America East Commissioner, Amy Huchthausen, joins Jim Cavale on the 12th “I Want Your Job” episode to discuss her impact on future leaders in sports, why discipline is necessary for success, and how social media played a role during her time working with the NCAA.
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Highlights from the interview:
0:45 – Amy discusses her early memories, and how they were surrounded by sports in her home state of Minnesota.
3:15 – Amy talks about the insights she saw while working in the University of Minnesota – La Crosse athletic department as a student athlete. “Sometimes I think we think the grass is greener, we think we want to do x, y, or z and then when we actually get there it’s like ‘yeah this isn’t exactly what I thought it was’. And so, I’m lucky that I was able to test out that assumption early on while I was a student and maybe had time to adapt or adjust”
6:10 – Jim asks Amy about her thoughts on the America East conference, so she discusses the unique nature of its member schools and how there is a sense of local community.
8:50 – Amy says being commissioner wasn’t even on her career radar, and she took several odd end steps to get to where she is now. She discusses the impact her mom’s passing had on her, and how it made her re-evaluate her life.
13:32 – Amy talks about the change in visibility of transfers since an athlete’s story can now easily be told through social media, and how this adjustment brought about the waiver reforms she worked on at the NCAA.
18:55 – Amy walks through the discipline it took to successfully complete a rebranding exercise in the America East.
21:03 – The America East Conference isn’t always front page or showcased on ESPN, so Amy says “if we want people to hear our story, we’ve got to tell it. Otherwise no one’s going to hear it because it’s not being told.”
22:15 – Amy discusses the role of conference as being a gap filler and a compliment to what their member schools are doing, which involves the use of new technology and investing in new partnerships.
25:00 – Amy talks about the importance of being a forward thinker, having efficiency, and getting the greatest value out of your resources.
27:49 – Amy decided later in her career to go to MIT for her MBA. She said she had immense support from the staff around her while she worked full time as the commissioner and completed an executive MBA program.
30:30 – Amy talks about diversity and inclusion, and how she approaches it as the leader of the America East.
33:00 – Jim brings up how Amy has acted as an advocate for the progression of women leaders in sports, and she goes on to discuss that she didn’t fully grasp her impact as commissioner and a minority until a few years into the job. Now, she tries to find ways to broaden her role, even though she still has a hard time fully embracing it.
35:52 – Amy on the advice she would give her younger self. “Just step out. Every once in a while be uncomfortable…you know you’re competent, you do good work, but don’t be afraid to raise your hand every once in a while so that people can see that and feel more confident in you.”
39:43 – Jim and Amy met at a Stadia Venture conference and got to discuss how INFLCR might help the America East. Amy said the main goal was that they wanted to help tell the student athlete story, and that figuring out the kinks to plug the INFLCR platform into a conference model was worth it.
Full Podcast Episode Transcript
Jim Cavale: All right, Amy, first off, thank you for battling through the switcher issues on the Amtrak to get down here to New York from Boston. Really pumped to do this interview with you today. So glad you’re here.
Amy Huchthausen: Thanks for having me.
Now, youngest ever female commissioner in Division I history. And so, as a woman, a woman in sports, that’s a huge accomplishment. But it didn’t start there for you. It didn’t start with, “Oh, I’m going to set out to do that.” For you, it started with just a passion for sports. And so I want you to start there, like, talk about growing up knowing that you love sports and how it led you to become a collegiate student athlete to chase down your passion for the game.
Yeah, my earliest memories of life are around sports. You know, I don’t know how old it is when you start remembering things about your youth and childhood, but when I think back to those days, they’re filled with sports things. I grew up Minnesota, so I grew up a Minnesota Twins fan. And I remember sitting with my grandparents listening to the Twins broadcast on WCCO, the radio station out there and just falling in love with that, you know, baseball and going out into the driveway and shooting hoops with my grandfather or playing catch with him. So, those are, when I think of my childhood, it is all about sports, for better or worse, I guess. But, so that really led to everything else that happened in my life relative to sports. I just cannot imagine my life without sports.
And as I, you know, made decisions about where to go to school, it was about sports, who had a sports management program at the time. There weren’t as many as there are today. And then, when I thought about what, what was my career going to be, it was going to be sports, I just never ever contemplated something other than working in the sports industry in some capacity. And so, that’s really it. And that’s what’s led me here today and I’ve been really grateful and lucky to be still working and be working in sports.
