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Female Disruptors: Jan Helson of Global Game Changers On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jan Helson, Co-Founder & Chairman Global Game Changers Children’s Education Initiative.

Global Game Changers Children’s Education Initiative is a nonprofit organization committed to providing our youngest students with a foundation for achievement using a superhero themed in-school and out-of-school academic program that nurtures a lifetime of giving back.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

If you had asked me this question at 25 or even 50 years old, I promise you that I wouldn’t have said I’d end up in the education or nonprofit space. I was — and still am — a businesswoman and entrepreneur at my core. I started my first business at seven years old: I ran a small library for kids in the neighborhood. I gathered up all the books in my house and created an orderly system for checking out books — requiring the kids who forgot to turn their books in on time to pay late fees.

I grew up privileged, well educated, in a close loving family with an innate motivation to work. As I grew up, my homemade entrepreneurial ventures became much more professional, and I worked in and started a number of businesses — ultimately taking over the family business after my father passed away in 1990.

One of the companies was Golden Foods, Golden Brands: a global niche fats and oils business that employed commodity traders to chemical engineers to on-the-line production workers. Over the course of running the company with my husband for 20+ years, we started to notice some issues with our workforce. Many young production workers, who came from at-risk and impoverished backgrounds, struggled in the workforce, lacking the confidence to effectively communicate within the workplace to become resilient and successful employees. They had become less able to communicate and less able to problem solve. As a result, my husband and I worked to develop a different culture at our business ― one focused on empowering everyone from high school dropouts to MBAs. But in the back of my mind, I wondered, “What if we didn’t have to wait until people reach the workforce to teach them problem solving and leadership skills?”

When we sold our business in 2011, I knew retirement wasn’t an option — I love to work! — and I wanted to do something meaningful with my “second act.” The more I thought about this question of how to help empower the next generation at a younger age, the more I felt that this was my calling.

I started small. My daughter, Rachel, and I wrote two socially conscious children’s books together: PHILANTHROPY: A Big Word for Big-Hearted People and The Global Game Changers.

As we spoke to readers about the books, the mission began to grow. I sought out experts: teachers, evaluation experts, writers, and more to take the ideas behind The Global Game Changers and transform it into a curriculum and a tool to empower our youngest students. In 2013, born of an entrepreneurial-philanthropic spirit, we founded Global Game Changers as an education nonprofit dedicated to using service learning as a tool to build students’ social, emotional, and leadership skills starting at a young age.

What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Our current education system needs to change. It doesn’t set students up to succeed after graduation; every day, students fall through the cracks — particularly those from our most at-risk populations; and it doesn’t account for the way our world and our workforce have changed.

I believe in practical and hands-on experience for all students, and Global Game Changers reflects that. We focus on real world problems, applications, solutions, and actions.

Our program not only builds social-emotional learning skills, but also focuses on how you build those skills in the context of your life and work. We believe that a life of service should begin early, since it is a tool to build social-emotional skills, and Global Game Changers starts with students as young as Pre-K by using our Superpower Equation: MY TALENT + MY HEART = MY SUPERPOWER!® Through the equation and accompanying curriculum, we encourage kids to use their talents and interests to impact a cause their heart cares about, and as a result, they discover a superpower that is unique to them. This simple strategy helps kids develop a talent for service and empowers them with the ability to see how their talents can apply to family, career, and life.

Share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? What was the lesson in that mistake?

My children tell me that I don’t have a great sense of humor — and maybe they’re right — because I wouldn’t consider any of my early mistakes to be particularly funny. Valuable, but not funny.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Share a story about how they made an impact?

I have been blessed to have two influential mentors in my life. My father, Frank Metts, was a financial genius who grew up in poverty and had to drop out of school in ninth grade to go to work — but through guts and guile, he became a successful self-made businessman and entrepreneur. He did large land development projects and bought failing business ventures from around the world and rejuvenated them, and even when I was little, he never minded taking me into meetings or to job sites. It never crossed his mind that those weren’t places for a seven-year-old girl even back in the 60s. His approach to everything was unconventional.

My husband, Tim, also possesses a genius financial mind. But unlike my father, he is methodical and intentional, with a brilliant mind and a disciplined mindset. He helped me to know early in my career that measuring all data in business, and not just financial data, was critical to growth and sustainability.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time? Please articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive? Please share examples of what you mean?

I think disruptions are most often negative when they don’t focus on evolution and instead, focus more on taking a step simply because, “it’s time.” Instead of helping an industry evolve to meet the needs of the consumers or community, these steps just create chaos (like McDonald’s launch of the McRib Sandwich or Coca Cola’s “New Coke” formulation.) Sometimes it is best to just leave good things alone! I don’t believe in change for the sake of change. Disruption of a system or structure is important when it is failing or if it has hit a plateau for progression, and successful disruption involves a tailored approach and isn’t one size fits all. It requires a plan for both the structural element and the human element — as well as input from all stakeholders, trust and investment in the leadership team, and a willingness to let go of preconceived notions.

In the education space, few could dispute that we are regressing as a country and therefore, the status quo is not an acceptable place to be. Some argue that we should make “adjustments” to the industry, while others, like me, argue that the education industry as a whole needs to be fundamentally disrupted.

