Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We're seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:
Lara Juras, Minnesota Vikings
Position: Executive Vice President and Chief People and Culture Officer
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How did you get your start in a career in sports and football?
It's hard to admit in these certain conversations that it was probably happenstance. I was working in public accounting and someone who I had worked with, Steve Quinn, went on to be the first CFO for the Detroit Tigers. Fast forward a year or so, when the Tigers were getting ready to open Comerica Park, they were looking for their first human resources person and they asked me if I knew anyone with union experience. I told them I didn't have any but could find someone. They replied, "Well, we were hoping you'd be interested." The rest, as they say, is history.
It was very fascinating in hindsight because once I got in, team president John McHale Jr. told me that three people before me had turned down this role. I was kind of like, Is this supposed to be a compliment? He was pointing out that the reason others turned the job down was they didn't want to create the HR department. For me, I didn't have a sports background but it was almost the entire reason I was interested. I would be learning new things about the sports industry and be able to create my own shop for a professional sports franchise. So, he told me that it was unusual for someone to have the mindset I had because it wasn't an easy role to step into. Back in 1998, the human resources function was still being developed in the sports world.
A lot of women in the Next Woman Up series have said they have always wanted to work in sports, but my true love is human resources. I feel blessed, honored and accomplished to some extent to do something I love so much in such an amazing, energetic industry.
And how did you land with the Vikings in 2018?
While in Detroit, Jim Stapleton, a former Tigers executive, connected me with Kevin Warren, then a member of the Tigers general counsel. Fast forward in both of our careers, and during my time with the Atlanta Braves, we had a very famous situation where our general manager was banned for life. We were looking for a compliance attorney, and Kevin sent me some information. Then in the summer of 2018, I got a call that basically said Kevin wanted me to interview for the role of vice president of people and culture. I contacted Kevin directly asking if this was legit, and it was.
I'm originally from Michigan so coming back to the Midwest was intriguing. It was a competitive process, and Kevin and the organization saw enough in me to think that I could help as the organization becomes more sophisticated in having a mixed-use sister company, Viking Lakes, next door -- also owned by the Wilf family. It was an amazing opportunity that I felt like I couldn't pass up.
I feel like I'm the female Forrest Gump of the sports industry. I was there when we closed Tiger Stadium, which was iconic, and worked with some iconic sports figures. Same thing in Atlanta, where I got the opportunity to work with Hank Aaron. Then coming to Minnesota with this amazing ownership group and getting the opportunity to work with former Vikings COO Kevin Warren and now our current COO Andrew Miller. It's a really talented group that's here. It's kind of unheard of.
Wow, you've experienced and seen a lot over 20-plus years working in sports. Can you explain what your job entails and how it has expanded?
Human resources, like sports, has evolved. It used to be HR would handle just the payroll, benefits and things like that. It's evolved into now being a stronger business partner while still handling all those tactical pieces. Kevin Warren and the Wilf family wanted the culture to be stronger and were very intentional about the role's name. The role of chief people and culture officer is the evolution of the human resources function, so while those tactical pieces still exist, I've really seen us move into that diversity, equity and inclusion space.
The entire function of HR is to try to make people successful. I think it's an urban myth that the disciplinary action is to push someone out the door. There's a lot of at-will places around where you can just fire people, but the point of the investment in people and culture is the want to invest in people to help them be successful. The reality of nobody being perfect is why you make that investment.
Given our prominence in the sports industry, we're being asked to raise the bar. It's very natural to me to see that this function is really helping shape the day-to-day workflow for everyone in the front office.
That's interesting. I saw in your bio that you helped implement the Vikings' diversity and inclusion council. Can you walk me through that a bit?
Anne Doepner actually leads that for us and her position of director of inclusion and employee investment was created in September 2019. In January 2020, we created our diversity and inclusion council – it's now the diversity, equity and inclusion council. As everyone knows, in May of that year, the murder of George Floyd occurred in Minnesota. She knew that Floyd's murder was one of those call-to-action moments. Anne, the council and the team really stepped up in a space that had never existed before.
To value diversity is one thing, but to have access goes hand in hand whether we're looking at promotions or hiring new employees. We're very intentional now in the hiring process that someone from the DEI council is on the interview slate and they are titled that way, so the person interviewing knows we are being intentional about representation.
Being in Minneapolis, the Vikings were at the center of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer after George Floyd was murdered. I'm not sure how much you were involved in those conversations, but how did it make you feel to see the organization take action?
I won't take credit for anything the organization did during that time other than supporting Anne in her role. Looking back, and we have this conversation often, proud is an understatement of what happened after those events. There was an intentionality to be out front and specific about what values we have as an organization. There were some difficult conversations with some of our partners and fans that came with that. One of our strategic pillars is impact, so our players rallying and forming their own social justice committee in that window of time is truly historic to me. The aspect of the whole organization feeling the need to respond accordingly was – and still is even in hindsight -- dumbfounding to me. The way the group became cohesive quickly to help unpack everyone's feelings individually was really amazing.
Sports is partially known for rallying around those moments. It's not something you think about; you just act. Having our ownership's support and making sure it is emphasized over and over again that this is not acceptable and this is where we stand -- it's extremely important.
The challenge for us going forward is that we continue to uphold those values and have those difficult conversations with people, so they feel they are in a safe space. It's not just that moment in time that will be our legacy; it's going to be the ongoing future. We just had a meeting this morning about the slogan we've adopted: "Be the change." There's good evidence of it over and over. We have a so many platforms, including a series on mental health. It feels good to know the foundation is there for discussions on topics like social justice and mental health.
Is there any advice you have received that you would pass along to other females in the industry?
There are probably two things. One is about your legacy. Make sure you leave whatever space you're in better than when you found it. That's ongoing and, for me, started during my public accounting days. I interviewed with one of two female partners at the time and that was her line. The other one – and I'm not sure I can attribute it to anyone in particular – is know your value and be comfortable in your own skin. There is such focus for women to be perfect, and there's a feeling that not only do you have to be perfect but better because of all the men in the room. It's not supposed to be a competition. We as women put so much pressure on ourselves – especially in the sports industry where there's not equal representation – but knowing you're in a certain role for a reason and that your opinion counts is important. You have to find that comfort internally. Know your worth and take empowerment from yourself because you might not get it from other people. That's the shattered glass idea: Sometimes you have to crack it yourself.
What is next for you in terms of what you want to accomplish?
My role from a career perspective is exactly what I have always wanted -- to be at the top of my career pillar. Now, I want to create an environment that is cohesive and inclusive as we continue to build our culture. I want to continue the vision of our ownership, Kevin Warren, Andrew Miller and so many others down this DEI path. I want to have an HBCU exhibition game in Minnesota. That, to me, is really my calling right now. The power of our organization driving a diverse space despite everything that happened last year is huge, so the more we can align and work cohesively in the DEI space, that's when we will shine.
Lastly, what are you most proud of?
What I'm most proud of is knowing that people feel I have made an impact on them or helped make them successful. The fact that people reach out even years after I last worked with or talked to them and use me as that sounding board is what I'll always be most proud of.
The other part of this is I try to embody a courageous commitment that if there is a difficult conversation that needs to be had, I am going to have it. Nothing motivates me more than if someone tells me I can't do something. That's usually my call to action. Over time, I have just decided that this is my space and that I am supposed to facilitate tough conversations. The result of that is people have felt safe and comfortable and that they can turn to me for help. To me, that is the highest compliment anyone can ever have.