Yeah, I think it’s really interesting because you’re somebody who gotten your MBA from MIT. You, obviously, I know, we’ve talked before, we may get to it today, you thought about going into law school, right? So you could really have done anything but you chose to bring your leadership and talents into sports. And we need more of that in sports.
You know, I always joke that everybody that works in college sports didn’t have to start in the ticket office and just worked their way up. They can come from other industries and work their way in, you know. And I think we’ve seen more athletic departments in college, more conferences, and even pro sports team front offices embrace that.
And so, for you, you played college softball at UW La Crosse, University of Wisconsin La Crosse. And you also worked in the athletic department simultaneous to that. Pretty unique experience, because while you’re a student athlete, instead of wondering who all the people are that you keep seeing, give you meal money and tell you where to be and what to do, you get to see what they do day to day working in the office with them. Did that kind of spark your imagination a little bit about what it might be to work in college athletics?
Yeah. And that’s exactly why I did it. It was… I remember distinctly, it was the summer after my sophomore year in college, I knew I wasn’t going to go home for that summer. I wanted to stay in La Crosse. And I needed a job. And I love sports. And so, what does that mean? It means I go up to our athletics director and say, “Hey, do you need any student workers here for the summer because I’m going to be here?” And she said yes. And so, that get… started to give me the exposure and visibility into what it’s like on a day-to-day basis behind the scenes to run the athletics department. And all the little things from entering names and addresses into the Microsoft Access database at the time because this was back in 1997, or something like that. And technology was…
Hey, at least you’re using computers.
Yeah, at least we’re using computers, yeah. I got… I didn’t get emails when I went to college. So, but, but getting insight into the day-to-day operations and workings of an athletics department from the coolest things that our athletic director did from like, going to talk to people in the city and city council, and meeting with prospective donors and facility projects, to all the day-to-day stuff that happen in the office, I knew that this is what I was meant to do, was meant to work in sports, and specifically in college sports.
And I feel really lucky that I had the opportunity and feel so proud of myself for even asking, like, “Hey, can I have a job here?” Because that’s not something that I would probably usually do. But I did it because I knew I was so passionate. I knew it so important for me to get that experience and really test out my assumption that I wanted to work in sports. Because sometimes I think we think the grass is greener, we think we want to do X, Y or Z, and then when we actually get there, it’s like, “Yeah, this isn’t exactly what I thought it was.” And so, I’m lucky that I was able to sort of test out that assumption early on while I was still a student and maybe had time to adapt or adjust. But it absolutely was exactly what I was looking for. And I feel really fortunate for that, for that time.
Now, when you think about the diversity of your experiences, you’ve worked in big conferences like the ACC, and even the Big East, right? You’ve worked in a mid-major like Missouri Valley. And of course, you are now reside as the leader of the America East Conference. Of all the portions of NCAA athletics have different things you can appreciate, right, from Division III to Division I and in between. But the America East Conference really seems to have a mix of all of it—academically, athletically. Your schools don’t play football, but they’re prestigious academic institutions, some of which are the flagship institution in their states, right? So, when you look at the America East, talk a little bit about the league and kind of what makes it so unique.
Yeah, I think it’s really special because of the commonalities that our schools have. We’ve got 8, 9 public institutions, as you mentioned, most our flagships are part of the flagship system in their state. And it just… there’s a uniqueness around those types of campuses in terms of who they’re serving, not just in the athletics department, but, but who they’re serving in a broader population in their communities that I’m really attracted to because it serves a diverse population of first-generation college students to attracting some of the best students from, you know, across the world. So that range, I think, is really important to round out an educational experience as sort of how I look at colleges and universities in those four or five years while a student is on campus.
But I think our… what makes that unique to the America East is our geographic footprint, it’s still pretty tight, when you think about all the realignment over the last 10 or 15 years, some that stretch leagues pretty far outside of their natural sort of core home base, we still have a pretty central base from the northeast down to the mid-Atlantic. You can still get in a bus for most of our teams and get to at least a few campuses before you have to, you know, entertain flights.
And there’s something, I think, really special about that. It’s something that is, is unique to us for the reasons that I mentioned, but also creates a sense of community across our schools, because you just, you feel more togetherness when you know you’re just a bus ride away. And that’s, that’s hard to describe, I think, than when you have to get on a plane and you automatically in your head know how far away you’re going to play this other team. But when you can get on a bus and you can see some athletes that you probably competed against in high school because there is an element of local and regional recruiting to what we do in addition to the national stuff, I just think there’s a good community in that way and that these, these student athletes have an experience that’s unique to their campus. But then also, that brings it to the conference level. And we’ve really tried to create that sense of community within our conference because of the strengths that we have.
