In 2004, Dr. Kimberly Clay founded Play Like a Girl, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the health and empowerment of girls in the U.S. through sport, physical activity and active play. Through after-school clubs and its popular Play Like a Girl Games, the organization is leading the movement to educate, empower and equip girls to become active early and stay active for life.
Since its founding, Play Like a Girl has impacted over 10,000 girls and young women across 11 states in programs where they learn healthy habits, discover a love for sport, and develop the confidence to pursue their passions. In recent years, the organization has started bringing together sport and STEM education, focusing on the power of sport to help girls realize their potential. Through industry partnerships, mentorship from women in STEM fields and more, Play Like a Girl draws upon draws upon the power of volunteers to help girls develop pivotal professional skills and passion for STEM.
Prior to leading Play Like a Girl full-time as volunteer CEO, Dr. Kim previously served as a public health analyst at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and directed the Georgia Cancer Prevention and Control Program. She was named Toyota’s 2014 Everyday Hero, Xavier University’s 40 Under 40, and one of 50 People on the Move by the Nashville Business Journal.
What inspired you to launch Play Like a Girl?
For me, Play Like a Girl was the answer to the little girl in me, all of the opportunities that I didn’t have growing up in rural Mississippi. I wanted to provide for girls today and Play Like a Girl was my solution to that. When we started, we were largely focused on engaging girls in sport and physical activity for the health benefits. I grew up in rural Mississippi, where the opportunity to engage in organized sport was very limited, so early in my life I began experiencing and suffering with overweight and obesity, and have continued to fight the good fight around weight and health into my adulthood.
Initially, when the organization was founded it was really to help address the issue of overweight and obesity in children. As we know, there was a national epidemic around overweight and obesity at the time, in 2004. Since that time, we’ve evolved to really leveraging [sport] for academic outcome, namely preparing girls for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. What we’ve recognized over the course of the first 12 years of our existence is that sport has the power to transform the lives of girls in many different ways. In 2015, espnW and Ernst & Young revealed in an international study that 92 percent of women in the C-Suite played sport, and 54 percent of them played through college. What they really focused on was the business value that women athletes bring to business – as natural leaders, as women who have the confidence and teamwork and sportsmanship required to work successfully on teams. There are innate and transferable skills that women who have participated in sport have that translate very well to the business environment. It was at that time that we reimagined our work at Play Like a Girl and began to integrate STEM education into our work, but more so harnessing those natural properties of sport to help prepare girls for careers in the STEM workforce.
What does the STEM component look like?
We’ve evolved into really focusing on keeping girls active in sport during the critical years of middle school. Girls drop out of sport at twice the rate of boys by age 14. There are these built-in benefits for ongoing participation in sport for girls, and if a girl drops out she forfeits the opportunity to really take advantage of those benefits. What we recognize is that dropout contributes to what we believe to be an intergenerational cycle of emotional health, physical health and wasted potential. Engagement on an ongoing basis for girls in sport has the ability to help develop potential in girls. In doing so, we recognize if we keep her active in sport, if we can draw out of her the transferrable skills that have benefit for the workplace, it is of great benefit for the girl to then pair that with an academic outcome that sets her on a lifelong path for success.
STEM outcomes for girls are very similar to what girls experience regarding dropout in sport. Women represent about 56 percent of the U.S. working population, but only represent about 27 percent of the STEM workforce. In middle school, while girls are dropping out of sport they’re also losing their interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We’ve decided to pair the two in such a way that we focus on what science has said to us are reasons and contributing factors to girls dropping out of both sport and STEM. We know that girls have cited implicit biases and stereotypes based on gender, along with low representation of women who look like them in both STEM and sport. On the sports side of things, the decision to elevate their focus on academics, because they don’t necessarily see a future for themselves in sport. Part of what we do to combat these problems is to focus on increasing exposure and access to women in leading roles in both sport and STEM so the girls see themselves, because we know that representation matters.
We also work on engaging girls in the concept that STEM is everywhere and in everything – including sport. For instance, when we’re teaching volleyball or baseball or softball, we bring in actual STEM concepts to teach the game itself.
We also know that it is important for girls to see a future for themselves in a particular career, so we leverage our partnerships with industry – in particular big companies like Tesla, Gatorade, Bridgestone Americas, HCA. We take our girls into the work environment, where they see STEM careers come alive. Even in those work environments, one of our requirements is that women leading across various fields or disciplines in STEM have to be the individuals who organize and implement those STEM field trips for girls, so they not only get to see STEM come alive, but also to see women in STEM careers doing the work of STEM in their work environment.
What has the reception been?
It’s been quite well received. We are being asked right now to replicate our program nationally and are working with a number of partners to begin the process of creating a turnkey solution in the form of a workshop in a box that can be implemented by any woman, anywhere, in as short as an hour and as long as a full day, where she can also engage other women in her community or her company in creating the STEM field day trip for girls in her market.
Tell me about your role with Play Like a Girl.
