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Profiles in Diversity: Jamal Gay

February 27, 2024

Get to Know Noodle Senior Vice President, University Partnerships, Jamal Gay

“…crafting holistic solutions requires engaging leaders equipped with the soft skills, experience, and perspective to meticulously analyze and resolve multifaceted issues.”

Jamal Gay is Noodle’s Senior Vice President of University Partnerships. Born and raised under the endless blue skies and palm trees of diverse Los Angeles CA, he received his education at San Diego State University and California State University-Los Angeles. Jamal shares he feels he was a ‘late bloomer’ academically having trouble navigating large, public institutions at first. It wasn’t until he built relationships with faculty, staff and his peers did he see his academic career bloom. He shares his experiences in undergrad have carried him throughout his career. He consistently finds ways to level up and improve outcomes through grit, desire, and sheer determination to excel at every level and in any context. 

What elements or traits does a great leader exhibit?

In my personal and professional experience, exceptional leaders across diverse industries often share a set of core characteristics. They possess both high IQ and EQ— showcasing the ability to connect with, inspire, and unite diverse groups around a core ethos and shared identity. A great leader also is able to set clear expectations and goals.

Great leaders also share a healthy obsession with the customer experience, understanding that the way we make customers feel is just as important as what we sell and how we sell it. To that point, a favorite analogy of our CEO John Katzman when describing why it’s important for universities to move to an agile model is that, “Home Depot doesn’t care where you buy your hammer.” He’s absolutely right. However,   Home Depot does care deeply about the experience you have— whether online or in-store. Recognizing that your impression you make—good, bad, or indifferent—will be the key driver in your decision to make a purchase and become a return customer. 

Finally, I’ve found a great deal of satisfaction working with leaders that understand that good ideas don’t begin and end at the top of the organizational chart. They place great value on creating space for leaders throughout the organization. This adds value and allows the organization to be more effective. 

When you think of great leadership, who comes to mind? Why?

Before stepping into the EdTech realm, my days were filled with producing original marketing materials for the high-octane world of motorsports. This role not only tested my creative and logistical prowess, but also granted me access to iconic places, including the revered alleyways of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. During my visits to the Penske Racing headquarters in Mooresville, NC, I found myself in the presence of Roger Penske, widely known in the motorsports universe as “The Captain.” Roger—sometimes referred to as “RP”-–commanded a subtle yet profound respect from the multitude of employees across his extensive array of companies. Many of these individuals had dedicated significant portions of their careers working alongside him. In private conversations and on-camera interviews, a common sentiment was shared: “Roger wouldn’t ask me to do anything he isn’t willing to do himself.”

This deep sense of appreciation, respect and reverence was present through the entire organization. Whether it was the drivers pushing their bodies to the limits on the track or the janitorial staff keeping the colossal workshop absolutely spotless—the sentiment remained unchanged. Every individual was fully committed to the mission and  understood the significance of their role in bringing championships home for The Captain. This experience served as a profound lesson in leadership for me—a lesson that will resonate with me throughout the rest of my career.

How has your personal leadership style evolved? 

At the tender age of 19, I was offered my first taste of leadership when tasked with overseeing a YMCA Summer Fun camp comprising over 100 children spanning various age groups. The opportunity arose unexpectedly when the original camp leader departed midway through the summer, prompting “the Y” leadership to select me as his successor to lead my peers. 

Approaching the role with naïveté but unwavering determination, my focus was simple— ensure the safety and well-being of each and every child under my care. Equipped with a skypager—feel free to Google that if you’ve never seen one—I made myself readily available to the staff, learned how to make judgment calls in the field and above all—how to account for the welfare of our young campers. This experience laid the raw foundations upon which I would build my leadership journey—propelling me into subsequent roles of increasing responsibility early in my career.

Fast forward to the present day. My leadership style has undergone a significant evolution. I have refined professional standards and skills that have been honed through navigating many rooms with many different personalities! 

What is it about your background or career experiences that successfully positioned you for your role at Noodle? Describe that role.

I’ve been on my Ed-Tech journey since 2010. I’ve accumulated approximately 14 years of hard-won experience. Throughout this time, I’ve held a wide range of leadership positions across Learning, Operations, and Sales—each with increasing levels of responsibility, accountability, and a few more gray hairs. 

To contextualize this a bit, the challenges encountered by both our current and prospective partners often involve interconnected dynamics that span across various functional domains. From sales and marketing to technology and retention, these challenges exhibit what our friends in the Social Work field would term as “co-occurring” concerns. If you were to peel back the layers of each role I’ve served in over this period, you’d find a wealth of exposure and engagement to numerous types of institutions, programs and people.

How do you support the success of your team?

The many different initiatives, challenges and opportunities I’ve addressed have shaped my approach to solving problems our prospective clients are facing in today’s complex environment with my team. These interconnected issues often mask one another. So crafting holistic solutions requires engaging leaders equipped with the soft skills, experience, and perspective to meticulously analyze and resolve multifaceted issues. 

Describe how your career has been enhanced by exposure to diverse people, places or experiences.

Reflecting on my early years with this question, I immediately think of my mother who  is a retired Nurse Practitioner. She made a forward-thinking decision to enroll my brother and me in an elementary school in a beach community which required a cross-town bus journey each day. From there on,  I was immersed in settings overflowing with various cultures, supplementing the rich black and brown experience I had closer to home. From attending summer camps at USC and UCLA— pursuing education at some of California’s most diverse campuses,  traveling internationally, and navigating diverse industries in my career—these multifaceted experiences have undeniably shaped and defined who I am today. 

What are some of the most effective tools in your leadership arsenal?

In the dynamic landscape of my professional journey, three indispensable tools have emerged as the linchpins of my success:

Active Listening and Reflection— It’s more than just hearing; it’s about immersing myself in the narrative woven by others so I’m able to appreciate nuance and different perspectives. This not only enhances my understanding of diverse viewpoints, but also lays the foundation for informed decision-making.

Clear Communication: Whether translating complex ideas into written form or confidently articulating them with precision, this skill is an absolute must. The ability to clearly and effectively articulate a given position has proven instrumental in my career, enabling me to inspire confidence among stakeholders while guiding discussions in such a way that fosters a shared understanding. 

Empathy and Sound Judgment: The dynamic duo of empathy and sound judgment forms the beating heart of my leadership approach. Empathy connects me to the underlying social and emotional landscape of stakeholders. Fostering a deeper understanding of the “why” behind an initiative or perspective. Paired with judicious decision-making–it ensures that choices align harmoniously with personal, professional and organizational goals—which are never far apart from one another. 

Please tell us something about yourself that people would be surprised to learn.

Not surprisingly, given my SoCal roots, during high school and college, I had the opportunity to work as a background actor on various sitcoms, specials, and even a few feature films. If you squint your eyes and carefully examine early episodes of shows like Moesha, The Steve Harvey Show, or Robert Townsend’s B.A.P.S, starring Halle Berry (yes, I met her), you’ll spot me in the background. It was a thrilling and educational chapter, and a great way to pay for books!

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