Now, you also, personally, didn’t realize how far or close away, excuse me, let me say that again. You also didn’t realize how close or far away you were to the position of being the commissioner of this league. This is an opportunity that came about early in your career. You were at the NCAA and this comes about and just tell the whole story because this wasn’t part of your roadmap and younger folks listening and, and thinking about your careers and your aspirations in your career, I think the story is really about right place, right time.
Yeah, there’s no question. I will… it’s definitely not part of my roadmap at all. I mean, I started my career in rules, compliance and governance. That was bent towards the analytical world. I like understanding rules and policies and how they were made and, and all those, you know, things that are boring to lots of people but I found super fascinating. And that was my career, all in Division I at the conferences that you mentioned. And I spent five and a half years at the NCAA.
After, I think it was around three years that I was there doing Division I recruiting work, mostly and for their athletic certification program at the time. I switched… there was an opportunity to move over into Division III roles. I went to a Division III school, that’s largely a lot of my philosophy around college athletics is still rooted in some of those Division III tenants around, you know, sports and athletics being part of the educational experience. And so, I, I transitioned over into doing Division III legislative and governance work.
And then I had a few different things. I had something happen in December of 2010. My mom passed away, and in those subsequent months, you know, those are, those are great opportunities to like think about what are you doing with your life. Is this what… is this the right track? Am I missing anything or something that I want to do that I haven’t done yet? And for me, it was going to law school, something I had always wanted to do since I graduated undergrad. And I thought, you know what, this is the right time to do it. I’m starting to get a little burnt out by the legislative and governance work, but, but I always wanted to go to law school. So now… if I’m not going to do it now, when am I ever going to do it?
And so, I started to think about how I was going to roadmap that out for the next year to position myself to apply for and then go to law school full time. And then I got a call from the search firm that was conducting the search for the commissioner position in America East. And, you know, next thing that happened, in a couple of months, I’m being named commissioner. And, and even that moment, Jim, in terms of that switch or adjustment wasn’t without, you know, sort of a unique circumstance because I, I… when I got the call from the search firm, I laughed to myself, like, you got to be kidding me. They’re, they’re not really serious about me as a candidate. And so, I called one of my best friends and told her that. And before I could even spit it out of my mouth, “Isn’t that ridiculous that they called me?” she said, “Well, you have to do it.” And I, you know, quickly adjusted without revealing to her, you know, what I was about to say and said, “Oh, of course, of course I’ll do it.”
And so, you know, I, I spent time and invested time in going through the search process, but mostly because I’d never gone through a search for the search firm before and I thought, you know, this is going to be a great experience filling out the paperwork and, you know, starting to think about what your vision would be for the league. That’s a good exercise to go through as a leader and thinking about if you’re going to be in charge of something someday, because I never thought I was going to get the job. And then you know, I had, you know, I was fortunate with the interviews, obviously, and was, was named commissioner. So, yeah, you never know what’s going to happen in life, right? You know, with my mom passing, didn’t, wasn’t expecting that at the time that it happened and I wasn’t expecting a call, the commissioners job, certainly, when I was doing Division III work. But you know, things happen for a reason, I fully, fully believe that. And I’m really, really grateful that everything happened in the way that it did.
You know, so many things to unpack from, from that story. First of all, lost my mom in 2012. And, you know, that’s a, that’s a tough experience to go through. And it is a time where you reflect. And it’s interesting how you slow down for a second only to speed up in sports, you almost left, and then you end up going not only staying in sports, but leaving the role you’re in to go to a pretty pioneering, catalytic event, you know, being the commissioner of a Division I league. I also think it’s interesting the governance work, the waiver work you were doing.
You look at right now this… a decade almost from when you were doing the work at the Division I level of the NCAA, how much that has changed. And in look at two of our INFLCR athlete users that previously played basketball at Kentucky, Jamal Baker, and Quade Green who just found out this week as we do this interview here in New York, they just found out they’re both going to be able to play at their school they transferred to, Arizona and Washington respectively the very next year. That was unheard of 10 years ago, right.
A lot changed. Sometimes it takes a while for changes to happen. Talk about things you might have saw back when you were there that have helped us get to where we are today with the transfer portal and all that’s going on with, with transfers.
