Social Impact Heroes: How Alexandra “Lex” Chalat is using youth sports to create a positive social…

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Social Impact Heroes: How Alexandra “Lex” Chalat is using youth sports to create a positive social impact

We work with youth across a variety of programs including an annual young leaders program with Michael Johnson and a courageous young person’s program with WWE. Today’s youth inspires me for the future. They are questioning the status quo, demanding that the businesses they support benefit society and pushing for change and new ways of thinking across a wide range of social issues — the climate crisis, inequality, poverty, diversity and inclusion — you name it.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra “Lex” Chalat, a leading visionary and academic on the subject of unique catalysts for social change

Alexandra has collaborated on social-change projects with a diverse range of organizations. A former World Economic Forum Global Shaper, she is the Managing Director of Beyond Sport, which convenes, funds and supports organizations using sport as a tool for social change. After joining in 2008, Lex helped the organization grow while also co-founding thinkBeyond, a sister advisory firm that provides strategies for brands, sports teams, leagues, right holders, talent and governments to use sport to positively connect with their communities and consumers. .

Lex has curated gatherings in cities around the world for thousands of people, where high-level experts in politics, tech, innovation, shared-value and ethics speak, engage and debate on sport’s role in hard-hitting issues like the refugee crisis, youth gun crime and religious and ethnic divides. She’s spearheaded projects that have included developing ESPN’s international community engagement approach in South America and India, creating Legal & General’s mental health and sport campaign, implementing approaches NGOs can use to educate young people in ISIS affected territories using soccer, activating the International Olympic Committee’s Sport for All policies, and finding new ways BT Sport can engage younger, socially conscious fans. She’s developed global CSR and sport strategies for brand giants like SAP and Virgin Sport, and helped advise influential entities from the Holy See to the World Economic Forum to the US State Department. Lex has also oversaw partnerships with organizations like TIME Magazine, Barclays, Chevron, MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS, NASCAR, the Premier League and Premiership Rugby; and has worked with influencers like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, David Beckham, Muhammad Ali, Tony Blair, Michael Johnson, Michelle Kwan and Julie Foudy.

She sits on various advisory boards including the Women’s Sport Network, the UJA Federation, and The Cup Effect and was named ‘Influential Businesswoman of the Year in Social Impact’ by Acquisition International in 2017; Shortlisted for the Women of the Future Awards in 2013; and one of the ’10 Next to Watch in Sport to Under 30’ in 2012 by SportsPro Magazine. She has appeared on BBC’s 5Live Radio and Sky News and has published pieces in The New Yorker, the Junket Quarterly, Huffington Post, Art in London Magazine and Art Review Magazine.

Lex is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and completed her MSc in Media and Communications at the London School of Economics (LSE).

Thank you so much for joining us Lex! Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to this career path?

Sport has always been a part of my life. I was a serious gymnast for nearly 20 years which largely shaped who I am today, solidifying my values and guiding how I approach life. After graduating from college with degrees in English and Art History, I got a job as Managing Editor of a community newspaper in Southwest Philadelphia that was set up as a social enterprise. Owned by the local Community Development Council, it only printed positive and educational community news — about local heroes, available public resources, food, where courses could be taken, etc. For an area that was usually only featured in news for its daily murder rate, this was a refreshing approach. What I saw during my two-year stint there — and in the two years following where I wrote and edited for other papers in Philly and NYC — was that in the most devastated parts of cities, where even law enforcement and social services couldn’t go, the people who were making a difference and creating long-term sustainable positive change were those who were using sport. Whether it was a coach or someone who insisted on keeping the rec center open until midnight, it was through sport, and often art (I had originally envisioned a career as an art critic) where the change was happening. After writing about people making a difference in communities for nearly five years, I decided I wanted to move from writing about it to being a part of the change. But I realized that to do this, I needed to learn more.

My particular interest was in how communities could be changed through unique catalysts and so I sought out a program that would let me immerse myself in the subject. I packed all my stuff into storage with my aunt in Long Island and left for The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) to study media and communications for what I thought would be nine months.

I did my dissertation on the socio-economic impact of art and sport on urban environments and right around when I was finishing it, I read about a new company — Beyond Sport — being formed by entrepreneur Nick Keller, with a vision to use sport as a tool for social change. I knew immediately that I wanted to be a part of the company. The funny thing is, when I first applied for the job, I didn’t get it! But I didn’t stop calling until they finally gave in, bringing me on as an intern. I worked my way up to my current positions of Managing Director of Beyond Sport and our consultancy arm thinkBeyond. Ultimately, my nine-month stint became 10 years of living and working in London with intermittent periods of time living in Chicago, New York, Cape Town and Philadelphia to drive forward various initiatives and partnerships. But in 2017, I moved back to the States full time to lead the New York office since we were doing so much work here.

