Jakeim Jackson-Bell always wanted to be in the NBA. Now he is – just in a different way than he originally thought.
Jackson-Bell joined the Milwaukee Bucks front office as its first diversity, equity and inclusion manager in the spring of 2021 and has already launched a number of programs to connect the team more deeply with the state’s most diverse city.
Jackson-Bell was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the family moved to Dallas just a few years later.
“Definitely come from humble beginnings of just a lot of hard work, sacrifice and dedication and just treating people the right way,” said Jackson-Bell, the son of a maintenance worker and a special education teacher. “My dad works in maintenance, which people kind of consider the janitor. So when people you know always say to treat the janitor with the same respect as the CEO, I come from that. I’m not big on job titles. I just know how to treat you.”
A gifted scholar, he attended the Townview Magnet Center for high school, where five different schools prepare students for careers in business and management, law, education, health professions, science and engineering.
“I already knew what I wanted to major in from high school. I was already taking the classes, studying the different moving parts to human resources. (I thought) I will never be out of a job. Either every company has an HR department, or they outsource the HR functions,” he told Blueprint365 in an interview. “My high school was very diverse. I really got to learn about a lot of different cultures and learn people and their backgrounds which ties in everything I do to this day.”
The focus on human resource management started out as part plan B and part entrepreneurial dream.
“You can have more than one dream. My number one dream was to play in the NBA. And then I kind of took it on like, what if I don’t make it to the NBA? What else can I do? I love business, I want to be an entrepreneur. I have to do something in or around sports if I don’t make it on the court,” he said.
His high school was rigorously focused on academics and didn’t have any sport teams, so Jackson-Bell played football and basketball for the public high school near his home. He went on to play basketball for the University of Texas at San Antonio – a college he literally pulled out of a hat.
“Me and two of my best friends put about five schools in a hat,” he recalled. “I just pulled out a piece of paper and said, ‘OK, UT San Antonio.’ At that time, I had never even been to San Antonio. That’s how big Texas is.”
Even attending a diverse high school, he got another important experience in diversity, attending a mostly-Latino university as a young Black man. He also got to see one of the NBA’s premier organizations, the San Antonio Spurs, up close.
“They really cater to the communities in San Antonio and take diversity, equity and inclusion seriously,” he said. “I was there during one of their championship runs. I know I’m not going to (play in) the NBA at this point. But I definitely want to explore opportunities in sports and entertainment.”
While a student, he created his own sports-related internship at the nonprofit basketball club where he was volunteering as a coach.
“I was just doing it for fun, just wanted to coach kids. But I was talking to the founder and CEO and said ‘I really enjoy coaching the kids,volunteering and giving back, but I’m also an HR major and I haven’t landed an internship yet,” he said. “Even though it was non paid, you know, that position helped me land my first full-time opportunity. As soon as I graduated, when I walked across the stage, I already knew I had a full time opportunity to work as a HR administrator for a private school that was geared towards students who had learning disabilities in Houston.”
Subsequently he worked in HR and talent management functions for American Airlines, the Atlanta Hawks and had just started a job at Samsung with the COVID-19 pandemic forced a rash of layoffs. But the pandemic also opened up opportunities in health care, and Jackson-Bell landed a job at one of the largest hospitals in Texas ““supporting the frontline healthcare heroes.”
He was coordinating training groups of up to 200 new hires at a time and helped launch employee resource groups, but still needed a bit more.
“(I’ve been) strategic about where I work, because where I work, it is not about what I get paid, but it’s more so about my purpose and what I’m passionate about,” he said. “ I love my job, I love where I’m working. But man, I would love to get back to sports and entertainment.”
In August 2020, the Bucks refused to take the court for a playoff game in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha. Not long after that, Jackson-Bell heard from a former Hawks coworker that the team was looking to make its first-ever DEI hire.
“This is exactly the type of organization I would love to work for, if I’m going to come back and work in sports,” he remembers thinking. The team was already doing good work in the area of diversity and inclusion and just needed someone to “take it to the next level.”
It helped that his dad was actually from Milwaukee.
He officially joined the front office in March of 2021.
“I hit the ground running. I started off remote my first month, and then I relocated to Milwaukee and the rest has been history,” he said. “To win a championship, to build all of these new programs, bringing in diverse talent, it’s just been insane.”
He said the executives have empowered him and given their full backing to the DEI efforts.
“We have more people of color. We have more women, we have more new talent pipelines in regards to individuals with disabilities. We’ve been able to build a better bridge with the youth, talent pipelines and programming,” he said. Specifically, he’s helped launch the Bucks Scholars program, pairing 25 high school freshmen with two mentors from the Bucks staff.
“We’re going to follow these students and provide guidance during their entire time of high school,” he said.
He’s also launched the team’s HBCU night, last year inviting HBCU alumni to speak to students and this year creating a full HBCU college fair, with representatives from a number of colleges coming to Fiserv Forum to meet with prospective students.
The Bucks are also working with local organizations to offer employment opportunities to people re-entering the community after incarceration.
Jackson-Bell isn’t one to settle in any one job for too long. “I didn’t want to spend 30 or 40 years at one company. I wanted to work in different industries to see how HR is conducted. That way, I’m able to bring different perspectives to the table from different industries,” he said. So who knows if he’ll still be with the Bucks five or 10 years from now. If he is, though, he has some sense as to how he’ll measure success.
“When I can look out there in the workforce and see people from all demographics… and can look back and know that I built something that’s sustainable, as well as pushing a business forward, that’s how I would measure success,” he said.