You know, I think about the regulatory world and the waiver rules as really the only thing that’s changed. It’s always been complicated. It’s always been tricky. There’s always been a school who thinks that they should get a waiver approved and why the rules or transfer guidelines or waiver guidelines shouldn’t apply to them. That’s always been the case.
The thing that’s changed to me is something that we see across broader society is just people are paying more attention, the spread… the transformation of media and how we consume content and the ability for someone to just put out a tweet, to talk about their circumstance, I think has raised, certainly raised the visibility of all of the issues whether it’s a football, men’s basketball player, to a soccer player or track and field student athlete. And we read about in national news today, if they want to transfer, for example, and that just wasn’t the case 10 or 15 years ago. You certainly heard of high profile, whether they are transfer waivers or reinstatement cases around high-profile sport, student athletes. But the ability to use platforms like social media, I think has changed the conversation.
It exposes it more so people have to pay attention?
Absolutely exposes it more so people have to pay more attention to it. And I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. But it’s just the variable that has changed, I think, had the most significant impact of the last 10 or 15 years. I think it’s been good in that it maybe has nudged along a system that has been slow to adapt and change and things about rules and circumstances a little bit differently. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t think that means that the association has been slow, in any sense, but I just think that it’s a different time. And we all have to adjust just like we do to getting email for the first time in college, right?
Like, we all had to adjust to those things and text messages. So I look at is a little bit different than, maybe, than other people. But I think it’s been good for the overall system to be more transparent, to provide more visibility so that as we think about rules, we are thinking about them, is this really the place you want to be? Is this really the right rule that we want to govern whatever the situation is, and, you know, being forced to recheck that every so often is, I think, a healthy part of the system.
And also, the reality is these rules are not clearly objective rules. There’s a lot of subjectivity. It’s not like pass interference, you know. I mean, like now you can review pass interference.
And so, the reviewing it, and I think everybody thinks it’s going to be the same as whether he had two feet inbounds or out of bounds, which is pretty black and white, but it’s still a judgment call. So even after review, half the people are still mad about pass interference and what was ruled because it’s a judgment call. Same thing here. I mean, a transfer situation has certain people who are biased towards it, naturally, because they’re in it. And then some people who might not be as empathetic towards it because they’re not in it.
Yeah. There’s something that I learned. It hit me when I was at the NCAA. It didn’t hit me as much as working in different conferences. But, you know, everyone likes rules when they apply to everyone except for themselves.
And when I had the situation that you just had, I think I should get a waiver. You, you shouldn’t get away.
I should get away for whatever reason. And so, that tension in the system has made this more complex and drawn more attention to it as well. But, you know, we think about in Division I we’ve got over 350 schools who are all competitors. And it’s natural that they’re going to fight against you and they’re going to fight for themselves. And so, that’s just part of the world that we live in. And I think if we can, you know, if people settle in and just sort of accept that and remove some of those biases and assumptions they have about you or about me, or my student athlete or my coach, your coach or student athlete, I think, you know, we have a better functioning system. But those are just things inherent to an association and a governance structure filled with competitors.
Yeah. So at the America East Conference, you’ve done a lot of really innovative things. And I said at the beginning, you know, you, you have push things forward in a lot of great ways in college sports in general. I think your, your three pillars initiative has been part of the rebrand that really made an impression on me because I always look at, you know, rebranding is something interesting for conferences and college athletics department to do, but you did it in a way where you said, “We’re going to take something that is kind of obvious to college sports, but we’re going to bring it back to the forefront and then we’re going to like, track it and celebrate it and, and really make it tangible and concrete,” talk about that.
Yeah, to me, I’m always fascinated with branding as well, especially not coming from that world. And so, when we set out to do this branding study and research, I was skeptical, if I’m going to be honest with you, because not the world that it came from. And I look at sort of sales people and marketing and branding sometimes as a gimmick, and I didn’t want to be a gimmick. And so, as we came, came out of our, our study and research and cemented our new messaging platform around the three pillars, it was really important for me that the America East would live up to that, that it wouldn’t just be a tagline. It wasn’t just a press release that was going to catch fire for a few months.
