terry roberts large

Pursuing his passion, making a difference

By Pamela Edward

Pursuing his passion, making a difference

By Pamela Edward
As VP for employment law and chief inclusion and diversity officer for American Eagle Outfitters, Terry Roberts, B.A. ’00, has helped steer the company through “a tidal wave” of change over the past two years. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

When Terry Roberts arrived at the University of Miami from Pittsburgh for his freshman year, he quickly realized that Miami was different from his hometown in ways that would prove beneficial to him and his future.

“[Coming to Miami] was a huge cultural change, and it gave me a much broader and more diversified view of the world,” he said. “Culturally, [Miami] is a unique place, and I think if you embrace that, it allows you to gain a lot of skills to respond to the world in a way that’s going to be very helpful to you moving forward.  It gave me a great foundation to build [a career] on.”

That career has been remarkable in its trajectory and in the ways Roberts’ own embrace of diversity has opened doors to new challenges and opportunities.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in political science at the U—including a semester studying Scottish history and literature at the University of Edinburgh—Roberts attended law school. A summer internship allowed him the opportunity to explore employment law, a path he would ultimately pursue as a career. “There was something new and interesting every day—you never get into a rut,” he said.

After law school, he built a career, counseling clients on a wide range of legal and compliance matters and helping them navigate difficult workplace challenges. He joined American Eagle Outfitters, Inc., a leading lifestyle, clothing, and accessories retailer, in 2016 as director and assistant general counsel.

By 2020 Roberts had been promoted to vice president for employment law and acquired a second major job—chief inclusion and diversity officer responsible for developing and articulating inclusion and diversity strategy across the entire enterprise.

It’s a role that emerged and grew organically from his belief that he could make a difference in an area he is passionate about. “I had built up a lot of credibility in the organization,” Roberts said, recalling about how he got into the inclusion and diversity work at American Eagle. “I have great relationships with people who trust me, and I have a level of influence. Ultimately, if I think I can make a positive difference and do something that’s going to help people and the company, who am I to just sit on the sidelines?”

That same year—2020—brought unprecedented upheaval to American society and workplaces in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread anger and protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. There was, as Roberts put it, “just a tidal wave of crises and change.”

“In 2019, who would think the world would change [so much],” he said. “I just think about the last couple of years, dealing with everything involving the pandemic, which takes up a large part of my time with respect to my legal work, and also the impacts of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement with respect to the inclusion and diversity work. Trying to navigate a company through this is massively difficult and it really takes [strong] leadership to give people hope through all the struggle, change, and uncertainty.”

For Roberts, the success of inclusion and diversity strategies depends on clear and open lines of communication. “People want to know what’s going on and it’s always a work in progress,” he said. “In a way, I don’t think you can ever communicate well enough—we communicate too much for some people, [others] think you don’t communicate enough. It comes down to how you can build more and more trust with people. You want to bring them along on the journey and you’re trying to accomplish that with communication.”

Roberts is also candid about the challenges inherent in inclusion and diversity work. “People are very passionate and have a lot of different views, many of which are in conflict,” he said. “Part of my job is to navigate this and to let people know that it’s okay to disagree. You might not all be in the same lanes, and you might believe there are different vehicles you can take to get to the destination, but can we at least agree that we’re moving in a certain direction?”

For Roberts, the rewards of his work are well worth the often-intense efforts. “For me, there are two types of reward. When you talk about the legal work, the most rewarding is that I get to deal with very difficult questions and problems and help people navigate those. I love that challenge; I love being a problem-solver.

“In the inclusion/diversity space, that [the problem-solving element] is there, but also there are times when you can have conversations with people and take actions that impact people on a personal level, when you can see somebody start to evolve, and see things in a different way. And that’s a very rewarding thing.” For Roberts, this ties into a larger theme of pursuing what he’s passionate about—helping people, solving problems, transforming lives—and why that’s vital for career happiness.

“People [tend to] do what others expect of them, what the world expects, or what their friends expect,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’re not going to be happy unless you’re doing something that is internally [right] for you—something that if you could tell nobody in the world what you do, you would still be happy doing it.”