NYU Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Sabrina Ellis is a triple alumna of the NYU School of Professional Studies (NYU SPS): She earned an associate’s degree in 2001, a BA in Information Systems in 2006, and an MS in Human Resources Management and Development in 2008. At NYU, she is responsible for global compensation, global benefits, employee and labor relations, employee learning, talent acquisition, and other programs and services fundamental to attracting and retaining more than 26,000 employees globally.
Prior to joining NYU in 2016, she was vice president of human resources at George Washington University and assistant vice president of HR at the City College of New York (CUNY). She previously served at NYU from 1998 to 2007 as human resources officer for University Relations and Public Affairs.
In recognition of her outstanding career and service to her alma mater, NYU SPS will honor Ellis at the upcoming December Graduation Ceremony on December 11 with the 2022 SPS Distinguished Alumni Award, which is given to a respected graduate who has demonstrated extraordinary achievement in professional, vocational, and social endeavors.
In addition to her professional responsibilities, Ellis is a mother and stepmother to four children ranging in age from 2 to 22. She recently ran and completed the New York City Marathon for the first time. She will step down from NYU on January 6, 2023 to become the chief people officer for the National Basketball Association.
Ellis spoke with us about her background, how she came to NYU SPS, and her HR leadership through the pandemic.
Tell us about your background and why you came to NYU SPS.
I grew up in the Midwest and relocated to NYC in the late 1990s. Before I made that move, I worked for a pharmaceutical company outside of Chicago and attended a community college at night. I discovered the joy and reward of being a nontraditional student. When I moved to New York, I wanted to pursue a degree track in information systems, and I wanted a flexible program that would allow me to work full-time and pursue coursework at night and on weekends. I applied to and was ultimately accepted into NYU SPS. I absolutely loved the experience.
What was your experience like at NYU SPS?
I can honestly say that NYU SPS trained me for life beyond NYU. The program had full- and part-time students. Some of the students were entrepreneurs who needed a flexible program like me. My first-year cohorts included the founders of one of the first instant-messaging platforms. There was also a mix of full-time and part-time faculty, some of whom were prize-winning writers and scholars; several were C-Suite executives in Fortune 500 Companies. There was a mix of individual and group coursework. The latter equipped us to work together in moving a set of ideas forward, each of us had an equal voice, and we had to negotiate outcomes. To this day, I rely on those skills when I work on projects with my peers. The learning environment was caring, but the faculty did not let us slide. They critiqued us. They made sure we understood that critique was essential to growth and development.
Do you have a favorite memory of your time at SPS?
I had been struggling with one particular course, and I remember getting a grade that didn’t meet my expectation. I was devastated. I called home in tears and shared my struggle with my mother. She listened and then recommended getting a good night's sleep before researching resources that could help me with the subject matter. I found a tutor who was much younger than me and a complete whiz. I would meet with my tutor two or three times a week until I mastered the material. In the end, I received a very high grade in the class. It was a teachable moment about not giving up, having a good support system, and being open to learning from others who may be younger than you.
What led to your interest in the field of human resources?
I grew up with a fascination of computers and anything computing related. My father worked for an electrical engineering company, and we always had electrical components around the house. It had been my goal to pursue a tech-based career, either coding or systems-related, but I am also a people person. I quickly learned that while computing is interesting and certainly enables a great deal of what we can do, I enjoy the work of being more closely connected with people. As time went on, I discovered that I could pursue both. This is how my journey into HR began.
What is the role of HR in an organization?
The goal of good HR is to help advance an organization, but it really is to recruit and retain talent. People are not just looking for a job, they’re looking for an experience. They want to work for an organization that is invested in them. I am a huge fan of data and metrics and measuring the things that people consider to be important. Employees want more autonomy, but they also want more resources and tools they can tap into to help them do their jobs. That’s where the role of data becomes critical in decision-making and solving organizational problems. Anyone working with me knows that I always extract, review, or analyze data. When people think about human resources as a function, they often don’t think about the large amounts of data that HR departments gather and maintain. Data has always been a huge factor in how I approach organizational challenges and in measuring success. But it’s always crucial to remember that connecting with people is the key. Data analytics can help to enable that connection in amazing ways.
What has been your experience leading during the pandemic?
The pandemic caught us all by surprise, but NYU was well-equipped to manage through it. We have an incredibly capable leadership team, and everyone rolled up their sleeves. It helped that our internal IT teams had already started implementing Zoom two years before the pandemic hit. Given our size and global footprint, many of our administrative teams had been accustomed to working in a hybrid format. On the people side, we had several challenges, the most difficult was the loss of beloved members of our community. The bright spot in it all has been the way in which our community pulled together to support one another. This continues to be a defining and enduring strength of NYU.
In the midst of embracing more flexible and agile operations, we negotiated new collective bargaining agreements for our graduate students and our public safety officers. We dedicated resources to launching an office for employee experience. As we returned from the pandemic, employee engagement became our focus, as we tried to make the workplace feel less empty. We’re still working on that.
How do you feel being honored with the 2022 SPS Distinguished Alumni Award?
It was a surreal moment when I was contacted. I sat back and said to my husband, “Wow! This is a big deal and a huge honor.” I’m so incredibly proud to be an SPS alum. There are so many people who have helped me over the years––my parents, my family, my husband, friends, and colleagues. I share this with all of them.
What advice would you give to current and prospective SPS students?
Believe that you can do whatever you set your mind to. Surround yourself with supportive people. Learning can, at times, require discomfort. Push through it. Don’t make assumptions on who you can learn from.
What are your hopes for the future?
As a professional, my focus and hope are to continue to use the field of HR to positively impact the lives of others. As a mom, I hope to use all the lessons I’ve learned at work and home to equip my children to have faith, be good people, set goals, and work hard.