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- Maria Rodriguez
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Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We're seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:
Kalen Jackson, Indianapolis Colts
Position: Vice Chair and Owner
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You've been around the game your entire life, but when and how was it decided that you were going to join the organization in a working role? Take me through that process.
There wasn't a pivotal point where we as a family sat down to discuss it. Growing up my dad always said, "If you want to be involved, I would love that." He never wanted the three of us -- Carlie, Casey and me -- to feel like we had to follow in his footsteps because he knew for us to succeed, we would have to genuinely want to be part of it. He wished that for us because his passion and drive for the business is so strong, but it was never forced or expected. I credit both of my parents for raising us the way they did. Because although we had different experiences than other kids … For example, Tony Siragusa was my favorite player when I was little and he came to my first- or second-grade class, which obviously isn't normal for a kid to be able to do. … My parents made sure we knew that being part of the Colts was a very lucky experience and to never take that for granted.
In terms of joining the family business, I felt like it was something I was probably going to do and wanted to do when I went to Indiana University. I considered graduate school after that because I felt like I wanted to prove that I belonged and that I wasn't taking this position lightly. Then I realized I would gain more by jumping right in because I had the opportunity to do that. When I first started in 2010, I did what I like to call a boot camp where I got to know everyone in the building and learned about their career paths. I didn't know where I wanted to start.
After going through all of that, I landed in sponsorship sales. I was getting to know the organization and the Indianapolis community in a way that I hadn't done before. I did that for a number of years and have always had my hand in community work. As much as I loved my sponsorship position, I stepped into a bigger community role.
As my role expanded into general operations and overseeing a number of departments, it was apparent that I needed to move on from my sponsorship role as much as I loved it. That's when I stepped into a bigger community role. My role now is general operations and overseeing all departments, but my day-to-day is overseeing our family giving philosophy and our community relations department, which I love. I feel lucky to get to be the person who gives out gifts to people or businesses in the community. It's a blessing to be able to give in this way. We're proud that the community expects us to show up and wants us to be there, whether it's a higher need or catastrophic event, and we do show up.
The mission statement that was created -- kudos to my sister, Carlie -- a couple years back is to entertain, inspire and unite by winning the right way. As simple as it was to create that philosophy, it really helped better guide our intentions and conversations, and it is engrained in our community philosophy as we focus on building a healthy, inclusive and compassionate community in everything that we do.
What has it been like for you to be part of the NFL Owners Meetings?
My dad has always been very trusting of us and knows we respect being in the room for certain conversations and how to be discrete about what we're hearing. We've been sponges for our entire lives because there is so much to learn about the league at all times. It's never-ending and to think that you're done learning is a mistake some leaders can make.
It's surreal still to be in that room. Years from now when I'm thinking back on my first few years in those meetings, I'll remember being in there with historic NFL figures like Dan Rooney and founders of our league. It gives me the goosebumps to know I'll be able to tell my daughters about those experiences, like my dad told us. It's an honor.
In terms of the female side of things, we are outnumbered in that room. But it's nice to know that there is nothing but respect, and we've never felt anything but that. People ask us about being female owners, but we don't see it as a big deal. But it is. It is a big deal. We have tried to embrace being some of the few women in those meetings because we want to talk about it more and want people to see the possibilities for women in the NFL. In our organization, we want the best people in the building and the best person for the role, regardless of gender. We have had a lot of females on our staff for years because that's always been a priority. People would often ask my dad if he wished he had a son, and he would say, "No, I wish I had six girls." He has said as much because he knows we bring different ideas and different perspectives to help him see a fuller picture.
After our game vs. the New York Jets this season, my dad was adamant that we got a picture with referee Sarah Thomas, so we did. Seeing her climb that ladder in such a short amount of time is such a promising thing for women in and outside of the NFL to realize that not only is female inclusion a priority but it's actually happening, and there are statistics to prove it.
The commitment from the league to garner more interest and connect with females who are interested in pursuing careers in football at the college level is so promising. I think it's an assumption that some career paths won't happen. It's too hard of a road. I think if you have the passion, interest and drive, then it's like anything else. We're happy to be leaders in the sense that people look at our organization and see three females at the very top, which isn't always the case. If anything, we feel pressure because we want to do right by the young women looking up to us. We're really thinking about that a lot.
Along those lines, what is your advice to women who are interested in a career in football?
