Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Renata Simril of the LA84 Foundation Is Helping To Change Our World

Posted on

You grow most when you are challenged, so venture outside of your comfort zone: When you try new things, you prepare yourself for your next role. Consider taking on new and difficult tasks that you are not comfortable with to expand your skillset. Try one thing a day that scares you. I have learned there are two things that motivate: fear or faith. By facing your fears and overcoming them, you develop strength and belief in your ability to accomplish anything you set your mind to.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Renata Simril.

As President & CEO of the LA84 Foundation — the legacy of the 1984 Summer Olympics — Renata Simril is a national leader in youth sports at a time when young people face unprecedented challenges in gaining access to healthy activity and increased barriers to play. Simril also serves as President of the Play Equity Fund, the charitable partner of the LA84 Foundation. Simril’s focus is driving lasting change for children in need and supporting local communities, including during stints as a Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles, Senior VP & Chief of Staff to the Publisher for the LA Times, Sr. Vice President of External Affairs of the Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as over a decade in real estate development.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My career path has been a journey of faith and resiliency — specifically faith that I was more than my circumstances, which allowed me to see beyond my limitations. I am the daughter of working-class parents who often struggled to make ends meet. So, I was running from that path and wanted to change the cycle of poverty I was part of. I understood that one day, I would have to provide greater opportunities for my children. I graduated from high school with no ticket to college, so I joined the U.S. Army and developed the strength within to persevere through any obstacle life has put in my way. In the process, I have discovered a road of opportunity that has led me to an unbelievable career of service and leadership.

The interesting thing is that sports were always a constant in my life, though I never imagined I would become the President & CEO of the LA84 Foundation. For me as a young girl, sports offered a space where I could see, develop, and experience my talents. Sports gave me confidence and courage to try new things which helped me grow and ultimately survive basic training in the Army, which was a formative experience that changed everything for me.

One April evening 28 years ago, I was a senior attending Loyola Marymount University watching the fabric of our communities in Los Angeles being torn apart and burned to the ground. I wanted to do something to help. As an Urban Studies major my passion was finding meaningful work where I could use my education to help ailing communities become vibrant, thriving, and healthy– as well as to be a champion for social justice. At my graduation, a mentor introduced me to a member of a Los Angeles city councilman’s office and in 1993 I became Deputy for Redevelopment. Over the next five-plus years, in partnership with the incredible team that welcomed me, we went about reconstructing the fabric of the community, regaining trust, and rebuilding many of those burned-out properties. More importantly, we restored hope and opportunity to our communities.

I am proud of the work we accomplished and feel very blessed to have found my path to a lifetime of service. Each step in my career since has included an unwavering commitment of a legacy of impact. I have been fortunate to work on causes I care deeply about, create opportunities for the youth of our communities, and build bridges toward lifelong well-being and pathways to success through sports, just like I experienced as a little girl from the City of Carson.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Putting the words “Play Equity” together as the ‘why–‘ the mission that drives the efforts for LA84’s charitable partner — is an interesting story. Since the LA84 Foundation was founded, it has helped millions of young people become life-ready through sports. However, I quickly realized that the investments we made were still far exceeded by the need in the communities we served. Despite decades of providing free and low-cost access to sports and play programs for youth, offering seminars and guidance to produce well-trained coaches, and funding the restoration of facilities and fields of play across Southern California, we still weren’t creating enough of an impact and the LA84 Foundation still couldn’t reach enough young people.

We discovered there was a crisis hiding in plain sight– that not all children had equal access to sports and play, and as such, many were missing out on the important benefits that these opportunities provide. We needed to raise more resources to expand our impact. To do so, it was imperative to shift our narrative so that more influential philanthropies, corporate brands, and charitable organizations clearly saw our “why” in their work.

It was a chance meeting over breakfast with the then-Chair of the Weingart Foundation Board, Monica Lozano, that helped frame the equity gap that is the core of our work. Weingart, under the leadership of former CEO, Fred Ali, had shifted its philanthropy toward equity and centered its community partnerships to advance racial, social, and economic justice for all. About three months into my tenure at LA84, I was sharing with Monica the details about our work and impact through a sport-based youth development lens. A few minutes into the conversation she asked endearingly, ‘Mija, do we do any work together?” Before I could answer she interjected, “Probably not, because we’re in the equity space.”

