Traci Hughes '85

Being “the change she wants to see” moves global HR leader Traci Hughes ’85 forward—and inspires the life’s work she began at IC.   

Traci Hughes

For global human resources leader Traci Hughes ’85, driving transformational change in the business world comes down to staying curious and keeping a solution-focused mindset. 

“I say you meet people where they are. Curiosity is always a good partner to learning someone’s story,” said Traci, who turned her innate curiosity into an edge as an IC student—and a superpower in her career. Traci has led teams at Colgate-Palmolive, Kraft General Foods, American Express, and now, as senior vice president and head of global people success services for software giant SAP.    

In all of her work, Traci doesn’t like to let notions of “perfection” get in the way of making things better. “I’m not a person to ‘admire a problem from afar.’ Once I’ve assessed that we’ve got a problem, our next step is to get closer. Let’s talk to people. Let’s hear what we can learn,” noted Traci about her problem-solving style. “You can expect that I’m going to ask you this question as soon as you’re done highlighting a problem: OK, now what are your proposed solutions?”  

The View from Route 96B

Traci first saw Ithaca College on a beautiful summer day when she arrived for orientation. “I remember cresting the hill and coming down 96B,” said Traci of the road that led her to the campus entrance. “I saw the lake, and I thought, Wow, this place is beautiful. I think this is going to be an adventure. It’s just so breathtakingly amazing.”    

On a mission to learn and grow, Traci began her academic path as a wide-eyed accounting major who loved numbers. But after a class in Intermediate Accounting, she wasn’t sure she wanted that path as much as she had initially thought. David Long, dean of the business school at the time, urged Traci to keep taking classes in the business school. Then, she took Labor Relations, which shifted her path entirely. 

“It’s Professor Markowitz’s fault I’m in HR!” laughed Traci. Professor Jim Markowitz, who taught Labor Relations, was “hardcore in a funny way, passionate and persistent,” according to Traci, and required students to work in teams to negotiate successful outcomes. If all parties weren’t mutually satisfied with the final outcome, all of the students risked a failing grade. “At first, I thought, Wait...what? Can he really do that?” said Traci. “But there is a lot to be said for truly hearing what the other person needs. Even if you can’t give them 100% of what they are asking for, that someone in any negotiation can find a win for themselves is critical.” The class was an eye-opener for Traci. 

Throughout her four years as an undergraduate on campus, Traci found herself gravitating to her two favorite spots—the library, which she says spoke to her in a “nerdy way,” and what was then called the Afro-Latin Society Room (now the African-Latino Society Room) located in the West Tower.  

“[The ALS Room] was a well-known home away from home for students of color,” said Traci, who, inspired by the leadership of Nelson Mandela, was a spokesperson for the Afro-Latin Society for two years and helped organize protests against apartheid while at IC. “It was a space that I felt very known and appreciated in—and where I didn’t feel like a student of color in a predominantly white institution. It was a really special place for me and many others.” 

“I say you meet people where they are. Curiosity is always a good partner to learning someone’s story."

The Nucleus of Leadership   

Traci naturally gravitated toward leadership roles—as a peer advisor at IC during the school year, as a counselor (and then a counselor to counselors) with Upward Bound at SUNY Binghamton during the summers, and as a leader the summer after she graduated as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Program at IC. 

“I learned to elevate asking questions, interacting with administration and officials, and getting the space to bring student issues forward. For me, that was the nucleus of leadership,” noted Traci.  

Since July 2021, she has served on the IC Board of Trustees, which she considers a “full-circle moment”—a time when she can contribute her talents to the place where she found her path, met her husband, and made so many discoveries.  

An advocate for the college as well as the needs of students, Traci is practical: “I get a chance to cross that hill, and come down 96B, and feel that feeling all over again. And that is magical. Do we have a lot of work to do? Absolutely. Is it perfect? No. We don’t chase perfection. That said, I’m so grateful to be able to lend my voice to this work—to making Ithaca College a place where students can come and learn to forge their own path in the world.”


A collection of introductions to the Ithaca College story—about those who continue to write it.
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