I would say, "What are you waiting for?" The paths are there. Take the opportunity that scares you or the ones you think you're not ready for. In my career and life, all of the things I doubted I could do or was scared I wouldn't be good at have turned out to be the most rewarding. This is a competitive industry and there are only 32 teams in this league. There are a lot of positions that can get you in the door. It may not be where you want to end up, but getting in the door and proving yourself is where it starts. Sometimes we are so focused on where we're supposed to end up or the path we're supposed to be on instead of allowing the opportunities to take us there.
I would also say use your connections. I love and respect when people want to do things on their own, but a lot of people who make it today use their connections then still have to prove themselves once they get there. There are young people who reach out to me and I respond every time. It takes a lot of guts to reach out and though it doesn't take a lot of effort, not a lot of people do it. I'm impressed by those people who put themselves out there.
Those are some great points. Now looking at your own career, what are you most proud of?
The first I would say is how our organization has changed and impacted Indianapolis and the surrounding communities since we came here in 1984. It inspires me daily looking back on what we've done for the state and this community. It's a big responsibility to carry on our shoulders to be so engrained in people's lives and have an economic impact in our city, and it's an inspiring thing to be a part of and pushes us to be the best to represent our state and city. We're a smaller market team and we're so proud of what our entire community looks like and how it's grown from 1984 to now.
Secondly, and this is more personal, is Kicking the Stigma. Before the pandemic, we didn't have our own fundraising event or initiative that was our family's. We were involved in a lot of different things and events, but nothing that was truly ours. We landed on mental health because of our family's personal ties to the issue. We started looking at the data and what we found in the state of Indiana and on a national level was staggering pre-pandemic. Our state was higher than the national average in suicide rate for adults and youth and how we respond in a health crisis. When you see something like that about your community and state and take pride in your community involvement and helping people, it was upsetting. It was like, how did we not know this? Why aren't people talking about this?
We started planning our announcement, then the pandemic hit. I didn't want to push it off because we felt it was important to launch it. We used the league's My Cause My Cleats initiative during the 2020 season to announce our family's campaign. Then the initial guts of the campaign were born. It wasn't supposed to be a national campaign. It was going to be an internal project and pushed through our social media channels. But when talking about it with my dad and him filming for the launch, he really thought Kicking the Stigma should be much bigger. It was too important to not be.
For the first year, we felt like we were building a house and all living in it, but we've still been able to do so much. Ashley Powell, our director of community relations, and I have been on a crash course in all aspects of mental health since we started. We've taken calls from anyone and everyone who has been interested in what we're doing and thinks they can help or connect us with others. It has naturally led us down this path of finding connections. To date, through our event and as a family, we have given over $10 million to funding mental health services and research, and we've probably done another $5-6 million in public service announcements over a two-year period. We've done so many things in our community but this campaign has hit a nerve in a positive way unlike anything we have ever done. To be able to help and reach so many people through this is life purpose-type work and really inspires us to continue doing it.
My dad has openly struggled with substance abuse disorder and thankfully is in recovery and doing really well, but when you experience that in a public forum, it's different. In a way, this is us owning our story and being the ones to tell it, instead of the story being told about us. It's been healing for me and all of us.
That is great to hear. What's next for you in terms of things you want to accomplish?
I am hopeful that maybe the league can have mental health as a larger initiative like they have done with other causes and impacted so many areas in a positive way -- from cancer to the military. We really feel like the NFL could make such an impact by making this an initiative someday. That would be a future goal.
Then overall, our goals are always looking at the best way to keep our fans engaged in unique and innovative ways. In an ever-changing entertainment industry, we constantly have to find new ways to stay relevant.
Who have been some of your greatest mentors? And what advice have they given you?
My dad has always been someone to really remind us of the importance, tradition and value of what we have. Not only in our lives but also the value of what we bring to the community and country. He's always taught us -- and I think it's something that can be very difficult, especially at a younger age -- to take the long view in the decision-making process. To make sure you step back before making a decision on certain things is so important, and I think that's why the league has been successful for 102 seasons. There are tough seasons and amazing seasons and you can't have one without the other, but the long view has been something our dad has engrained in us. It's how you survive in this league.
I would also say Pete Ward, the Colts' Chief Operating Officer. In my day-to-day role, he is definitely my biggest sounding board. My dad and Pete both have such a wealth of knowledge and remembrance of history, so they have helped shape me and will continue to guide me as I go on this journey.