Episode 6: Venessa Hutchinson of the National Football League

Venessa Hutchinson, Senior Manager of Football Development at the NFL, joins us to talk about her sports background, mentors from Boston College (her alma mater) and the Cleveland Browns, as well as her role in advancing the future of American football regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

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V: [00:00:00] And so every year I feel like it just gets better and better, and I think the reasoning behind that is because with those teams that I listed, it’s the people at the top that are really invested. So it’s the owners, it’s the head coaches, the general managers, and it trickles down because of that. And that’s been so helpful.

C: [00:00:21] Hi, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Forward Progress. I’m Caroline.

S: [00:00:26] And I’m Sophia.

C: [00:00:27] Last week, we talked with Princeton head football coach Bob Surace, and we’re sticking with that football theme again this week. But first, let’s talk about what’s been happening in sports.

C: [00:00:37] Do you think this is the second biggest announcement this week or maybe the biggest sporting event?

S: [00:00:42] I would say, yeah, I was going to say the biggest thing in sports.

C: [00:00:45] OK, for sure. For sure. So if some of you don’t know Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird got engaged. Whoop whoop

S: [00:00:53] In Antigua.

C: [00:00:55] Oh, really, that’s where they were?

S: [00:00:56] Yeah, they were in Antigua and apparently the story is they were just chillin in a pool and Megan was getting out.

C: [00:01:02] How did you find this out?

S: [00:01:02] I was reading the story that was written up about it.

C: [00:01:08] Thanks for sending it to me.

S: [00:01:09] Oh, so sorry. It’s (the article) about her new book, One Life, which I preordered for you. You’re welcome. And she was getting out of the pool and her friend said it looked like she was kneeling and then she just took off a gold ring that was already on her finger and just asked Sue.

C: [00:01:23] Whaaat

S: [00:01:23] Yeah. So there’s the story. Our favorite couple’s engaged.

C: [00:01:28] Honestly, the ultimate sporting couple.

C: [00:01:30] Chiney and Nneka Ogumike took the day off on November 3rd to work the election polls and really support democracy. You love to see it.

S: [00:01:40] Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Bryan Edwards was sporting a WNBA hoodie that we’ve seen quite a bit around town. Those orange hoodies are infamous now.

C: [00:01:50] They are in high demand.

S: [00:01:51] Super high demand. He was wearing it during his news conference last week. He said he got it from Las Vegas Aces star and reigning league MVP A’ja Wilson, whom he attended college with at University of South Carolina. Go Gamecocks.

S: [00:02:06] Head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin becomes the winningest minority coach in NFL history. The Steelers this year are 8-0. Congratulations, Coach Tomlin, and keep moving the sport forward. You love to see it.

S: [00:02:21] Caroline, last sporting headline for us…

C: [00:02:23] In honor of the Tokyo 2020, now 2021 Olympics and Paralympic Games, 56 years ago, Tokyo hosted its first Paralympic Games and this was the first games that took place in Asia and the second ever Paralympics.

S: [00:02:39] Super cool. I cannot wait until we get to see the games.

C: [00:02:43] All right, let’s get down to business. We mentioned that we’re sticking with the football theme again this week. Sophia, who’s our special guest?

S: [00:02:50] Today, we are joined by Venessa Hutchinson. She’s senior manager of football development at the NFL. She was named to the 40 under 40 list by The Athletic NFL. She’s a graduate of Boston College, where she was a special assistant to the head coach. She worked for the Cleveland Browns as a football and personnel operations coordinator and has worked for the league since May of 2018. She’s worked alongside Sam Rapoport in the development of the Women’s Careers Forum, which creates a pipeline for women to work in the NFL. And she’s also worked to increase the number of minority candidates for jobs in the league, notably on the football side.

C: [00:03:27] Ok, so when did you first meet Venessa?

S: [00:03:30] Well, I first met her earlier this year at the Women’s Forum. I was invited there. The 2020 forum was held in Indianapolis. But before that I was on a phone call with her, Kathryn Smith, who was the first female coach in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills at the time. She was hired by Rex Ryan, who she worked previously with with the New York Jets. And Venessa and I were on the phone and Kathryn Smith was there, and also Alessandra Santorelli, who worked for the league office in New York. And they asked me about my football experience and if I’d be interested in attending the women’s forum in the future. And eventually I did. So that was kind of the relationship started with Venessa and since then kept in touch. She’s someone that I use as a resource. She’s done an incredible job in leading the way forward for for all of us, really.

C: [00:04:17] And without further ado, Venessa Hutchinson.