Overall, these past 11 years have been quite a journey and I’ve had the opportunity to work, learn from and develop projects with some of the world’s most innovative thinkers and doers in the space: development organizations like Hodi Kenya using soccer to address FGM and gender equality; individuals like purpose-driven athlete turned businessman Michael Johnson who is providing extraordinary young people who have overcome adversity with the tools they need to become strong community leaders; and brands like ESPN which is partnering with local communities and sport for development organizations to build safe spaces for kids to play and learn life skills through sport. Our reach is truly global, encompassing organizations across 160 countries and I’ve had the opportunity to travel and initiate projects across five continents. I’m thankful to have been able to be on the ground with many of the groups, from Qatar to Cambodia to Brazil to Colombia to Jamaica to Jordan. Having this global lens has enabled me to see the power of sport from various angles and how across different cultures, societies, and circumstances, different methodologies and approaches work better and are more effective. Though my journey continues, I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to realize my passion of working on social change and community development all through sport.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

When thinkBeyond was just starting, I was traveling a lot — there was one point where I was in Cambodia, Cape Town, New York and Doha all in the same year — so there were a lot of logistics to manage. I was very excited about a new project we were doing with ESPN, creating community-owned sport spaces with socially driven programming across Latin America. I was headed to Brazil to meet our local development partner, love.fútbol, to start planning the project after which I was scheduled to head to Argentina to continue the planning.

I landed in Rio De Janeiro after a ten-hour flight (I was living in London at the time) and headed to customs. The kind border patrol agent looked through my passport and very matter-of-factly told me I did not have a visa and signaled to an official to take me away. I was so shocked I stuttered and stammered as I followed the agent into a back room. Evidently, I had needed a visa and was reqired to secure two weeks before I flew. Since, I had missed this step, I would be put on the first flight back to London.

I literally shuddered at the thought of another ten-hour flight, and then started panicking. This was so unprofessional! How would I deliver this project to ESPN! We had so much to prove as a new agency and I had made a stupid amateur error! I begged the agents — don’t send me back to London. What could I do? Was it possible they could send me to Argentina instead? After a long and drawn out argument, they agreed to put me on a 2am flight to Buenos Aires. As I flew through the night, I thought about how crazy my job was, but also how exciting it was — and that I really needed to get my sh*t together.

I still travel a lot, though I am trying to tone it down. But from that point on, I always check the visa requirements before I travel!

What would you advise to a young person who wants to emulate your success?

We work with youth across a variety of programs including an annual young leaders program with Michael Johnson and a courageous young person’s program with WWE. Today’s youth inspires me for the future. They are questioning the status quo, demanding that the businesses they support benefit society and pushing for change and new ways of thinking across a wide range of social issues — the climate crisis, inequality, poverty, diversity and inclusion — you name it.

That said there is a lot of pressure on this generation — to be a leader, be a founder, be “different”. And to that I have a few bits of advice:

First, don’t pigeonhole yourself too early in an effort to “define” yourself. There’s already so much pressure to make a difference, so don’t be afraid to deviate from your path. And as you can see from my own career, I went into my professional life thinking I wanted to be an art critic and a journalist, and yet over the years, I allowed myself to create a new passion and interest that would ultimately lead me to where I am now.

Secondly, don’t underestimate the influence, impact and power you can have as a number two at an organization or in a position that supports a founder. While following your dreams is crucial, there is an incredible opportunity to be part of a team and to lead jointly with others. In my career, the opportunities afforded to me have been extraordinary and that’s because I went on a journey with our Founder and President, Nick Keller.

Finally, always be open to meeting and collaborating with new people. You never know who you may want to work with in the future — never burn bridges and maintain a sense of openness in all relationships. There are people and organizations that I wanted to work with for more than 10 years that were not open and suddenly, one day, it was there for the taking. Stay open minded and because you never know where you’ll end up.

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

Traveling across the globe and meeting people of various cultures has always made an impact on my view of the world and the power to impact change. It’s challenging for me to select just one person that has impacted my life, so I will share a few. Throughout my education, two professors pushed me to realize what was possible. My arts criticism professor, Dr. Anthony DeCurtis once told me that I needed to focus on getting really knowledgeable about one thing — find a specialism. That piece of advice has always stuck with me and I have followed it to the letter. It led to my life focus on sports as a catalyst for change. My critical writing professor at Penn, Dr. Marion Kant pushed me to think differently about my current role as an editor in the community — and pushed me to go to LSE, which changed the course of my life forever. Those two really impacted my path and to do this day shaped the journey of my career.