I replied abruptly, “What do you mean Monica? We’re in the equity business — Play Equity. At the highest level, it is always wrong when access determines whether kids experience an enriched life or not. Having kids participate in sports is part of an enriched life, not just for them, but it adds depth to the lives of parents and their community. Sports help create the conditions for kids to thrive by providing positive affiliation and a connection to their school. Sports create an adult advocate in the form of a coach, and agency– that connection between effort and success– which builds confidence and resiliency.”

I continued with supportive statistics about the gap in Play Equity that continues to grow. Monica’s reaction as she listened to the framing of our work was an epiphany for me as well. It was at that moment the Play Equity Fund was realized and our movement began. It was interesting to learn that the two words had never been combined. By doing so, we established a framework to speak power to the importance of the work that so many sport-based youth development organizations across this country are engaged in daily, to create pathways to lifelong well-being through sports, and to ensure all youth, despite their circumstances, ability, gender, or family’s income can experience the transformational power of sport and play. And yes, I am grateful that today the Play Equity Fund is a proud partner and grantee of the Weingart Foundation.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh yes! After all these years, the memory of sprinting down Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park in heels, desperately chasing after a delivery truck still makes me laugh.

I was the manager of a neighborhood initiative and had the lead role in launching an event. It was a big deal, as the City of LA had about half a dozen of these programs as part of its economic development strategy to promote local businesses in iconic neighborhoods. Our event was a community block party featuring elected officials, businesses, and community leaders. The main attraction were street pole banners designed by local artists. The plan was to reveal them at the end of the program on light poles. To accomplish this feat, a truck with the proper equipment was scheduled to arrive long before the event and affix the banners.

Well, the truck driver could not find our location and ended up late. Extremely late. Everything else was set: the VIPs had arrived, the music was playing, and the community had gathered. I decided to make an announcement that the program would begin shortly — keep in mind that we were already 15 minutes behind schedule.

I called the driver and he reported “I’m in route, no more than 10 minutes.” Twenty-five minutes later and there were still no banners. I was stressed and embarrassed. Everyone was asking me what to do. I panicked. I called the driver again, but he couldn’t find the small side street where we were located. I took off running down the street in my heels to find him while on the phone imploring him not to move.

I wanted to make a good impression and I wanted my big event to be perfect. I was so wrapped up in doing it all that I did not entrust my team as effectively as I should have. I did not have a backup plan or think to have the banners arrive a day early. I panicked and reacted before taking time to think through options. In the end the banners arrived, and everyone seemed pleased with the event. But the lingering disappointment stayed with me for weeks.

I learned that your mindset plays a significant role in how you view your mistakes and, importantly, in how you react to them. As Stanford Professor Carol Dweck writes, if you have a “growth” mindset, you see mistakes as an opportunity to improve, and not as something that you are doomed to repeat because your mindset is “fixed” on the belief that you cannot improve. We are all human and mistakes are inevitable, but we cannot let them define us. There is power in owning our mistakes and reframing them as opportunities to gain experience. We must take the time to reflect, asking ourselves what worked, what didn’t, why and how can we be better the next time. I have grown since that day, and I can say humbly that I have never sprinted after a delivery truck in heels since.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I have sought out and been blessed with incredible mentors and sponsors that have provided me with sage advice since the beginning of my career. It is difficult to boil down the tremendous gifts of knowledge that have been shared with me, but I can give a few pearls of wisdom that have helped me along my journey.

  1. You grow most when you are challenged, so venture outside of your comfort zone: When you try new things, you prepare yourself for your next role. Consider taking on new and difficult tasks that you are not comfortable with to expand your skillset. Try one thing a day that scares you. I have learned there are two things that motivate: fear or faith. By facing your fears and overcoming them, you develop strength and belief in your ability to accomplish anything you set your mind to.
  2. Search for the value in feedback or criticism: Be open, seek feedback, and receive it introspectively. Each piece of feedback you receive can be used to help you grow and further develop in your career. Try not to focus on the method of delivery or the person providing you with the feedback. Instead, you should do your best to avoid getting upset and take the value out of the message you are receiving. Use it to grow as a professional.
  3. View every person you meet as a door that may lead you to a new opportunity: You never know how a person can add to your life professionally or personally, especially if you take time to nurture relationships. Your job may be a “for-now job,” but that does not mean that the connections you make with the people in your current position won’t be forever. It is best to view each person as valuable and worthy of your time and consideration.
  4. Develop your personal brand: “Personal branding” is what informs what others will say about you when you are not around. If the world consists of a sea of talent, often comprised of individuals with the same or similar experiences that you possess, how are you unique and what makes you, you? It is important to be mindful of how you are viewed and remember your resume is the story of what makes you different, unique, and why people should care. To develop your brand, you need to think about what intangible value you bring to an organization or opportunity. How are you communicating your influence and expertise to others in way that helps others see you and your value without over-promoting?
  5. There is opportunity in chaos: Many of your major career opportunities will come from moments where you were able to make a difference. The best way to make a difference may come from stepping into a position or situation that requires you to clean up and/or navigate through someone else’s failure or chaos. This can bring attention to your skills and expertise.