And we would, you know, promote it and put it on our website, but then we would just go on to, you know, business as usual. And so, what I wanted to do was shift our business as usual. And I think, I think that we did. You know, it required a lot of discipline, I think, I think messaging and branding exercises and promotions fall apart because people don’t stay disciplined and they don’t believe it. You know, if you believe something, I think you’re going to be disciplined to what you’re trying to accomplish. And you know what the objective is.
And so, we tried within our office and with our membership to get people to buy into that and be disciplined around our use of three pillars. And I think we’ve been pretty successful in that our schools us that today, our student athletes know what three pillars means without having to say academics, athletics and leadership. They inherently know what that means. And so, I feel really proud how we’ve been able to take a pretty common thing about around academics, athletics and leadership, like what school or conference doesn’t believe that those are the three, three things at the center of the student athlete experience, but how do you communicate that, how you execute it, how you deliver upon that is how you can differentiate yourself, and that’s what we tried to do back then and still try to do today.
And athletically, you’re really molding a character of the complete student athlete and in how you do everything within the conference. And, you know, you can see that with something like three pillars, but also with some of the things you’re doing to take hold of your storytelling on your social medias, on your school social media, empowering your student athletes, obviously, we do a lot of that together through INFLCR, your partnership with Reely, which allows the existing jumbotron feed, let’s say, to be seen by a lot more people through amplification that automates highlights that can be shared through social media, your ESPN deal as digitally stream the America East in ways that have gotten thousands of people to see each game that wouldn’t have seen it.
Talk about like all those things and how they’re part of a bigger ideology of you, I don’t want to say cutting out the middleman, that’s become a cliché, but really taking hold of your own storytelling initiative with the league and then empowering you schools to do the same at the at the school level.
Yeah, it’s, you know, I think some of the things we’re doing are unique. Some of it is just being committed and disciplined to it. You know, I think we’ve seen lots of examples in college sports, whether it’s schools or particular teams, but everywhere of people controlling their own narrative and being their best brand ambassador. And for a league like ours, who isn’t in the major newspapers, isn’t getting leads on ESPN or other networks every night, you know, if we’re going to, if we want people to hear our story, we’ve got to tell it, otherwise, no one is going to hear it because it’s not being told.
And so, we… when we did the branding… rebranding exercise back in 2012-13, that’s when we shifted the resources in our office to be that storyteller and start to lay the foundation for how we could deliver upon that, deliver upon that message. So, as we think about conferences, and academics, athletics and leadership, like on the athletic side, there’s not much a conference does hardly anything to control the athletics experience of a student athlete except for the conference championship, right? We don’t hire coaches. We don’t fire them. We don’t recruit student athletes. And so, we were looking for ways for us to, to complement what our schools are doing in a way that tells a more powerful story, right?
So, they’re doing all those things and worried about those things. What could we do to fill those gaps and create a better… weave together a better narrative around the complete student athlete? And so, that’s where things like using technology in ways that you mentioned around our partnership with you guys, with Reely and exploring other things, like Blinder, we just did a deal with Blinder. We’re going to use them this year, another Stadia Ventures Company.
So trying to dabble in and experiment with different technologies that allows us to use our resources better and more efficiently. But then when you think about the initiatives that fill those gaps and the complete student athlete, and that’s where we focus on our diversity and inclusion initiatives, our mental health initiative and health and safety things because those are things that are important to our student athletes. They know that they have resources with their coaches and athletic trainers and strength and conditioning. We don’t need to duplicate that. They know they’ve got tutors and professors that care about them academically. We, we don’t need to and can’t duplicate that. We can augment the leadership piece.
But what else is missing in terms of a student athlete and all the things that he or she is thinking of? And that’s where we’ve tried to complement our school’s efforts, and really collaborate in a way that might leverage greater resources because we’re doing it as a unit rather than individual schools. So that’s where I think we’ve really tried to separate ourselves from our peer conferences in telling that story and telling that message around the complete student athlete experience.
So obviously, there’s not one commissioner of any league—Division I, II, III, junior, college—that would sit here and say that they don’t want to create the very best student athlete experience on every campus and, and there’s things they can control and can’t control. But the reality is the ability to do that lies in the ability to communicate, engage student athletes and young student athletes communicate now more than ever through technology. And so, whether it’s social media, whether it’s the device they use, all of that is only going to be more of the language that it takes to engage, recruit student athletes and the best student athletes.
And so, knowing the best technologies out there, and how you can apply them to your league, how your schools can apply them to their athletic department, I think is something that every commissioner should be very interested in.