From a professional perspective, I was lucky enough to meet Olympic great Michael Johnson who I first met in Cape Town in 2011, and while I had always admired him as the hero of Atlanta 1996, working with him over the past five years has taught me so much about how to manage a business and make a genuine social impact at the same time. He is a perfectionist but rational. A wonderful manager but demanding. Thoughtful and detail oriented but strategic and high-level thinking at the same time. The way he has gone about making a difference in the world is a blueprint for how retired athletes should use their platform and influence, especially in their lives after professional sports careers.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?

That’s quite a question. I’m proud to say that through Beyond Sport, our Foundation and thinkBeyond, we have been able facilitate a lot more attention, partnerships, resources and funding to remarkable sport for development organizations making real change in communities around the world. As well as advising and partnering with progressive brands, the professional sport sector, governments, sporting bodies and enterprises to ensure that business and social objectives are in alignment, purposeful and authentic.

The work we do at Beyond Sport is aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global agenda agreed upon by 193 countries as a way forward to end the most pressing global crises by 2030. The deadline is fast approaching and it’s been rewarding to show how sport is and can play a role in creating solutions and stimulating new ways of thinking to achieve them. The UN has long advocated for and championed sport in pursuit of global development and peace and we are using its influence and reach to draw attention to matters that are impacting society. Since Beyond Sport works globally to use sport to instigate social change, leverage innovation, promote sustainable development, incite shared value and create commercial expansion, the Global Goals and its affiliated targets are the perfect framework to realize our core values on the world’s stage.

We’ve built up a sizeable global network over the years, and personally and professionally, I take pride in making connections between people and organizations that may not seem obvious but have significant potential to move the dial when they combine forces. The most effective way to address large-scale issues is through collective action and we’ve had an especially active and rewarding year working hand-in-hand with diverse partners and clients to devise ways to collaborate.

For example, with more than 40 million Americans dealing with mental health concerns, I’m really excited about the Stay in the Game initiative that we launched last June. It was our first-ever convening of leaders from across the US sport, healthcare, social change, business, academia and development sectors to explore sport as a platform and a catalyst to promote mental wellness and help change the national conversation for the better. Stemming from this robust discussion, Beyond Sport, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, Centerstone, the Citrone33 Foundation and USA Cycling launched the Stay in the Game Network, a year-round coalition to will help lead the vision and mission.

And individuals can spur collaborative action as well. One of our newer thinkBeyond clients, Ovie Mughelli, EcoAthlete and former NFL Pro Bowler, has been tackling climate action by leveraging sports, entertainment and technology to educate and inspire the next generation of green leaders in really cool ways — particularly among people of color and low income communities as they are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. He and his partners created a successful STEM-focused “Gridiron Green” comic book, curriculum and gamification app to educate young people on the SDGs and the environment that is free for public schools. And he and his wife, Masika, are also working to change our throw-away culture. Their Green Tailgate Movement shows practical ways for people to enjoy tailgates, major sporting events and viewing parties in a sustainable eco-friendly way.

What methods are you using to most effectively share your cause with the world?

We are conveners, so for us, it comes down to partnerships and unique cross-sector collaborations that leverage the insights, best practice, resources and audiences of the individual collaborators to create and promote strategies that have broader impact.

An example is the issue-focused Sport & STEM Alliance, created by Beyond Sport, the 49ers Foundation and Chevron in 2017, that has a global membership to committed to igniting passion in STEM education in young people. Since current and future generations will play a pivotal role in making the world better through STEM, the Alliance is focused on opening minds to the exciting opportunities within the STEM fields and supporting efforts to maintain the skilled STEM workforce that is vital to society’s future. In 2020, members are focusing on sports-based ‘Educating the Educators,’ Gender Equality and Minority and Marginalized Group-focused initiatives that will hopefully be models that can be implemented in communities all over the world.

We also are trying to leverage the fact we have a network of organizations across the world to help increase impact. In 2019 we launched the Collective Impact Awards, which provided a greater monetary investment to a group of organizations all using sport in different ways to address a sustainable development goals such as reducing inequalities or climate action. With our help, resources and platform, they are working on a common goal, using their own strengths and supporting each other in order to help them achieve something they never could alone.

Can you share with us the story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?

As a journalist before grad school and in my early years with Beyond Sport, I saw first-hand what sport could do for a community that was otherwise forgotten by support systems. I also saw how isolated NGOs could be without the right connections or platforms to facilitate partnerships with the private sector. And as I said earlier, my personal connection with sport shaped how I approach challenges. My extensive travels to Latin America and the Middle East, solidified for me that these social issues differed depending on the community and global context, and I knew that global connection was crucial for organizations doing good work across the world to improve and increase their impact.