We know that school administrators and educators enter the workforce excited about their chances to change the trajectory of their students. Yet they soon learn that there are barriers to that goal: testing, school culture, students ill equipped to manage their emotions, lack of support, an excessive workload, and inadequate training. We know that each of these factors can build apathy in otherwise motivated administrators and teachers.

While some advocate for less testing and more maker education spaces, there has to be some middle ground. Accountability is critical, but so is flexibility. We can have both if we remove the bureaucracy from the system and give the boots on the ground more agency in their decision-making and methodology, as long as they meet standards and expectations.

What are 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give examples of each.

Strive for Excellence. I’m a big believer in the fact that “good enough” shouldn’t exist. If you’re going to do something, that means you should commit, and do it as well as you can. It is crucial to have high standards for kids because they will rise to meet our expectations. When I work on a project, it’s important to me that I do it as well as I can. And it’s OK if it makes me a little bit uncomfortable to get there, because I know that’s how I will grow. We can accept that excellence for people might look different based on their talents and skills; in fact, I build my teams by diversifying not duplicating strengths because I know that’s how we can achieve excellence. And at the end of the day, even if I’m not able to achieve everything I had hoped, at least I’m satisfied that I tried as hard as I could to get there.

Swim to the wall. Both of my kids grew up doing swim team. One thing you learn on swim team is that your time doesn’t stop, and the race doesn’t stop until everyone touches the wall. When they were starting out, going the whole length of the pool seemed difficult. So their coach encouraged them to “swim to the wall” and finish the race. This phrase clicked for me and became something I encouraged my kids to do both inside and out of the pool. To me it means that you finish what you started, even if it might seem difficult. Whether you encourage kids to have grit, to persist, or to swim to the wall, I think that’s an important lesson for everyone to learn and one I try to model daily.

Do or do not. There is no try. While Star Wars might not seem an obvious source for words of wisdom, Yoda’s quote to Luke Skywalker has always resonated with me. I believe that when you make up your mind to do something, you do it. When my husband and I ran Golden Foods, Golden Brands, and we were faced with the challenge of creating a formula that could convert our product from trans-fat to zero trans, we were met with a chorus of voices that said it couldn’t be done. I was confident that we could. The market was calling for us to be adaptable, and I have always made a conscious decision to be a leader in whatever endeavor I have chosen to pursue. And, we didn’t just try. We did. Through research, testing, perseverance, and teamwork, we were able to be the leader in the industrial baking industry for delivering zero-trans-fat products to the market for our customers, ahead of the major conglomerates that we were competing against.

How do you plan to shake things up next?

We have a lot of big things planned at Global Game Changers (GGC)! True to my business background, I am working to make GGC a profitable non-profit organization that can one day be self-sustainable. One of the things I am most excited about is our upcoming children’s television show centered around the GGC curriculum. We have been shopping the concept to different networks, and through the show, we plan to expand the GGC brand while simultaneously creating a stream of income to support our on-the-ground endeavors.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

To be honest, I feel as though I haven’t faced as many challenges as my female counterparts. In fact, I can think of only rare instances where I felt as though my gender played a role in how people treated me.

As a young girl I had the opportunity to be included in powerful business meetings, which was pretty unique at the time. Luckily, it’s getting to be less unique. I think the more opportunities we offer young women to feel as though they belong in these rooms, the fewer challenges they’ll see — and the more strength they’ll show.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Please tell us about that.

David Novak’s podcast “How Leaders Lead” is a particular favorite of mine. In the podcast, he interviews leaders from a lot of different spaces, from businesspeople to athletes, and discusses the lessons learned on their journeys to becoming good leaders. I always find the candid and casual conversations to be insightful and inspiring, especially in terms of the many different paths the interviewees have taken to become leaders.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I believe that creating meaningful change in the education system is paramount to creating a brighter future for the next generation. I would inspire a movement to run schools more like businesses, where principals are treated more like CEOs and given more autonomy over their schools to meet the specific needs of their students and families, and their accountability is determined by the growth and sustainability of their students’ data. I think there should be a higher teacher-to-student ratio in order to ensure that each student gets the individual attention that they need, and that classrooms and schools should be interactive and experiential so that students receive a practical education so that they can develop the skills and acquire the resources they need to take on a career path that makes them feel both comfortable and confident.

Education is one of the few fields where I think we must maintain a high level of quality human capital in the workplace. As important a role as technology can and should play in education, it should not replace or reduce human contact. Those early formative years are critical to students’ social, emotional, and academic development and building human connections are the key to nurturing a strong foundation.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The Serenity Prayer. My father was a fully recovered alcoholic throughout my life who attended regular AA Meetings. His AA group began each meeting with the Serenity Prayer. He passed these words on to me, and I have passed them on to my children: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” As someone who strongly prefers to be in control of all aspects of my life, I refer back to these words often — specifically at times when I need a gentle reminder to let go of things outside my control.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can follow my personal account on Twitter at @JanMHelson or can follow Global Game Changers on Facebook at @TheGlobalGameChangers Instagram at @globalgamechangers and Twitter at @GlobalGameChgrs

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.