I’m founder and Chief Executive Officer. I founded the organization while completing my doctoral training at the University of Alabama in 2004, and spent a portion of my time thereafter still as an academic researcher and faculty member, I was a tenure-track professor at the University of Georgia and Morehouse School of Medicine. For about five to eight years of our existence, I was still working a job and this was my volunteer service, which was really running on the shoulders of many volunteers who were holding the organization together. In 2010, I had the opportunity to make a shift in my career that afforded me the chance to come out of academics, where I was doing cancer survivorship research as a published researcher, to do Play Like a Girl full-time. I think what is unique about my situation is that I have now been leading the organization a full nine years, and in the history of our 15 years as an organization, we have until lately remained a fully volunteer-led organization. I have never taken a salary in the history of the organization, but last month, we actually brought on our first paid staff member. She is my new executive assistant and runs the day-to-day administrative operations of the organization.
What has been the most rewarding part of your work?
For me, now starting to realize true alumnae of the program – girls who are graduating from high school for the first time and going to college, girls who started with us eight years ago, for instance, who were at that time elementary school girls and now are preparing to graduate from high school. This will be one of our first high school graduation classes moving on to college. That for me is a huge success, because we now have the ability to truly measure our impact against our mission, because these girls will now be the population going into college pursuing STEM careers, and then going on to assume careers in the actual disciplines we’ve been promoting.
Over the years, we have evolved and grown, so therefore our headquarters has moved. Girls who have been through our program have also moved around, but we have a solid cohort of girls that we’ve been able to maintain relationships with. When appropriate, we would like to engage these girls in some type of alumnae program, in developing it as we think about programming toward the future around alumnae of our program.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
The thing I’ve learned is to celebrate the small wins. In nonprofit work with such an ambitious mission and a spirited audience of persons that you are working with, it can sometimes become overwhelming and feel daunting, the work that’s before us. But I am learning, and it’s a constant evolution of learning to celebrate even the smallest of wins that we are able to pull off as an organization.
Tied to that is also celebrating the people who contribute to those wins. We’ve been fortunate to have fabulous boards over the course of Play Like a Girl’s existence, and to have volunteers who share my vision and my mission for the organization, and want to see our success as a whole should be celebrated. They should be elevated for the things they do.
Are there any partnerships or programs that you’re looking forward to?
Next year, we will be taking a spin on our tagline – “Inspiring play, unlocking potential” – to launch a new campaign titled Potential Realized, where we will focus on storytelling, sharing the stories of girls in our program and how they have been positively impacted by our programming, utilizing photo and video as a way to tell their stories, where the girls will be portraying their future careers. I’m very excited about that.
In concert with the new campaign, we will also be hosting a new summit called Play Like a Girl STEM+ Leadership Day, where we will bring our industry partners together under one roof to engage girls in a full day of experiential, hands-on, interactive STEM education lead by industry. Typically, we are taking our girls into industry environments. This allows us to bring industry into our environment. We will do everything, including our mentoring circles with the women leaders from those companies. The girls will engage in a hackathon-style STEM challenge, where they will be ideating and creating solutions using STEM, and technology in particular, to solve global issues that impact girls, and then pitch their ideas to an audience. We’ll be providing additional mentorship support and technology to the winners, and they will get the opportunity to further develop their ideas and to travel to Dallas in the spring to compete in our national hackathon, which will be the second iteration. We hosted the first one in Silicon Valley this summer, and this one will allow us to host another hackathon bringing girls into the Dallas-Fort Worth Area to compete against other girls in pitching their ideas and launching solutions into our environment, that perhaps make not only the future female, but make today female.
Play Like a Girl has such a huge impact on the girls, particularly on confidence and self-esteem. What impact has Play Like a Girl had on you, personally?
Interesting that you focus on the confidence piece, because that’s really been the greatest impact for me. In the work that I do, with my credentials in particular, people assume that I’m the most confident person, that I shine and show up in a room as a ball of energy. But, often I am exhausted because of the work that I do. Often, I lack the confidence necessary, I feel, even operating as a leader. Play Like a Girl refuels me. In particular, every encounter I have with a girl in our program really feeds my soul in such a way that it is the empowerment that I need to continue in the work that I do. It is the reassurance and the permission that I need to continue the work, but also to do it with confidence – to show up every day knowing that I am making an impact and that this is the work that I’ve been called to do. I’m a spiritual person and a believer, and I believe that the work that I do every day is my calling in life, but sometimes I need the reminder as well, and Play Like a Girl is my reminder.
Why is it important for others to give back?
“Our service here on earth is the rent we pay for being here.” I truly believe that service is an obligation, not a choice. But it is an obligation of a willing spirit. We all have capacity to give of ourselves to others. Whether it is in a long-term volunteer role, or in a one-off, we all have capacity to give of ourselves. If the world is going to be left better than we found it, it is required of us to give something of ourselves.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
If my life would tell any particular story, or give any particular message, I would say honoring oneself and one’s past, one’s journey. Lived experience is often not given the credit that it’s due, but it is because of what I did not have in my lived experience that I am now able to give to girls what I am able to give through Play Like a Girl.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Dr. Kim? Find local volunteer opportunities.