Dr. Robert Shorty has drawn inspiration from all of his experiences to become a leader at one of the world’s largest corporations. He is a director of Nike Inc.’s Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) team. Growing up on the west side of Chicago and was the first male in his family to complete college, he never imagined the position he would be in today.
“No matter where you start in your life, you can elevate yourself to your highest dreams,” said Shorty, a 2008 Illinois State alum. “Live your life by design and not default.”
Shorty started with Nike in 2019 supporting its North America Supply Chain as a Human Resource Business Partner. In this role, he led the organizational design for one of Nike’s newest distribution centers in North America called ADAPT. A state-of-the-art facility designed to create an environment where team members are empowered to be an active part of the work they do, which included the naming of the facility.
“We wanted to create this learning and innovation center where team members are empowered to do the work and think of better ways to do their work. It’s not perfect but it’s engaging and empowering in our workforce,” he said.
After the police murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests in 2020, large corporations took an active role in confronting systematic racism. Dr. Shorty said he saw a higher level of urgency through his work and is determined to keep it as a part of Nike’s core business strategy.
“We have to change making DEI an event. A lot of conversations in the space of DEI have been sparked by trauma or a crisis, and we must get out of that place,” Shorty said. “My role at Nike is to make sure that we keep that urgency, and we keep that flame over DEI strategy and all of the functions that I support so our efforts aren’t performative, but creating a strategy where diversity, equity, and inclusion is built into the fabric of everything we do.”
Shorty said what he loves about his role at Nike is impacting, influencing, and coaching leaders.
“I have this amazing opportunity where I get to support executives that lead global functions (Global Supply Chain & Sustainability) and ensure that Nike’s values, commitments, and DEI strategy show up in the work they do each and every day,” he said.
At ISU and beyond
It wasn’t an easy road to Nike for Shorty. He applied to Illinois State as a transfer student from Lincoln College a few times but was denied admission. He never gave up and eventually enrolled in summer courses, where he met then-sociology advisor Teri Farr ’93, M.S. ’95, who helped him enroll into the University officially.
Shorty joined the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in fall 2006 and later graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
“It taught me that you don’t give up. You don’t stop,” he said. “We all have situations and different things that disappoint us, or we don’t get, but we shouldn’t let that take us off course of what we want to achieve. I kept going. I’m grateful I went to summer school and met Teri Farr, and somehow made it into the school. And I’m a very proud alum of Illinois State.”
As a student, Shorty was employed as a social worker at The Baby Fold, a Central Illinois nonprofit dedicated to building positive futures for children and families through its programs and services. Aside from making an impact in the community, he was also the president of one of ISU’s first black, oldest, and largest RSOs—the Interdenominational Youth Choir.
“As I started that work and applied what I was learning in my sociology coursework, it became clear to me there are inequalities that exist in race, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds,” he said. “While working with my clients and seeing different levels of care, it opened up a sense of justice in me—that everyone should have the same opportunity and support, regardless of those factors.”
After graduation from Illinois State, Shorty went on to earn his master’s degree in human resource management at Keller Graduate School and his Ph.D. in organizational development at Benedictine University. He pursued a career in human resources, working at Target, McDonald’s, and Starbucks. Nike recruited Shorty in 2019 to work as a human resources business partner, before promoting him to his current role earlier this year.
Throughout his career, his main goal was to understand what everyone needed to help create a sense of unity by building teamwork and friendship, no matter what background they came from.
“We have to lean into the tough conversations, guiding leaders to think intimately about their role and making sure that everyone gets an opportunity, that’s how we drive the changes needed in the workplace. These are the conversations we need—those that make us uncomfortable, but sometimes those are the conversations that we have to have for us to achieve the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he said.
During his time at Illinois State, Shorty became close friends with Dr. Christa Platt, M.S. ’09, Ph.D. ’17, then a student and now the director of Illinois State’s Multicultural Center. Shorty supported her as she helped create the new Multicultural Center, and she counseled him as he ascended at Nike.
“We talked about him going after this new role at Nike and it being a part of his life’s work,” Platt said. “What does DEI work look like from a corporate standpoint? And not just talking about diversity but talking about the systems and structures that impact people who are most marginalized. I see his work elevating that message. It’s a part of who he is.”
Shorty had a message for Redbirds: “If you understand what you’re passionate about and if you find a connection in your school life connected to that passion, everything else that you’re looking for will come,” he said. “It requires vulnerability, the ability to present and requires the ability to take a step back for yourself. I would encourage every Redbird to take that time, make that space to be vulnerable, and understand yourself. Understand who you are as a person, what makes you passionate, and look at the lens of your education, work, and community and see how it ties into that work. It’s super helpful and I wish I had known that as a young student at ISU.”
Shorty also reflected on Black graduate student Jelani Day, whose death is currently under police investigation and whose life was commemorated at a ceremony on campus this semester.
“I want to take a moment to honor Jelani Day’s life and proximity to this interview. I want to offer condolences to his family and share my broken heart for another Redbird gone too soon,” he said.