Taunita Stephenson: Breaking The Mold in Collegiate Sports
Tell us about your previous experiences working in the sports industry. What is your current role and responsibilities with the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC)?
My sports industry experience had an interesting start. Growing up as a military brat who loved sports, I quickly developed a passion, excelling in softball and basketball. I knew I would be recruited to play basketball in college and I was good enough to play Division III, Division II or Small Division I ball, however in my senior year, I made a few bonehead personal decisions that led to me going unrecruited. I had to come up with a Plan B. I knew I wanted to be at an historically black college (HBCU) in the south so I enrolled in Alabama State University, majoring in Physical Education. While I was having the time of my life personally, I longed for more academically. I transferred to the University of Maryland, majoring in Kinesiology, this time, thinking I wanted to be an athletic trainer. While at UMD, I took a class that offered exposure to the business side of sport and that is when it clicked and I knew what I wanted to do. At the time, UMD didn’t have a Sport Management major and I was having the urge to be back at an HBCU. There were only a handful of HBCUs that offered Sport Management as a major and Delaware State University was the perfect fit. Upon my arrival there, I was able to join the Sport Management Club and get involved with the DSU athletic department leading Event and Game Time Operations staffing, literally starting my career at the age of 20. Although I had attended three universities, this journey allowed me to understand and transfer my passion from being an athlete to a sports administrator and to use my life experiences to develop young people and use sports as a changing agent.
Prior to starting the DeVos Sport Business Management Masters Program at the University of Central Florida, I had an interest in Community Relations, so I had internships with the Charlotte Bobcats and Greater Washington Sports Alliance related to that area. While in the program, I realized that my true passion and calling was developing people, so upon graduating I accepted a position with the NFL League Office in their Player Engagement Department. That position really helped me blossom in the field of athlete development leading me to my next position at Grinnell College as the Coordinator of Diversity and Inclusion in Athletics/Coordinator of Event and Facilities Management. This position was created to support student athletes of diverse backgrounds and was only available at a handful of universities. From there, I was able to use my events, student affairs, and athlete development experience to go back to my alma mater, Delaware State University, as the Assistant Director of Wellness and Recreation. Today I serve as the Assistant Commissioner of Championships and External Operations at the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference where I oversee 13 championship events from inception to execution, assist with the acquisition and managing of sponsors and serve as the primary Sport Administrator of the day-to- day administration of SIAC Sport Policies and Procedures. I also work side by side with the Commissioner in the acquisition and activation of sponsors.
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are not often recognized or known for being "athletic" schools, what are the biggest challenges working in the SIAC and staying relevant and competitive with bigger conferences?
The immediate and biggest challenge is literally fighting the stigma that our schools aren’t athletic schools, when typically, most HBCUs, have a longstanding tradition of producing great athletic teams and student athletes. Another challenge is educating people on HBCUs, as there are still a large number of people who don’t even know what HBCUs are. I spend a lot of time educating people on the purpose and relevancy of HBCUs. There’s also the challenge of attaching our schools to the brand of the conference, which is still a work in progress. The biggest and most common solution to these issues are the commitment to telling the story of our schools, their athletic departments and our student athletes, as much as possible and in as many ways as possible. Another solution is ensuring that HBCUs have the most qualified people in the right positions. This is not a problem that is unique to HBCUS, however, HBCUs do have a stigma of pushing people from position to position, regardless of if they are the most qualified or not. It also can contribute to some of the issues that we see some HBCUS facing with fiscal irresponsibility and facing accreditation issues. Because of these issues, you see a lot of qualified, talented, young administrators like myself, wanting to steer away from a career in HBCU athletics, in the case that they want to work for a bigger school or conference. It’s a constant internal conflict and ongoing battle that I’ve even experienced. While, I totally understand the perks, benefits and sometimes the glitz and glamour of working for a bigger school or conference, I am committed to using my talents to fight all of these challenges. I often wonder what would be the state of our HBCUs, if the best people were in the right positions, especially in athletics, and I am almost certain that the effect would be similar to what we are witnessing at universities with young, talented presidents such as Dr. Harry Williams (Delaware State University), Dr. Walter Kimbrough (Dillard University), Dr. Michael Sorrell (Paul Quinn) and Dr. Tashni-Ann Dubroy (Shaw University).
What are some of the biggest differences in working on the college sports level compared to professional sports?
In my opinion, there are more opportunities for growth and to make a direct impact in collegiate sport. I noticed quickly that people in pro sports, especially the popular or attractive positions, don’t leave because their jobs are cool and have a lot of perks. If you are fortunate enough to make it into one of those positions, it makes a lot of sense of why you wouldn’t want to leave that team or position. The thing that attracted me about collegiate sport is that there are more than 1,200 member schools and a number of conferences making the opportunities truly endless. I also appreciate the fact that I get to see and work with the student athletes, coaches and athletic directors every day and work with all types of departments routinely. I also really appreciate the work-life balance and flexibility of collegiate athletics that I’ve been able to experience in my career.
Do you have a mentor? What advice would you give on how to develop and maintain a mentor in the sports industry?
I have a few mentors who have helped guide me along the way. Dr. Jan Blade, Associate Professor, Chairperson & Director for Graduate Program and Jordin Williams, Executive Director of The Department of Wellness and Recreation and Campus Events, from Delaware State University. The have had their hands on me from very early in my career which was amazing for my personal and professional development. As my collegiate athletics career has blossomed, I’ve been blessed with awesome mentors such as Chevonne Mansfield, Director of Communications – American Athletic Conference and Ruben Perez - MAAC Associate Commissioner for Men’s Basketball & Baseball. I would encourage those looking to seek, develop and maintain a mentor to be organic and genuine about your relationship with your mentor. It’s also imperative to not check in, just when you need something from your mentor. I also have benefited from having mentors in various areas of sport and higher education, not just the areas that I want to work in. It helps to keep me educated, versatile and to have cheerleaders in a variety of place.
What has been your proudest moment in your sports career thus far?
It's a tie between two! 1. Being the first woman Assistant Commissioner of Championships at the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference 2. Initiating and Closing Bevel as the Official Grooming Sponsor of the SIAC and assisting in the launch of the #BevelBand Campaign. It’s just DOPE and speaks to everything that I was mentioning earlier in terms of where our schools can and need to go: BEVEL BAND
You also have your own event planning company with Elle Nicole Events. How do you manage owning your own business and working full time with the SIAC?
The biggest thing is maximizing my time. My day is often planned from the time I get up until I go to sleep with hours dedicated strictly to Elle Nicole Events. The other major key is having 2 business partners (Ashlee Hill, CWP & Kristin McCormick, CWP) who not only share the weight of ownership but are the lead planners of Elle Nicole Events. While I still support them with event needs, with them leading the majority of our events and weddings, I am able to focus on building our brand and the digital space which can be done from anywhere.
Three Fun Facts About Yourself:
Favorite Quote - "Couple mistakes here and there, not always right but I'm always real, that’s how I sleep at night."- Shawn Corey Carter
What city is on your bucket list to visit in the near future? – I’d love to visit Hawaii soon. I’ve always been so intrigued by Hawaii and Hawaiian culture.
What album are you currently listening to that is in constant rotation? – I like to throw back to albums during busy seasons so right now it’s American Gangster by Jay-Z and College Dropout by Kanye West