Alumni Spotlight: From Nike to Taco Bell CEO

Sean Tresvant, '98 MBA, discusses his career and Albers connection as the guest of the Albers Executive Speaker Series.

Sean Tresvant thought he was destined for ESPN, but after finding a new path aided by earning an MBA, he went on to lead Nike’s Air Jordan division and now Taco Bell.

Years before Sean Tresvant, ’98 MBA, became the first Black CEO of Taco Bell—a job he began at the start of the year—and long before his 16 years as the chief marketing officer for Nike’s flagship Jordan brand, he found himself dusting bottles in a QFC grocery store as a wine marketer.

It was far from the place he wanted to be.

The paths Tresvant had traveled always led to high levels of success. After growing up in Kirkland, Wash., he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communications from Washington State University while playing for its men’s basketball team.

Sean in classroom marketing Albers
Sean Tresvant addressing an Albers marketing class during his visit.

“And I was thinking to myself, ‘I got a master's degree, I thought I was big man on campus and I'm here dusting wine,’” Tresvant recalled to a group of current Albers marketing students before appearing that evening as the guest of the Albers Executive Speaker Series on Feb. 8.  “Another life lesson is nothing’s too big, nothing’s too small.”Knowing he didn’t have the height of his father—the legendary Seattle University basketball star John Tresvant, ‘64—he wouldn’t likely follow his dad’s footsteps to the NBA.

Instead, he saw himself as a sportscaster on ESPN in the mold of the late Stuart Scott. Even with Tresvant’s experience in college hoops and advanced degrees in broadcasting, he felt humbled when he came back home to Seattle and there wasn’t a line at his door to offer him a job in front of a camera.

And so here he was, going about his business in the QFC, tidying up the shelves, when Tresvant noticed somebody watching him. After a while the person approached.

“Do you like your job?” the man asked.

“Actually, I do like my job,” Tresvant recalled.

“You like your job? It's the holiday season and it’s eight o’clock at night and you’re back and forth from the stockroom, dusting shelves.”

“It’s an important time of the season,” Tresvant responded. “It’s really important that people who love this brand have their wine available.”

The man handed Tresvant his business card. “Well, if you ever don’t like your job, I work for Campbell Soup and I really love your work ethic.”

Tresvant marks that moment as when his life shifted. After the holidays he called the number on the card and switched jobs, a move that illuminated a new path and a new goal to become a brand marketeer. But first, he had to go back to school.

“So, I made a tough decision to come to this wonderful institution and get my MBA. It’s probably one of the best decisions I made,” Tresvant said. “And I would tell you it unlocked a lot of stuff for me.”

In introducing Tresvant to the students, Albers Dean Joseph M. Phillips, PhD, noted that Tresvant had sat in the same classroom as the students.

“We’re lucky to get him,” Phillips said of Tresvant’s homecoming to campus.

After earning his MBA, Tresvant moved to New York City, went on to work for Pepsi, Sports Illustrated and then back to the Pacific Northwest to take a position with Nike, which had him working directly with his childhood idol, Michael Jordan.

“I got my MBA from Seattle University, but I got a PhD from Nike. It is the best of the best.”

As he grew as a professional, he was also growing as a person, sharing with SU students that authenticity was essential to his success.

“I'm unapologetic about it—I'm going to be me,” he said. “Just because you go up in rank or title, you shouldn’t change who you are.”

Tresvant said the decision to leave Nike and seek a new challenge came after realizing it was time to move on.

“People I grew up with were leaving and I’m one who likes to sprint and not jog,” Tresvant said. “And at Nike, I just felt like I started to jog. I just felt like I was plateauing.”

One day he picked up the phone and it was Taco Bell calling, asking him to consider coming to work for them. He started in 2022 working directly under the former CEO and then took over.

“I haven’t looked back one day,” he said.

Tresvant fielded questions from students about the CEO recruitment process and the importance of mentor relationships, but they also made sure to quiz him on the story behind collaborating with rapper and singer Doja Cat to bring back the Mexican Pizza and the perks of leading such globally recognized brands.

How many pairs of shoes does he have? Answer: 502.

“I love sneakers. Before Nike, after Nike, it was a thing, but closet space gets hard.”

What’s his order at Taco Bell? Answer: Two Crunchy Taco Supremes, a bean burrito and a Baja Blast.

“Every time,” he said. “A little boring, but that’s my go-to.”

Enjoy this story? Check out more like this in the winter edition of Seattle University Magazine out soon!

Written by Andrew Binion

Tuesday, February 27, 2024