In Stadia Ventures, you mentioned them, is a fund, one of many tech funds focusing in sports technology that INFLCR was fortunate enough to have an investment come from and go through their accelerator program with other companies like Blinder and Reely that you’ve chosen to partner with. I want to hear why you chose to do that and Then talking to your peers why is important for commissioners and athletic directors and leaders in college and pro sports to care about technologies that are coming up to help create operational efficiencies for staff and everything else it’s going to do.
Yeah, I mean, the reason why is exactly what you just said is to create efficiencies and, and be in the cutting edge. It’s twofold in that regard. Like, as we’ve tried to craft our identity as the three pillars and complete student athlete, that’s been part of the identity. The other part is being progressive and resilient and, and looking ahead, and part of that is looking ahead of technology. You know, part of our reputation, I think, as part of the league is being forward thinking not just in areas like diversity and inclusion, but also in how we deploy our resources. And so, my interests or our interest in, in entities like Stadia and the different companies that they support is to see what’s next.
You know, I look at part of my job as making sure their shift is running on time today. We’ve got a great staff that primarily does that. But I have to have some, some involvement in that. But the rest of my job is looking ahead, like what’s coming up ahead, so that we can either avoid the iceberg or take a better path or whatever it might be.
And so, that’s where my interest in paying attention to what’s coming around the corner from a technology standpoint is important to our league. I don’t want to be the last one to the party. I don’t always need to be the first one, but I want to make sure I have a good sense of what’s coming around the corner in terms of technology. And so, our partnerships with, with INFLCR really and Blinder and, and other companies that we may be talk to or explore, just things that we’ve done in-house to be a little bit different is all in the name of trying to stay current with our current student athletes, trying to stay ahead of what’s going to be attractive to their recruits in two years or five years. And no one is ever really going to know that but I know that it’s not going to be doing what we’ve been doing for the last two or three years.
It’s just… technology is changing so rapidly that you have to have an eye on what’s going on around you, and be willing to know sort of what pitches to take and what pitches to swing at. And that’s part of strategy in guiding any organization. But that’s sort of how I’ve approached guiding America East, and that way is like allocating the right amount of time to what we need to get done today to be successful, but mostly looking ahead to make sure that we are positioned to remain successful and continue to put our foot in the gas as we go forward.
I love that. You talk about pitches to swing at, pitches to take, being the softball athlete that you are. You decided to swing at a pitch that’s a pretty big one while you’ve been in this role, and that’s going to MIT and getting your MBA. Let’s talk about that decision and what that experience was like.
Yeah, it was really, really, you know, since I didn’t go to law school, I realized that I didn’t have an advanced degree. I had a bachelor’s degree, and there’s nothing wrong with not having an advanced degree. But I thought, you know, a few years ago, I was still relatively young-ish, I still had a long career ahead of me. And if I want to stay on top of my game, and continue to be relevant and be an impactful leader, I needed to sharpen my tools.
And that’s where the MBA came in. And I was really fortunate that there was an executive MBA program that allowed me to keep working full time and go to school full time right, right? Two blocks away from where I live at MIT. And so, I’ve been really fortunate to have had that… to have that experience and mostly been fortunate to have a group of presidents and athletic directors who supported me in doing that because it certainly took away from some of the time that I was able to devote to the America East but that’s where having good staff allowed me to do that.
And having the good sort of trust and confidence from our membership allowed me to do that. But it, it, no question, opened my eyes to a whole new world. As we’ve talked about, I’ve only worked in sports and I’ve only worked in college sports, I think I have a good sense of how the world works, but I really didn’t. And so, I have met a number of people in lots of different industries that have opened my eyes and experiences and sharpened my skills, given me new skills. And I think maybe a better leader, a better manager, and hopefully will position the America East better going forward. But it certainly was, it was a tough 20 months to be working and going to school full time. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it most definitely was one of the best experiences in my life.
So talk about what it’s like, obviously, you mentioned a few times the diversity and inclusion initiatives with the league and it’s something that you’ve, you know, the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality is something you’ve been a big part of. You know, the LGBT SportSafe Founders Club, you know, you’ve done things with the league to really push the envelope when it comes to being progressive and it’s, it’s worked. It’s also just as much as technology is something that young folks want to see, creating an environment that’s welcoming is something that young folks want to see.
