Next Chapter with Nicole Smart: Taking Center Stage After Serving on the Sidelines

Nicole Smart had one of those jobs everyone envied. So, why did she walk away?

As the Management Council Legal Coordinator at the National Football League, Nicole had exposure to such big-time events as the Super Bowl and NFL Draft. Her primary role was to coordinate the administration of NFL/NFLPA player grievance procedures and serve as a liaison to clubs, arbitrators, NFLPA reps, doctors and outside counsel.

Nicole Smart spent more than a decade with the NFL

But after more than a decade with the NFL, she wanted more.

Her drive, the 40+-year-old explains, comes from her upbringing. Born in Trinidad, she and her family lacked things – like indoor plumbing – that others would consider basic necessities. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. in the early ’80s, getting settled before sending for Nicole and her siblings who had stayed temporarily behind in Trinidad with their grandmother and aunts.

A strong work ethic was instilled early. “My dad was a driver for a wealthy businessman,” Nicole recalls. “My mother worked as the businessman’s maid.” Eventually they would work towards and land union jobs. Her dad became an MTA bus driver and her mother an assistant geriatric nurse.

There were challenges throughout her upbringing. Raised in an impoverished neighborhood in Brooklyn, Nicole was teased as a child because of her accent and studious nature.  “I loved to read, but somehow that worked against me in my community.” she says. “I’d get picked on. My classmates would say things like ‘You sound like a white girl’, while my teachers would call on me to read and would comment on how well I spoke”, she explains.

The support she received from teachers fueled her to do more. “There was something inside of me that wanted to give back and help others,” she notes. “I wanted to inspire and elevate people who are underserved.” 

Nicole became the first in her family to go to college, working full-time while attending NYU and earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Leadership and Management studies, before completing a graduate program at Cornell in Industrial & Labor Relations.

The degrees gave her confidence in her work and her own worth. After making the most of opportunities to learn from top legal professionals and executives at the NFL, she looked for ways to continue her career growth. When she heard about a role as an Associate Director of Leadership Development with the NCAA, where she could run programs for ethnic minorities, women and student-athletes, she took it as a sign it was time to leap.

Nicole makes no apologies for her desire to advance.

“The NFL was a great influencer,” she says. “I did what I could.  It was a great run and it was time to move on.”

She took a pay cut to take the job and moved to the Midwest.

“I’ve always been intentional about everything I’ve done in my life. I’ve always asked to be in the room where the meetings were happening. I’ve always wanted to add value.”

But the next chapter was not a long one. The new job was different from what she expected and within months she knew it wasn’t a good fit. Yet Nicole focused on the positive.

“It was a liberating experience to move to the Midwest.  I learned so much in that year, having the exposure and access to run programs and doing speaking engagements and workshops, helping to bridge the gap for student-athletes and people of color.”

Rather than dwelling on the decision as a poor one, she used it as a step in the right direction. It had gotten her out of a situation with limited advancement and opened new doors.

She found a new job within a year, her current one as the Diversity Director for the Actors’ Equity Association, a national labor union for professional theatre actors and stage managers.  There she is responsible for furthering Equity’s goals toward greater inclusion and diversity both within the organization and throughout the theatre community.

“Diversity is lacking for actors and stage managers,” she notes. “What an audience sees on stage should represent the demographics of our nation.”

It’s something she’s passionate about. “I wake up every morning and can’t wait to get to the office,” she says.

The job also returns her to her home in New York City.

She has no regrets and feels in her new role she’s able to align her values with the mission of the union. “There are no mistakes in this life, only lessons to be learned,” she says.

As for this latest chapter in her career and her ongoing story?

“It feels destined. It’s my purpose.”


Profile: Nicole Smart, Diversity Director, Actors’ Equity Association

Title of Your Current Chapter:  “Forward Progress”

Motto to live by:  “The time is always right to do what is right.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Daily Ritual:  Before I get out of bed, I read daily spiritual quotes to keep me grounded for the day ahead.

How do you get Unstuck?  I see it as another opportunity to learn and keep pushing my way through. 

What’s Next?  To be a positive influencer, that’s always been my drive in everything I do.

What advice do you have for others looking to create their own next chapters?  The Brooklyn in me says go for yours!  If you are not able to be your authentic self and live a true purposeful life, then you are dishonoring yourself and others around you.

Want more “Next Chapter” inspiration?  Find out how Carin found her purpose and why Aurelia left network news for non-profit!


Writer Valerie Gordon is a long-time storyteller whose work has appeared on CBS News, HBO Sports and ESPN.  “Next Chapter” will be a new monthly blog from Commander-in-She.  If you know of someone who has made a positive career or life change and would like to be profiled, please email info@commander-in-she.com with details.

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