C: [00:04:20] Thank you so much for being on the podcast today. We’re really excited to talk to you.

V: [00:04:27] Thank you guys for having me.

S: [00:04:29] Where are we talking to you from?

V: [00:04:30] I’m in Cleveland, Ohio, the beautiful city of Cleveland.

C: [00:04:33] I have never been to Cleveland, so.

V: [00:04:35] It’s a little hidden gem. If you’ve got a day or two, you can see pretty much the whole city. So,

C: [00:04:39] Yeah, OK. All right.

S: [00:04:41] I’ve been to Ohio because I went to Canton, Ohio, twice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And that was, if anyone gets a chance to go see that, like, that’s really incredible. And the whole atmosphere is really cool.

V: [00:04:52] Canton is really nice. When I worked for the Browns, they took us on a field trip to Canton to see the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And it was like an amazing experience, just seeing everything there. I loved it.

S: [00:05:01] That’s really cool. All right, Caroline, first question.

C: [00:05:04] Ok, so we wanted to take you way back. Well, not way back. I mean, you’re not old at all. I don’t know. I said way back. But we want to take you back to where you started. As a kid, what sports did you play and how would you describe those years?

V: [00:05:19] So I’ve played soccer. I played softball, and I played tennis. And I should put the disclaimer out there like I did not play travel league, I didn’t play in school. I played the town rec leagues. I was not competitive. I wanted like one practice a week, one game on the weekend. Pretty noncommittal. But I love them because my favorite part was of the competitiveness and it probably wasn’t even like the game. It was the camaraderie. I’ve definitely seen that reflect in my professional career, like as much as any team I’ve worked for. I love game day and everything like that, Don’t get me wrong. All the experiences outside of that in the office, late nights, holidays spent working with this second family that you’ve made; That’s always been my favorite part. So I definitely can see how my wanting to just be a part of a team as opposed to being super competitive is really reflected in my professional career.

S: [00:06:03] I love that you mentioned that you played tennis because Caroline played tennis. And Serena Williams is like the only exception, but so many tennis players are just like I just had fun.

C: [00:06:13] Yeah. I mean, that’s really I played much better tennis and enjoyed it when I was having fun. And I think it was really the same for me playing growing up. I was always much more of a team player. Coaches were like, why won’t you shoot the ball? Like, why won’t you do this? Whatever, you know your form is great. What? I don’t know. It’s fine. I like this. It’s good. Yeah, I agree. Being on a team atmosphere, no matter where you are, is I don’t think there’s anything else like it.

V: [00:06:41] Absolutely.

S: [00:06:43] And it makes a lot of sense with your role now, Venessa, that you are such a team player because your role is really facilitating a bunch of different things. And the reason why we wanted to have you on the podcast, you know, you embody our mission of the podcast. And then also you’re an incredible leader because you’re not looking to build followers, you’re looking to empower and build other leaders. And so can you tell us about your day to day role now with the league and what you do during any given day?

V: [00:07:12] So I think the best way to describe it is being in the league office is still a little bit similar to being on a football team in that your day to day varies depending on what time of the year it is. So my January through June is really my busy time, and that’s where I’m doing a lot of travel across the country and going to a few different things and NFL events. And because we work on basically our pipeline programming and so we work development initiatives, networking initiatives for anyone that is inside or outside of our pipeline. And what that really consists of is for anyone outside of our pipeline, we’re working on events where they can interact with league office executives or coaches and network with them and kind of just build that for them outside of the pipeline. So eventually, if they have the opportunity, they can be in the pipeline and working for the NFL. So within that, we also do development programs for people that work in the league as well. So that’s a little bit of what, like January through June is and then July through December is more so just planning for the following year. We do have a few programs, Bill Walsh, Nunn-Wooten fellowships that are going on, and then we do a little bit of college planning as well. We work in HBCU realm and doing some events for that. So that’s kind of like the two part breakdown of it. But in addition to kind of the work I do with the coaching and scouting side of that pipeline development that falls under Bill Walsh and the Nunn-Wooten areas, I work on the women’s programming with Sam Rapoport, and that’s kind of year round in that I’m pretty much having phone calls and meeting with different women who work in football pretty much year round. And then once October, November hits, we’re really start prepping for the forum that comes around in February. And so that’s a lot of what I do.

S: [00:08:42] And you mentioned a lot there because I don’t think anyone really understands what a senior manager of football development means.

