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Interview with Dr. Kim Clay


📷 The Impact Podcast with John Shegerian

Journalist: Allison Yan


Allison: Hi everyone! Welcome to another episode of SciSection! I’m Allison and today I’m joined by Dr. Kim Clay, founder and CEO of Play Like a Girl! We’re so happy to have you, Dr. Kim!


Dr. Kim: Thanks for having me!


Allison: Of course! So just to get us started, could you share with us a little bit of your background, on your career path before Play Like a Girl?


Dr. Kim: I often share that Play Like a Girl wasn’t quite a straight line. My career has taken some twists and turns, probably like most professionals. I left home, grew up in small town Mississippi, headed for New Orleans, Louisiana - big city, the Big Easy- and studied at Xavier University of Louisiana, where I met my now husband. And I have a son, who is now there as a college freshmen, so life is coming full circle. But I went to college to actually be a journalist and somehow landed my way in health communication, which opened the world of public health to me. And so I went on to pursue my Master’s and my PhD. Worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which everybody knows right now. And was funded as a cancer researcher by the National Cancer Institute at NIH in my career as a university professor at the University of Georgia. So that was the short version of my life before doing non-profit work as the leader of Play Like a Girl.


Allison: Wow! That’s such a cool path. I feel like from journalism to public health and communications you really do get to touch a little bit of everything.


Dr. Kim: Yeah! And you know, when I mentor students one of the things I often message is that there is no experience that’s lost. There’s nothing wasted. I actually use my PR skills probably more now than I did coming right out of school working at a local newspaper. There are skill sets that are just absolutely necessary and are cross transferable to any job or work that you choose to do. The same applies. I actually received my Master’s degree in Social Work as a clinical social worker along the way and just the skill to be able to deal with people, to have the skill of empathy, to listen to the challenges that people are facing in their lives - especially now, during such an unprecedented time of great loss for a lot of people, whether it’s the social isolation aspect or actual death of someone that you know. My ability to be able to draw from the skills that I have as a social worker has really proven to be quite useful at this particular time as we deliver trauma centered work with the girls that we serve at Play Like a Girl.


Allison: Yeah! And I think on transferable skills - that’s really crucial to Play Like a Girl. And I think maybe to move on to that current work that you’re doing I just wanted to note how it’s so fitting - we didn’t plan this - but this week was National Girls and Women in Sports Day. So I feel like this is the perfect time to be doing this interview!


Dr. Kim: Yes! It’s the hottest day of the year for us!


Allison: Yeah! And for our listeners - Play Like a Girl is this great organization that inspires young girls to play sports and ultimately leverage those transferable skills like you were talking about, for future careers in competitive fields including STEM. So Dr. Kim, what was your inspiration for establishing Play Like a Girl?


Dr. Kim: So again, during my days at CDC, I had done a lot of work around racial and ethnic disparities in health. And when I went back to pursue my PhD, I continued that work, more niche focused in the area of cancer prevention and control. One of the things we know in public health is often in most chronic diseases, overweight and obesity is the primary predisposing factor for many populations, especially populations of color. Personally, I had suffered with and struggled with overweight and obesity all of my life at that point, and continue to struggle even today at 45. I knew that we needed to intervene in some way. And because I was drawn to community level work - working with actual people, touching them, engaging with them, and really intervening at the point of the individual - I wanted to create some type of program that would help to address these issues that were predisposing young women of color in the state of Alabama, which is where Play Like a Girl was founded, were located and experiencing early onset or early exposure to breast and cervical cancer. So initially, our work was actually health focused. Our whole intention was to get girls moving, get them active, screen women and girls around chronic diseases. Not just cancer, but also heart disease. We did a lot of HIV prevention work back in the day. And over time, it evolved into a nonprofit. It started as a classroom project for my PhD, it grew in popularity because moms and girls enjoyed doing it together. It was really event centered, so we would use the hook of an event like a concert or some other type of social event to generate the audience. And once we got them there and they were captivated, we engaged them in a lot of important activations. But one of the most important ones was to educate, and then to screen them for chronic illness. So that’s how we got our start. The decision to integrate STEM as an academic outcome actually was made much later. We were founded in 2004, but the decision to make that shift was in 2016. When ESPNW and Ernst and Young conducted a global study of women in the C-suite executive positions all across the world and found that 94% of women in the C-suite played sports. 56% of them played through college. So for me, that was an indicator that we needed to leverage sport for more than just the health benefit. Because we see sport as so catalytic in terms of really opening the door for women in terms of lifelong success across all areas of life. So this gave us something to hang our hats on. And honestly it was the best decision we ever made.