Sports power to break down barriers and builds up communities is why I took up this cause and a story that best reflects this is that of Amy and Rob Castaneda who started an organization called Beyond the Ball in the US and were 2010 Beyond Sport Global Awards winners in the “Most Courageous Use of Sport” category. They ran a basketball project in Little Village in Chicago, Illinois that I got to see in action firsthand. Both were high school teachers and they had started to receive threats after Amy had informed the police about local gang activity. The threats went from bad to worse until one night they woke up to their house being set on fire. Barely escaping with their lives, it looked as if they would be forced to move. Instead, they decided to stay and start a program that provided safe places for youth, away from violence, on the border of two incredibly dangerous gangs. Their program went from toddlers up through young adults, using basketball as a way to start dialogue and teach key preventative lessons from a young age. I think of Rob and Amy often because theirs is a true story of courage, but also of ownership. They saw a problem and instead of running away or ignoring it, they worked hard to address the issue. Hearing their story — one of many — made it even clearer to me that I had made the right choice in my career.

Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

There was a great moment last September at our Beyond Sport Global Awards with Iranian activist Maryam Shojaei. In partnership with the Equality League, we presented the pioneering Iranian Stadium Ban Activists, whom she was representing, with the Sport for Human Rights Award.

Iran is the world’s last nation to forbid women from attending in stadium sports matches as Saudi Arabia recently began lifting its ban. On the emotional night, celebrating the very best in sport for development, it was an honor to provide an additional platform to bring more attention and support for their decade’s long activism to end gender discrimination and preserve Iranian women’s right to free assembly.

Women have been barred from many sporting events in Iran since 1981 — during the early years of the country’s Islamic Revolution — and women who violate the ban are subject to jail time, violence and sometimes torture. Maryam’s own brother, Masoud Soleimani Shojaei, is one of Iran’s best players and the captain of their national team, but she had never seen a single game in person in her own country.

At the awards, we observed a minute of silence for Sahar Khodayari, a young Iranian woman who self-immolated after reportedly hearing she would have to serve jail time after being arrested for trying to watch her favorite men’s soccer team play at Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Stadium. Then Maryam took the stage and shared a very personal and powerful message on what it meant to her countrywomen and called on the audience to support efforts for a lift of the ban by October 2019 so that women could attend the 2022 World Cup qualifier match.

And it worked! In October 2019, for the first time in nearly 40 years, women were allowed to enter Azadi Stadium. Thousands of Iranian women in jester hats and face paint blew horns and cheered at the first FIFA soccer match they were openly allowed to attend. Though the fight is far from over as discrimination still remains — only a limited amount of tickets were made available, women were sectioned off behind a chain fence, and the ban is still in place for league matches — it was still an important milestone in the movement.

Their online #NoBan4Women #OpenStadiums campaign now has nearly half a million signatures (an additional 200,000 since October) and in February, it was reported that “Iran has promised FIFA that from June 2020 women will be able to watch ALL men’s soccer team games in the first Iranian league, all international matches and all games of the Asian Champions League.

What are your 3 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Everything that has happened to me and to us as a business — the challenges, the obstacles, the unexpected opportunities, have all contributed to the exciting journey we’ve been on since Beyond Sport started. And while there are things I did wrong along the way, if someone had told me not to do it or warned me about something, I think that my experience would be different. I really believe that starting up a business and taking risks and innovating means making mistakes, learning what works and what doesn’t, and taking all that insight to improve.

Maybe something I wish someone would have told me was something like: enjoy the ride — but know it will be hard, filled with disappointment, unexpected issues, and surprises — but in the end it will all be worth it. So, don’t be afraid to soak up the journey.

Sorry if that wasn’t what you were looking for! But I truly believe it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to start a movement that gets high-net-worth individuals to truly understand social impact, and to understand the overall benefit it provides. I’d love to pick up the Professor Porter (Harvard Business School professor known for his theories on economics, business strategy, and social causes) baton and start the “shared value” movement in truth.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

“To be kind to all, to like many and love a few, to be needed and wanted by those we love, is certainly the nearest we can come to happiness.”
-Mary Queen of Scots

I think my answers up to this point reflects why I like this quote. It’s sad she got beheaded because that Mary was a smart lady.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

South African rugby union player Siya Kolisi. His story is so inspiring and he truly is a beacon of hope for everyone. He captained the 2019 World Cup winning team and his words at the end of the game were more about uniting the country than the fact they just won. As the first black South African rugby captain, I would love to speak to him about how he feels winning the world cup has helped the country and how he thinks sports at every level can help address inequality, social injustice and discrimination.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring

Social Impact Heroes: How Alexandra “Lex” Chalat is using youth sports to create a positive social… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.