V: [00:08:48] I don’t either (laughter)

S: [00:08:51] This is this is why the titles are so misleading. It’s like four words but you’re doing so many different things and working on so many projects. Although the Bill Walsh Fellowship and Nunn-Wooten, and all these other it feels like separate pipelines. Are they separate or are they kind of all grouped together in how you’re assessing who can potentially work in the league in the future?

V: [00:09:14] Yeah, I’d say so for Bill Walsh and Nunn-Wooten in that coaching and scouting pipeline. As a disclaimer, we’re also trying to build on other front office areas as well. So it’s not just coaching and scouting because obviously there are other interests, too, but primarily right now it’s coaching and scouting and that really falls in one area and that’s under football operations. And the women’s programming also falls in that area as well, but it tends to be separated because we’re specifically looking at women in that one, whereas Bill Walsh and Nunn-Wooten, a woman, can be incorporated. The women’s program is specifically working for female candidates who work in football and have an interest in ascending their career. And so that’s where they’re a bit separated because we do have a more specific group of people that we’re looking at for the women’s forum.

S: [00:09:50] Who are your mentors within the profession or outside the profession? And I know you talked about being a team player, but obviously you’ve been cultivated by a lot of different people to now be who you are at the league.

V: [00:10:02] Pretty easy answer for me. There’s three. First one is Reggie Terry, who was my boss at Boston College for four years. I met when I was a junior in college and I said, “hey, I think I really want to work in football.” And Reggie had come from the National Football League, worked the Arizona Cardinals as a director of football admin for seven years under Rod Graves, probably one the only black man to do so at the time as well. And he’s like a second father to me. And he my senior year, like, took me under his wing and I was working 30 hour workweeks as a student, which just gave me so much stuff to do. I loved it and I asked for it. That’s how I really got in operations. And I stayed with them for three more years after I graduated. He’s just honestly been the person who has taught me most about how an NFL club is run and kind of the mentality going into a club and really humbling yourself. He’s one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. And so Reggie’s definitely really up there. Brandon Brown, who’s the assistant of pro personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles. He worked at BC as well back in the day. I worked for him in recruiting and folding envelopes for him and all that stuff, folding mailings and all that stuff that falls under college recruiting, but he’s the person that has really helped me grow my network. So even when I was a student, he really helped me grow my network. And when he was working in Indy, he made sure I connected with one of their scouts. His name is Andrew Berry. And so Brandon was one that made that connection. And a few years later, Andrew actually hired me to Cleveland. And so they’re all kind of relevant and related to each other. But Andrew would be the third one who’s currently the general manager of the Browns. And I worked for him back in 2017. And he’s just one of the sharpest people, gives great advice professionally and personally, cares about the development of every single person in his department, and really wants to see people in his department ascend. And we’ll do things to help them do that. And so like those three right there, honestly, I think I’m very fortunate to know the three of those guys and they’ve made such a huge impact on my life. I wouldn’t be where I am today. I don’t say that cliche, but I would not be where I am today without any them at.

S: [00:11:46] Boston College is very forward thinking. And I think even now and I know Taylor Jackson‘s up there who was at the forum as well. BC doing good things and then Cleveland is a different team. They are a completely different team this year.

V: [00:12:00] It’s 2020 you know, anything can happen.

C: [00:12:04] Nobody had this on their Bingo card. Come on.

V: [00:12:06] I mean, I’m happy for them. It’s a very passionate sports city. So to be in it when this is happening is pretty nice.

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S: [00:12:53] And so the women’s forum you talked about a little bit and you’re developing it and talking with women all across the country, how is it different from Bill Walsh and Nunn-Wooten and some of the other pipelines that you have other than you’re just singling out kind of women in particular?

V: [00:13:08] For sure. I think there’s a few things that make it a bit different. In terms of logistically for Bill Walsh, that’s a formal application process where you apply, but you’re not necessarily selected as the women’s forum is, if you’re selected, you’re for sure attending. And it’s not really an application process. It’s kind of we invite you. And that’s kind of the approach to it. The past few years. You know, with Bill Walsh, if you’re selected, you’re guaranteed an opportunity with a club, if a club, emails you and says they want you. But with the women’s forum, we can’t guarantee opportunities, all we can guarantee is development and networking in the hopes that it eventually builds into an opportunity. Just trying to lay the foundation basically is how that works. And then I’d say probably Bill Walsh is more experience and development and the women’s forum is more educational and networking.

C: [00:13:49] Over the years since the forum started, which teams have been most involved and engaged within the forum?

