Jacqueline Jefferson Aims to Get SDI to the Next Level

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Jaki Jefferson is wearing a red blazer and has a cropped haircut

One day in 2013, SDI Founder Colleen Starkloff led a discussion on Universal Design at Express Scripts, now known as Cigna. Serving as Diversity Manager for Express Scripts at the time, Jacqueline “Jaki” Jefferson sat in the audience trying her best to absorb the knowledge and passion of this disability-rights icon.

Eight years later, Jaki is one of our newest board members, and she vividly recalls the immediate bond she formed with Colleen.

“What really drew me to her was the story of Max [Starkloff] and how she took up the torch and continued to move forward with the work on behalf of individuals with disabilities. She had a loved one with a disability, and I had a loved one with a disability, and we had this immediate connection,” Jaki reflects. “I thought Colleen was so far out of my league. This is a champion. Just to meet her was such an honor.”

Wanting to learn more about how nonprofit agencies support people with disabilities, Jaki left Express Scripts in 2014 and went to work for Easterseals Midwest. After serving as Senior Diversity Recruiter for a couple of years, Jaki advanced to the position of Regional Program Manager and Business Partnership Leader of Project Search, a workforce training and employment program for diverse and underserved populations.

A struggling program quickly became a resounding success, as Project Search paved the way to employment for more and more candidates. For Jaki, the results offered a special kind of fulfillment.

“Placement was very important, but not for the sake of numbers. It was important because each placement meant that there was transformation happening in someone’s life,” Jaki explains. “A lot of these individuals only had volunteer experience, so knowing they’re about to get their chance at a career in the real world was truly transformational.”

A wealth of experience from the corporate world helped Jaki bring a fresh perspective to Easterseals and Project Search.

“For a lot of organizations supporting people with disabilities, their resources are limited, and that just simply shouldn’t be,” Jaki insists. “I think my business acumen was a different type of resource I could use to help address a need. I was able to bring some project management skills and leadership experience that helped propel the program to new heights.”

Her initial foray into the diversity and inclusion realm came in the late ‘90s, a time when far fewer companies were making it a priority. As Marketing and Business Enterprise Inclusion Manager at Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (HOK), Jaki worked tirelessly to increase the participation of minority and women-owned businesses in procurement and other company initiatives. After six years in that role, Jaki was promoted to Global Diversity and Inclusion Talent Leader, a position she held until 2012.

She currently serves as System Leader for Diversity and Inclusion at SSM Health, where she develops and implements programs to foster an inclusive culture across all levels of human resources, patient care and customer service.

For Jaki, each stop along her corporate journey brought its own unique challenges.

“The basic premise is the same, but you’re going to approach diversity and inclusion a little differently depending on where the organization’s at,” Jaki explains. “Early in my tenure at HOK, there weren’t a lot of women or people of color in architecture and engineering. The intent was there, but they just didn’t know how to do it. Companies would get caught up in the legalities of it, and it became a situation of just checking boxes. We’ve come a long way since then, but there’s still work to do.”

Outside of her professional career, Jaki also spends countless hours volunteering. Formerly an adjunct professor at the University of Phoenix, she shares her passion for teaching by providing free workshops on literacy, college readiness and career training.

Now she is ready to tackle the responsibilities of being an SDI board member, an honor she says is still setting in.

“Just to be in the company of all those great leaders, I’ll have to practice how to act. I’ll have to stop being a groupie and stay focused on the work at hand,” Jaki says with a laugh. “But seriously, I appreciate the relationships I’ve developed at Starkloff. When we have our first meeting, I’m going to go where the need is highest, lean into the goals the board establishes and help Starkloff get to another level.”

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