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

“Live Like You Play,” a quote by Pope Francis.

I am involved with a global movement– Sport at the Service of Humanity– which convened 200 global faith and sport leaders at the Vatican in 2016 to seize the moment as Rome was bidding on the Summer Olympics in 2024 with the goal of to restoring humanity’s belief in Faith and understanding in the values of Sport as a metaphor for life.

During his opening remarks, Pope Francis said that faith is perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of humankind– the belief that we exist and function for a purpose — and that we can live in a way that enhances not only our lives, but also the lives of those around us.

Sport, in its simplest form, is one of the most extraordinary of human activities. Sports impose rules that point to a fair contest, equal opportunities for all, entertainment, and enjoyment, and provide participants with the opportunity to stretch their physical and mental limits while sharing common values and experiences. With all the challenges and issues the world is facing today, it is timely and necessary for Faith and Sport to remind and re-awaken people to the massive power for good that these two pillars of human life can provide.

This is relevant to my professional work because our mission is to ensure all youth have access to sports and play as a basic human right. We believe that play is fundamental. Play is encoded in our DNA; it is an important part of our physical, social, and emotional development. Research tells us that play supports kids’ well-being, and our experience tells us that when kids play and have fun it creates opportunities for them and those around them to become their best selves.

But not all kids have access and opportunity. Play Equity is a social justice issue when this lack of access deprives kids of the transformative power that sports, and play provide. Our work is about shifting norms and mindsets to recenter sport and play as an essential part of life, not just for us as individuals but for communities as well. We should all strive to Live Like We Play.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Participating in team sports was a defining experience for me and has helped to influence my leadership style. I find studying the great coaches in sports history provides a blueprint for effective leadership. Leadership is about bringing people together, aligned on and working toward a common goal or purpose.

Success requires leaders to adapt so that everyone feels empowered and valued to contribute their skills to achieve the goal. Like Phil Jackson said: “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each individual member is the team.” It is the collective action that propels movement toward success. But collaboration is hard; it requires that everyone forgo their ego, starting with the leader. It is about focusing on the work. Being a leader demands being strong enough to collaborate rather than dictate. It requires being confident enough to know that the work is not about you, and by doing so clears the way for authentic collaboration and ultimately, I believe, success and impact.

I think you can look at our work at the Play Equity Fund, which is focused on creating a collective movement comprised of sport-based youth development organizations, foundations, nonprofits, teams, leagues, and individuals who believe in the power of sport to change lives.

The Play Equity Movement is a tent big enough to promote the work and impact of each participant while staying focused on our collective goal to close the Play Equity Gap together. It is about bringing our different perspectives and experiences to how we recenter sport and play as an essential tool for childhood and community well-being and to ensure it is an opportunity all kids can enjoy.

The Alliance– a collective of the 11 pro sports teams in Los Angeles working in partnership with the Play Equity Fund– was formed amid the pandemic and global protests after the death of George Floyd and so many others. It is a historic example of passionate team leaders quickly mobilizing in collaboration to support BIPOC populations through sports.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I would love to have the opportunity to speak with First Lady Michelle Obama about the decision to abandon her Let’s Move! campaign. I know that she continues to use her amazing platform to drive change, particularly in the lives of young Black girls, however, during her time in the White House, our country was captivated and inspired to move and be healthy. She captured our attention with fun and community-driven ways to shine a light on the importance of exercise, play and healthy eating, as well as the inequities that exist in communities of color, and I am disappointed that she has chosen not to continue with this work.

The inequities of the Let’s Move! campaign not only remain, but they have grown; 80% of youth do not meet the federal guidelines for physical activity, children in poor communities have an obesity rate that is two times higher than kids from affluent communities, and many public schools only mandate PE one or two days per week while also defunding enrichment programs including sports.

We are in a crisis, and we could greatly benefit from having Michelle’s Let’s Move! campaign return as part of the Play Equity Movement!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook: Renata Simril | Facebook

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Renata Simril of the LA84 Foundation Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.