V: [00:13:56] For sure, if I can name like the top three, it would be the Buffalo Bills, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and I want to say the Carolina Panthers slash Washington football team, because Ron Rivera has really been the spearheader on that one. So it’s hard to say just teams, because there are so many individuals, Sean McDermott, Ron Rivera, and they may stay where they are. They may go elsewhere, but they’ve been actively involved. But even over the last few years, the Los Angeles Rams, the Indianapolis Colts, 49ers, the Browns, the Falcons, the Titans, like those teams, have really, really stepped up. Like one of my favorite stories from this past year is we contacted Mike Vrabel and we said, hey, would you be willing to be on a panel like, here’s our initiative, here’s what we’re doing. Are you willing to be on a panel? And he not only really responded at like eight o’clock at night, five minutes after we sent it and said, yes, he’s like, what else can we do? Who else from my club can I get involved? Like bring John Robinson in. Let’s bring our strength coach in to do some interviews with some women. And it was just the most incredible response. And so every year I feel like it just gets better and better. And I think the reasoning behind that is because with those teams that I listed, it’s the people at the top that are really invested. So it’s the owners, it’s the head coaches and general managers, and it trickles down because of that. And that’s been so helpful. Those are a group of clubs the truly value, diversity, equity, and inclusion. And so that’s, I think, makes them stand out.

S: [00:15:05] I love that, especially because those are playoff teams.

V: [00:15:08] Yes.

S: [00:15:09] I mean, those are teams that are premier teams in the league. They’re not I mean, obviously, Atlanta Falcons are going through a lot right now. Cleveland’s on the upturn, it seems. But I would say the majority of those teams are really good squads.

V: [00:15:22] Agreed. Because they got women on staff.

S: [00:15:27] You can’t win without them.

S: [00:15:29] You’ve gotten to know every coach and scout and operations people that have been hired through Bill Walsh, but especially through the Women’s Careers Forum, because I know that you talk to all of these women before you even bring them in. What would you say are maybe one characteristic or if you can name a bunch characteristics that they have in common when they’ve gotten opportunities?

V: [00:15:50] It’s no secret when you work in the sport of football at any level, like it takes a great deal of sacrifice. I’m sure you all know that. And I think what makes kind of the group that’s been successful in that is in the league right now is that they want it badly enough that they’re patient enough, which is a big thing. Like, no one has really got an opportunity. Right after the women’s forum. They worked those connections. They’ve taken the training camp internships year after year until they could actually get to full time positions and things like that. So they’re super patient. They’re constantly working to grow and develop as coaches. It’s less about the spotlight for them. And I think overall there’s a pure love and sacrifice. You’ve come across a lot of people that say they want to work in sports. That’s such a common thing to hear. But there are so many less people willing to make the sacrifices of the seven days a week, the working holidays, the losing and being in that environment when you’re losing in all these different sacrifices and kind of that group is just committed to wanting to be in the game. And that’s really important. I think that’s what really embodies everyone that’s in there right now. And we certainly have a group of other women that fall within that as well. That I hope will have that opportunity as well coming up soon.

S: [00:16:56] You’re someone who cultivates the forum with Sam Rappoport, as we mentioned, and with a bunch of other people. How do you see it evolving? And I don’t even mean specific to the pandemic because times are weird, but how do you see it evolving as you go forward?

V: [00:17:09] I don’t think it’s unrealistic to have all 32 clubs involved. We know who we need to get involved and we are working on ways to target those clubs. I think would be amazing if we had all 32 clubs involved in some way, shape or form. That would just be a huge, I don’t even want to say accomplishment. It’s just great for the sport and for anything in general for diversity, equity, and inclusion in general, if all 32 clubs are involved. I also think it could certainly grow. We’ve had so much interest from women who want to work on the business side and we don’t really have the capacity to do that right now. We really focus on the front office side of things, but we certainly could see ourselves eventually being able to offer things for women who want to be on the business side of the National Football League. And so I think those are different ways where I certainly could see a growing.

S: [00:17:46] Cool, cool, cool. I know I’m excited. One of my favorite parts of the forum this past year was how everyone mentioned that it was very different from the first one. And that was just four years ago, and so it’s clearly grown. There were so many people around. I love that it was at the combine, too, because a bunch of people said that that was really helpful because there were so many people there.

V: [00:18:05] One part about the forum is when I got hired, it was one of the things I was most excited about. And I think probably the primary reason I was hired for the league, that I was going to work on with Sam and we got there and like her and I sat down and she’s like, all right. She’s like, we’ve got free reign. We can do whatever we want. Let’s just brainstorm. And that’s literally like how we built the forum the past couple of years, the two of us sitting in a room getting input from certain people. And we’ve gotten input from Dawn Aponte, Kathryn Marsh, formerly Kathryn Smith. And we put all the suggestions together. But you have so much free reign to structure the way you want, and that makes it so much more fun. And I think that’s certainly helped to get the involvement up, too.