Yeah. And it really comes back to listening to your student athletes. And that’s what we did. You know, I, I believe in diversity and inclusion as an individual, as any Amy Huchthausen. But I also recognize that I lead the America East Conference. And if our membership wasn’t fully engaged or on board with that, we wouldn’t have been able to do that and certainly not been able to execute it for seven or eight years that we’ve been doing our diversity and inclusion work.
But it, it came back to our student athletes and hearing them back at a conference SAC meeting in November of 2012, listening to their dialogue around both their individual struggles maybe with LGBTQ issues or seeing their teammates or coaches struggle with those types of things, and them saying, like, “Hey, we want to do something about this. We want to create a better environment on our campuses so that all of us feel welcome and included and engaged that we can be our best selves, that we can have that complete, complete student athlete experience and not feel like something is missing, whether for us individually or for our teammates who might be struggling with something.”
And so, you know, it’s as simple as that, listening to them and being responsive to them. And that has… I’ve been really surprised actually as to how, how that has grown, the diversity and inclusion piece has grown over the last seven or eight years. You know, I was concerned as I mentioned earlier, I was concerned that maybe it’d be a one- or two-year thing and then as student athletes graduate and rotate out of serving on conference SAC or campus SAC positions, that may be the message or commitment to that initiative would die out, but it hasn’t. It’s only been reinforced every single year, to the point where we had our first ever in-person Spread Respect Forum this year.
And so, as, as society has evolved, as the issues that we care about in this country have evolved, so has the focus of our diversity and inclusion effort. And we had a really successful two days up at Vermont a few weeks ago talking about all dimensions of diversity and inclusion. And I feel really good about the direction we’re going and the buy-in that we have from our athletic directors, our presidents, to our student athletes, to coaches who are all represented at this particular forum. So, it’s those type of things. It’s really not that complicated, I don’t think, if you’re attentive to what you’re hearing and the concerns that you hearing from your student athletes, and then figuring out a way to address that in the best way that you can.
Women leaders in sports is something that you worked on as a member of the board of directors. And Women Leaders in College Sports, a conference I just sent my team to, it’s a great event, you’ve been a part of it. But it’s also something that naturally your story lends you to be a face of. Talk about the responsibility you feel in playing a role in the advocacy for women in college sports.
You know, I’ll be honest, when I first got this job, it didn’t hit me like the impact that that was having or, or the visibility that I now had in this role. And it took me a little bit. It took me a few years to sort of feel comfortable with that. I’m a, naturally introvert and very shy person. And so, being the face of an organization and then in this case being one of a few faces as commissioners and as, I think, a minority was just something that didn’t, didn’t fit. I had to figure out what that meant for me and how I could use it.
And so, it’s been a work in progress and learning curve. But as I meet young student athletes, both male and female who talk about that and are, are impressed or have admiration for… sort of what I’ve done as a, as a leader, I think that’s when it hits you, like you actually are having an impact. And so, that’s the lens through which I’ve looked at all of this as, how can I broaden my impact, and I think I’ve gotten better at accepting that role and not shying away from it or trying to downplay it.
Although, it’s still not something I like fully embrace if I’m being honest with you. It’s hard to be that person and be that champion, because it’s a huge responsibility. But I know it’s so important for everyone to see people of color, women or any sort of diversity dimension that you represent in a visible role and how important that is to model the way, and so, that other people come in behind you and the younger generation feels good about their past and it can inspire confidence in them. That’s something that I think I’ve tried to embrace a lot better and feel proud now to represent those different areas, represent women, represent Asian Americans or women of color in general.
But it’s like… it’s complicated. You know, when you’re 34 years old when I got this job, there’s so many things that are brand new that you have to learn on the fly and then, you know, coming to… coming to feel comfortable with these types of things is not something that you can learn about in a training session or what have you. You have to really own that and feel good in it. And it just took me a few years to do that. But I, I do feel really proud to be a female commissioner or a female, and I think, minority commissioner in Division I, that I’m not… it’s not lost on me the impact that it has on people that I don’t even know.
You talk about younger folks, this impacts that… your work impacts. It’s a huge responsibility. When you look back to when you’re in those shoes as a student athlete at University of Wisconsin La Crosse, and you know, you’re green and you’re getting into college sports, you look at all you’ve learned since, if you could go back to that moment and talk to yourself, what would you tell your younger self? What advice would you give yourself?
