice? I don't believe being identified as a business imperative means success. Success results from being a smarter competitor.

Lifting the weight

As a team, we win when we help lift weight off our runners. Runners that compete with a label that is "restrictive" assume a load that others don't have. You can imagine the crowd reaction and the runners' reaction if one team runs with a logo "Team A" and a second team runs as "Team B". The "B" team has just enough psychological disadvantage to lose a tenth or half of a second. Enough to be the difference between winning and losing in a competitive race. In Nike Legal, we can't afford to have people think of themselves as "Team B".

I haven't always had the opportunity of diversity in my life that Nike offers to me today and I don't make my living coaching nor am I a trained HR professional. So I am often asked the question "Where did my view of diversity develop?

I grew up in a small town in eastern Oregon. Wide open space, farming and ranching: wheat mostly. A famous rodeo town, but rarely would I see a face of any color, except for members of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, whose residents included, Umatillas, Walla Wallas, Nez Perce and Cayuse tribal members. Chief Joseph's homeland is about 90 miles from where I grew up.

I heard and saw the "weight" carried by those who were different. Girls didn't drive wheat combines and rarely worked in the fields with the best paying jobs. Some community members saw Native Americans as beautiful young people and then lazy, overweight dropouts as they aged. All that's now become more subtle, perhaps less weight, less visible, but again, every ounce matters.

After a professor's presentation on stereotyping made at a parents' weekend at Stanford University, I considered the impact or burden of stereotypes in my worklife and what might happen when we free people from labels and assumptions and from their own inhibitions. The professor used stereotypes related to girls and math and black athletes and strategy. What are young girls capable of in math? For example girls of equal standing in math with boys take tests and perform worse when they are told that the test measures their math aptitude. Then when the next group of girls are told the test is "just for fun", they do equally as well as the boys. What happens to young black athletes and white athletes who try golf for the first time? When told that it is a game of strategy, the whites do better? When told it is a test of athletic skill, the black athletes achieve the lowest scores

The limits imposed by stereotyping and the burden of extra weight is not all about what society lays on the individual but also about the individual's weight of perception about themselves. How can we help people help themselves? How can we help to create an environment that supports a competitive edge. How do we use Bill Bowerman's approach that is both the soul of the athlete and the equipment the school provides?

Developing the Whole team

Much of what I have seen companies do seems natural enough. Start at the top: hire good advisors to develop programs and train managers about diversity concepts. Done all that at Nike. So the weight lifts some from the company's work at the top. In our metaphor, I would call this external work. Lighten the shoes.

But there is another, complementary approach that I believe must also be cultivated and that is bottom up work. This is one on one with the people bearing the weight. This is the work we are starting to do at Nike and I am proud to say that we are doing this within our group of networks. These are groups within Nike that may be as large as 200 or 300 and are made up of Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, Disabled Employees, GLBT employees and Latino/as.

I sit on the council of representatives from each of these six employee networks that we believe represents our diverse population. We are using the company's current programs for teaching self development and leadership skills, which have been limited to upper band level employees and opening them to lower band members through these networks. Example: A Next Step program (leadership) is being done with a focus on network members and dropping down a band level. Managing Personal Growth (self direction) is another example.

These programs create access by introducing members of the diverse community to current and future leaders in the company and by teaching network members more about the tools needed to succeed. Something like taking dance lessons as a kid: we had to meet some girls, had to shake hands and talk to some adult community leaders and may never have gotten back to the dance floor, but we knew we could. This created a little bit of self-confidence to store in the back of your mind for when you needed it.

In combination with the company diversity training, we believe that this bottom up leadership and self-help training, the internal work, will lead to faster reduction of the weight that we have talked about. We want to help people see the path to the next level…to the top. It's really about opening doors, isn't it. And then it's about not getting blown away by the first door that closes or the first detour that pushed your way. And once a door is opened, chances go up for others to follow. Whether that is people inside Nike or people of diverse backgrounds that work on the outside for Nike.


At Nike Success has to be a team effort and for us, that means a diverse team. We know that a diverse internal team makes sense. We serve a diverse population internally. We do business internationally. We need to be able to relate and think like people who are different than the people who grew up in small towns in eastern Oregon.

To build that kind of team starts with leadership that has some flexibility, awareness and commitment. We need to coach like Bill with a commitment to reducing the weight so as to increase the momentum towards success. If we can't promise everyone an equal competitive advantage, what meaningful promise can we make?

And this doesn't stop with our internal Nike legal team. As we get more diverse internally, our outside legal providers also start to look more diverse. Our diverse internal team makes choices that reflect our own diversity. We have learned from Bill. We can help lift the weight from those like many of you who practice in private law firms. We can be the interface and ask for more opportunity for diversity in legal service to corporate America.

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