C: [00:18:39] So cool, I hope all of the teams become involved. I think it’s something that benefits everybody in the league, outside of the league, the women who want to join and become part of it. Hopefully that is something that we will see in the future.

C: [00:18:52] Ok, we have a few questions. Sophia always wants to know everyone’s book recommendations.

V: [00:18:58] So I’m not a huge reader, but covid has kind of changed that a little bit. Probably my favorite read over the last few months, Little Fires Everywhere. I watch the show first, then did the book as kind of a fan of that order. But that was a great kind of getaway kind of read.

C: [00:19:12] A lot of people don’t like watching the show or movie first, but sometimes I find even if I just see the trailer, then I can visualize the characters or a certain scene or something in my head and it makes it a little more enjoyable. So sometimes that is a good reading format. OK, and then on to our two recurring questions that we ask all of our guests. What is a sport that you wish you knew more about or saw growing up?

V: [00:19:37] Basketball. But I’ve gotten more into basketball as I’ve been an adult. I’ve gone to like NBA games, like, I guess I’m a Celtics. I’m from the Boston area.

C: [00:19:46] You don’t have to be, it’s not mandatory to be a fan of the closest team.

V: [00:19:53] But basketball certainly is probably that sport where I wish I knew more about it. I’m starting to learn more about… My fiance, the seventy Sixers fan. So I’m kind of forced to watch those games and ask questions and learn. So definitely basketball.

S: [00:20:05] Are you allowed to say he’s a 76ers fan even though he works for the Browns?

V: [00:20:09] I think so. I don’t know why he’s not from Philly, but I’ll say it, I’ll call him out.

C: [00:20:18] Oh my gosh

S: [00:20:18] They have Doc Rivers as their coach now.

V: [00:20:20] Yeah I’m pumped actually!

C: [00:20:20] You’re going to hop on the train.

S: [00:20:23] I might.

V: [00:20:23] You’re on the sixer train. There we go.

S: [00:20:28] Also, I love I love people that are from Philly, too, like, they’re great.

C: [00:20:31] Why?

V: [00:20:32] I don’t know many people from Philly.

S: [00:20:35] I work with a lot of coaches that are big, like any team in the Philly area. So,

C: [00:20:40] OK, but that’s like most people in South Jersey.

S: [00:20:43] Because they can’t claim fake New York teams that are actually in New Jersey because they’re in,

C: [00:20:48] True. I mean, Buffalo is the only real New York team and they’re really running with that this season. No, seriously, on all their social media, they’re like we’re the real the only New York team, but they’re not wrong.

C: [00:21:01] Ok, and then our final question, my favorite. What is your ideal ice cream sandwich?

V: [00:21:08] Ideal ice cream sandwich is M&M cookies and vanilla ice cream. I’m pretty, pretty simple, but like to me that is like that’s cool.

C: [00:21:16] Classic.

S: [00:21:17] Wow, that’s a great answer. Now I just feel like M&Ms. We can have ice cream in the morning. Why not?

C: [00:21:26] Yeah. I mean, my family, we would always have ice cream for breakfast on vacations. If there was ice cream places near the hotel, we’d get it at least twice a day. So we didn’t have any cavities. So it wasn’t bad. But yeah, no, I mean, my parents were all for it, so.

C: [00:21:45] Thank you for joining us today. It was great to learn more about your role in the NFL, the women’s forum, and the various pipelines that the NFL has to increase diversity, inclusion and just make the league a better place.

V: [00:22:01] Thank you both for having me. This was great.

S: [00:22:03] Thank you, Venessa. You’re making a difference. You are making football better than it already is. It’s great, but it can be better and you’re making it better. So thank you. I appreciate your time. Listen, it’s a great sport, but it’s better when there are womxn and people of color and disabled people and everybody. The list goes on and on and on.

V: [00:22:22] That’s the truth.

C: [00:22:32] Forward progress is produced by Caroline Mattise with a little help from Sophia Lewin.

S: [00:22:36] True.

C: [00:22:37] And is brought to you by best available player. Find more podcasts, articles and video content related to sports and entertainment on bestavailableplayer.com. All the music in this podcast is by James Barrett, a good friend and an even better musician. Be sure to check him out on your favorite music streaming platform. And because we’re all about inclusivity and accessibility, each podcast of Forward Progress will be transcribed and available on bestavailableplayer.com.

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