It’s a good question because I feel so grateful for the journey that I’ve had and the place that I’ve been. I wouldn’t change anything, good or bad, about my experience. But I would say, and I think I mentioned this earlier, I’m introverted and really shy. I was really, really shy back then. I would say, just step out every once in a while, be uncomfortable, introduce yourself to someone that you didn’t know, spend five more minutes at that reception, rather than making a lap, not talking to anyone except a head nod and leaving, be better… be a better champion for yourself in that way. You know, you, you’re, you’re competent, you do good work. But don’t be afraid to raise your hand every once in a while so that people can see that and feel more confident in you.
And as you look forward, the outlook for your career, what’s the biggest thing you want to accomplish?
You know, I’d want to continue serving the America East, you know, as long as they’ll have me. You know, it’s been a good eight years. I can’t believe I’ve serving my ninth year now. But there’s still things that, that I think we can do as a league to elevate our profile, elevate the experience of our student athletes. And so, I’m going to keep focusing on that for as long as I can. And we’ll see, you know, what comes next. I’m not naive enough to think that I’ll be here forever, but I really enjoy what I’m doing.
I think the America East is a right blend of academics and athletics. I love the northeast part of the country. I like all the people that I work with every day in our office and in our schools. And so, you know, those are hard experiences to walk away from. And even if, you know, you get opportunities to look here, there, might be in a bigger conference, it might pay you more money, but I think I’ve learned enough that your day-to-day experience and day-to-day life and work-life balance and all of those things are really, really important to your long-term health and happiness. And so, I want to continue to have that experience every day.
When we first met, it was at Stadia Ventures. You came and told the story and I was fascinated with the nonlinear path, I call it, that you, you took to get to where you are today. And you pulled me aside and said, “Hey, I want to, you know, hear more about INFLCR,” and we sat down and I didn’t really fully understand what a conference model for us could even look like at that point.
You know, we had a few dozen college athletics departments that we worked with, but you taught me, you showed me what that could look like. And then you, you tried it and, and you persevered through some kinks and we ended up figuring out what I think is, is really an evolving concept now. We have other conferences that have come on since.
What did you see and why did you pursue something with us that wasn’t necessarily something that had been done yet whereas most college athletics brands, we talk about, let alone conferences want the roadmap and the case study of what’s been done and why it worked and the security and that decision before they make it?
Yeah, I mean, when I met you and I had read some of the press releases of deals that you had done and just understood, you know, basically had a basic understanding of how, how the platform worked, I knew that this was a pitch I want to swing at, honestly, because I saw the passion that you had for the company. And that’s really important, as I have heard a lot of pitches from a lot of startups over the last couple of years. Those are important things that you look for in a founder and people who are connected to that company, first and foremost.
But then if you look at the actual tool or product, is this going to help us? Is this going to help the America East advance what we’re trying to accomplish? And I believed then and I still believe now that it does, and it will continue to do that. And that is, tell the story of our student athletes. You know, that’s a big part of what we’ve tried to do, as I’ve, as I’ve alluded to earlier in this conversation about messaging that and promoting that from… to help our student athletes at the local level and at the emotional level, but also raise the profile of this league.
And so, anything that allows us to do that or has the potential to do that is something that I’m keenly interested in. And you know, it was worth experimenting. There are some things that you just have to try before you… before you’re going to know or before you just walk away. And there was enough here that led me to say, “Okay, this has the potential to be something really impactful, and be a really good partnership. So let’s try it out.”
You were willing to experiment with us, as you said, you didn’t have a conference partner. And so, you know, when you can look at someone and partner with a company or a person and realize that you have the same kind of objective in this, we want to be successful, we’re willing to work with each other, there’s going to be some kinks and bumps along the way but we’re going to work through that, those are the elements in a good relationship, a good partnership that, that I look for, and we were, you know, I mean, like 10-minute conversation that we had, I think I knew that this was some, a deal that I wanted to get done. And I was hopeful that our schools would figure it out.
And I think as we go into this fall, and as basketball season starts tomorrow, I think we’re in good position to capitalize on the original sort of vision that we had for a conference partnership. I’m really excited about it.
Well, we really appreciate your belief in us. It’s a big part of our story. The conference model was born with the America East. And like I said, other conferences like Conference USA and other innovative league and others and followed. And, and it’s because you, you kind of cast that first vision of the conference model that we use today at INFLCR. So, love your story. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for taking the train down here in New York to do it. For those listening, sorry about the random horn beeps in the background. But this…
We’re in New York.
We’re in New York. You know, this is the full experience. So thanks again, Amy.
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