Jennifer Vasquez was just six years old when she first realized that she was treated differently based on her race and ethnicity. Her parents immigrated to the United States from El Salvador before she was born. Vasquez was in first grade, and although she spoke perfect English, school administrators put her in an ESL class because of her last name.
Vasquez was too young to speak up for herself, until she found herself having to advocate with parents who spoke little English at the time. She has been using her voice to advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) ever since. Today, she’s the vice president of DEI for the Golden State Warriors and Chase Center. For someone growing up playing sports (including basketball) and an avid basketball fan (whose favorite childhood players were Grant Hill and Shaq), the opportunity was a full-circle moment for her.
“Sports presents a tremendous opportunity to bridge communities and bring people together,” Vasquez says. “It gives us a public-facing platform we can use to make a greater impact globally.”
While NBA teams are fierce competitors on the court, Vasquez is collaborating with her counterparts across the league and in other sports to continue to set DEI as a priority, share best practices, and maintain long-term momentum. Recognizing that leagues and teams are facing similar challenges requires establishing a strong ecosystem for broader based impact.
“I’ve encountered a lot of barriers, obstacles, and setbacks that seemed unrelenting as a Latina,” she says. “Assimilation and code-switching were against every fiber of my being, I had to learn how to identify accomplices and sponsors that were willing to open opportunities for me to thrive and passed the mic to me, to amplify my voice.”
Creating authentic connections and opportunities for others, especially women and women of color is important in her position, and DEI and social impact have been part of her ikigai—her purpose—that fuels this passion.
Adding to her unique approaches is Vasquez’s global perspective. She has traveled to more than thirty-five countries, worked in global settings, and studied organizational development, business, change management, government, foreign policy, and international affairs while earning several advanced degrees. She’s worked in the public and private sector for fifteen years with an acute awareness and understanding of DEI.
From launching and overseeing business and employee resource groups, driving inclusive strategies, developing public/private partnerships, and implementing a comprehensive and effective diversity program, she has experience in the gamut of organizational transformation spearheaded by DEI.
At the Warriors, Vasquez is responsible for engaging with league-wide projects and developing and measuring the team’s own DEI strategy. The NBA has announced three new efforts—the Future Sales Stars Program, the Executive Highlighting Initiative, and the NBA Mentorship Program—designed to increase diversity.
Support from vocal players helps push these social and racial issues to the forefront. “The players desire to see change and lend their influence; it is nothing short of amazing to see and be a part of,” Vasquez says.
The Warrior’s own Stephen Curry is a three-time champion, two-time MVP, and eight-time All-Star. He’s also the father of two girls and an advocate for women in sports. In February 2022, he added another title to his long résumé—Academy Award winner. Curry won an Oscar for executive producing The Queen of Basketball, a short documentary film about female basketball pioneer Lusia Harris.
The film is one of many tools Vasquez and others are using in the quest to change and challenge the stigma of women in sports. There has been progress, more so in recent years. For example, the NBA and NFL now have female referees. In April 2022, Alyssa Nakken became the first woman to coach in an MLB game when she filled in for a male colleague who was ejected. It happened in the Warrior’s hometown of San Francisco. The NBA also saw its first Latina referee, Blanca Burns.
While Vasquez is excited and encouraged by the developments, she wants to elevate this work. “Inclusion and equity are evolutionary, and we’re constantly up against the social stigma of women working in sports,” she says. “We are working to shift that narrative and remove any isolation that we see impact women far more than men.”
As researchers at Ohio University demonstrate, diversity makes good business sense in sports. According to their reports, 40 percent of all sports participants are women, but women’s sports receive just 4 percent of media coverage. On college campuses, softball attendance often out draws baseball. Forty-five percent of NFL fans are women, and one-third ($3 billion) of Under Armour’s annual sales comes from women. Half of all customers on the NBA’s online store are women.
Vasquez, of course, is well-aware of the stats. That’s why she’s working to welcome female fans and employees alike. “We need to do everything we can to build a pipeline for women to come into the NBA,” she says.
Golden State’s workforce has doubled in the last two years, and its people operations teams are using data to enhance recruiting and make sure diverse employees within the organization have appropriate development and advancement opportunities.
Outside of the office, Vasquez is known as a sought-after speaker, content creator, devoted mentor and sponsor, and nonprofit board leader. She is a founding member of Hacking HR, a professional community of leaders, DEI practitioners, and consultants who come together for mutual learning and encouragement.
Golden State’s logo carries special significance for this kind of work. It’s a circle in royal blue with the Golden Gate depicted in yellow. In all she does, Vasquez is looking to build bridges internally and externally.
“We have to continue to encourage work between leagues and teams and between individuals and groups and having the NBA DEI Council is a prime example of this cross pollination,” she says. “Bringing the different perspectives in the room and this collaboration is critical to achieving equality and equity across the league.”