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Home » Discover Rackham » Alumni Spotlight: Juliette Okotie-Eboh

When you look around Juliette’s office, you see walls adorned with signed posters from the Detroit Jazz Festival, framed articles on Juliette from local publications, and inspiring artwork from local artists, all representing the deep level of engagement she has with the city and how much she loves it. They embody the work she does as the Senior Vice President of Public Affairs for MGM Grand Detroit. She says, “I am very front-facing; I deal with the public constantly and that makes this a very fun job. I get to do so much, meet so many people, and be involved in so many exciting projects.”

In one of those projects, Juliette and close to fifty MGM employees recently spent the day at Burton Elementary School in Detroit. It was count day in the city, a day where many resources are expended to encourage students to come to school to be counted to maximize school funding. “Our chefs prepared a fabulous meal for the entire school, and we have gift cards, games, and backpacks for students and parents. We gave out coats, hats, and gloves for the students. This is what we enjoy the most: having a direct impact on people’s lives,” she says.

Some of those projects blend into her personal investment to serve as a mentor to others. She explains, “My passion is moving people forward in their careers and helping others reach their life goals. I always feel humbled when I have the opportunity to interact with colleagues who face the front line every day delivering services. I have a lot of interaction with them because I do so much outreach in the community – and I always have an overwhelming response from employees to participate in our outreach programs. This is a high pressure work environment, and it is amazing to me to see how much our employees care about the community and how willing they are to volunteer and give back.”

Juliette’s commitment to her employees runs deep. She says, “I have about 20+ mentees on this property right now and I really enjoy working with them, seeing them grow and figure out some of their life’s path.” She has institutionalized some of her mentorship, running a workshop with team members called ‘10 Things I Know’ to illustrate her career path and advice to others. She describes, “The idea is that we need to step outside of ourselves and not take things so seriously. You will be derailed at some point and need to figure out how to get back on track. This takes a sense of humor and some humbleness. This program has taken on a life of its own with line staff and management.”

’10 Things I Know’ has indeed taken off in other ways: it will soon be released as a book. Juliette reflects on investing in the people and places around her in a broader sense as well. She says, “At this point, I look at what legacy I want to leave. Through MGM it is easy for me to be supportive of people in a lot of different areas that are important to the larger community. Through my role here, I fund nonprofits, and personally, I do the same. There are things I can look at and think I’ve had an impact on something or some issue in the community. I want to move the needle.” Juliette serves on around 15 civic and community boards and for five years served as the vice chair of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority that managed the $350 million makeover to Cobo Hall. “This brought my urban planning background back into motion, but through a more strategic planning, implementation, and leadership direction.”

Her resume is impressive and showcases a career path that sets a wonderful example for doctoral recipients who eschew the academic track. Juliette worked in urban and regional planning for almost 20 years, including developing towns in Nigeria and acting as the Chief of Resources in the Detroit Planning Department. She explains, “I’ve had a long career, and I love that I was a part of the age where the whole paradigm shifted. I’m watching many of my peers who got into big companies and worked there for 30 plus years; that’s unheard of now. My generation was the last of that. I realize that I wasn’t going to be able to successfully retire from the city as I thought I might. I loved the work but the pay wasn’t competitive.”

Knowing she wanted to make a change in her career, she spent a couple of years planning how to do just that: “I was in my mid 40s and I bought all the popular books like Who Moved My Cheese and really thought about what I was going to do. I started thinking about how I could take my planning skills and academic training and bundle my entire education for use in the corporate arena. After two years of planning, I was able to make that transition. I made that mental shift, and it opened a new path. Since then, I have worked in non-profit and for profit, bank, gaming, medicine, and diversity initiatives.”

At the core of her work still lies her experience in urban planning: “My background in planning and research definitely comes to play in the gaming industry. Planning helps you look at a problem and take it apart and helps you decide how to approach it. I’m indebted to U-M. Without this education I have, I wouldn’t have been able to have this successful career.”

When asked about her experience as a grad student at Michigan, Juliette replies, “I loved it. I really enjoyed research. It was a good time, there are those windows of opportunity and if you take advantage of them, they work. My parents paid for my undergraduate expenses, and I applied directly to grad school. It was a time when there were opportunities out there for minority student funding. That got me into the University of Pennsylvania for my Master’s, and then I applied to U-M for the doctorate program. I went from high school all the way through my Ph.D. I felt privileged to do that. I made a lot of sacrifices in other areas of my life. The whole idea of learning was ingrained in my family and our history. My parents enjoyed the fact that I could pursue an education. It all worked out perfectly.”

On campus, she says, “What I liked most about U-M was the library. What a solace it was to go to parts of the stacks and be able to enjoy so much of the library. It was a gift to be in that environment where I could have the leisure and time to focus on working through issues of the day.”

Reflecting on her graduate career, Juliette encourages current graduate students to diligently plan their time. “A member of my dissertation committee gave me a great piece of advice when I first achieved candidacy. He told me the only way you’re going to get through your dissertation is to set aside a specific time frame every day and put in three hours of writing at least. Just keep moving, put in your three hours a day, even if you don’t have anything to say or write or don’t feel inspired, work on your bibliography or footnotes, but just sit there. You have to sit there for three hours. I took his advice. It’s all about discipline,” she recalls.

And her dissertation needed that discipline. Juliette was working full time in the planning department in Detroit and a year had passed and she hadn’t started her dissertation. Prodded by encouraging faculty, she buckled down and got busy, fitting in her three hours a day around her busy work schedule.

Her interest in urban planning started with a bus ride. With an undergraduate degree in Sociology, Juliette had always been interested in people, how they move around in space and geography, and how people’s behavior is affected by the built environment. This was deep seated in her childhood experiences. She recalls riding the public bus as a child in Detroit, going by the Art Institute, the DIA, the public library, and magnificent buildings on Woodward, but she remembers the opposite end of the spectrum as well, often just a block or two apart. She recalls, “Some were so strong, clean, crisp, and looked like things were happening, but in other parts you could see the built environment soften. In midtown, I would see differences from one block to the next and wonder what is going on that some areas look so good and some look so challenged. I pondered that as a child and always have.”

Juliette returned to Rackham and got involved in meeting students and financially contributing to graduate education after she connected with Rackham’s current mission. She explains, “A few years ago, I got an invitation from Rackham to hear the Distinguished Dissertation Awards. When I came to Rackham, saw students, listened to their dissertation topics, heard from the dissertation advisors, and learned about their research, it reminded me of how important Rackham had been in my life. Back in my day Rackham was a place you went to have your pages measured; it was more of an academic administrative building, not so much the gathering place for students that it is today. We went to Rackham for a particular purpose, not for events like that. It really is a pretty building and was very quiet, so to see Rackham in this new light playing this role with the students was exciting to me and I wanted to be a part of it. Rackham has life in it. Now it is a center, a beehive of activity that supports students in fantastic ways.”

That is high praise from someone who sets a stellar example of how to support others through her own work at MGM, her mentorship, her civic service and her leadership.