Allison: Yeah that’s really cool! I think both purposes really serve well. When I was younger, my mom put me in sports for those same reasons. She wanted me to be active and she wanted me to always be exercising and sports are a great way to do that. And also, I realized in hindsight how many skills I gained from being on the court or on the field, and I just didn’t notice. Things like communication with my teammates was such a big thing! Even holding my own position on the court and making space for myself in a community was something I didn’t realize, but it allowed me to have much more of a voice.


Dr. Kim: Our core belief statement as an organization is that we believe girls who are given the chance to play on a team become women with the confidence to stand on their own. So exactly what you just shared. Part of my origin story is that I grew up in this small town in Mississippi. Small but large enough to be the pit stop on the way to the next largest town, which happens to be a football town. SEC football town, so really serious. But in my small town I lived in a city where today even, there’s a balck park and a white park. So physical activity and the access to physical activity was not the same in my community. So for me, growing up you know the opportunity to go to a park- that was a limited opportunity. Secondly, as I continued to matriculate through school, the sport opportunities were also limited in that there were unspoken rules or expectations around who could play sport by race and ethnicity. Black girls tended to only be populating the basketball team or the track and field program. Whereas the softball team was reserved for white girls. And even today, in 2021, that largely describes my local high school and middle school sports program. Although yes, soccer has now been added. But when you get soccer, again you got a lot of primarily brown and black girl soccer teams. So that really informed who I had become. My own personal life struggles with weight and with health. But it also informed the work that I would do. So we have a very special interest in ensuring that black and brown girls have access to role models, coaches, and mentors. And that’s a huge focus for us in terms of exposure for our girls as well.


Allison: That’s so great! And then your website actually has some really great quotes from girls who were in various programs, noting how they were starting to feel inspired to join STEM or excited to learn about all the opportunities available to them. So I was just wondering, what is one of your personal favorite or maybe even most rewarding ways that you’ve been able to see the impact that sports or Play Like a Girl has on these youth?


Dr. Kim: Oh! I get to realize another full circle moment. One of my girls came back last semester to speak to our current middle school girls. She started our program in the fourth grade, and she is a college freshman today. I am so excited! The second part of that story is her name is Hannah Selders from Dallas, Texas. She actually will be the leader of what we are calling our new STEAM Team brand ambassador program. So she will be the face of a young brand ambassadors group that we’re creating to represent each of the disciplines in STEAM. They will be creating content for our social media, our website, and the like that really connects and engages in a much more near peer approach with the girls that we serve. For me, to now see Hannah from fourth grade grow up and become 1) a thriving college student but she’s also an entrepreneur. Her area in the STEAM disciplines is art. She’s a fashion and Master of Business student at Hampton University. And so she is living out her passion for art and fashion and sharing that now. Paying it forwards to the next generation of girls who are doing the same program she did many years ago.


Allison: That's such a great success story! I think a lot of us, when we grow up we do want to give back to the places that helped us become who we want to be in the best ways.


Dr. Kim: Yeah, and Hannah’s definitely doing that and we’re so pleased.


Allison: And I was kind of curious - we mentioned leadership and making space for yourself, but what are some other specific skills that you found sports can kind of transfer and set the foundation for in competitive fields?


Dr. Kim: Yeah so you’re so right. So leadership, the mere essence of teamwork. It’s built into sports. But also the sportsmanship piece. Learning how to lose and learning how to win. And learning how to congratulate the winner when you lose. How to celebrate other people’s winning moments. We have a session in our mentoring program that deals with failure. And overcoming the fear of failure, but also using failure as fuel. That’s hugely important to us. And so we train our girls to anticipate failure and develop the skill sets necessary to be able to emotionally deal with failure. And then turn failure around. So we talk about the bounce back and resiliency a lot with our girls. But also core to that - the very first two sessions we do with the girls is about knowing who you are. What are your values? And failure is important to know your value. Your value about winning, your value about losing. The second one is about setting smart goals. Knowing who you are, but also knowing where you’re going. Because by doing so you can also plan for those moments where you have to pivot, where you have to rebound, where you have to try again even when you fail. But the most important thing, I think, in everything we give our girls, everything they gain from sports, I think is confidence. It’s not that girls cannot compete at the same levels as their male peers. It is that we have been programmed through social norms as little girls. How many parents give their girls the Tonka truck as compared to the Barbie doll. That’s programming a girl to move away from tinkering and being dirty and exploring. And so sets a girl up for later in life, typically during the middle school years, to abandon an interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And so we’re saying no. We’ve gotta reverse those messages, reverse the norm, reverse the stereotypes that girls have come to know as normal in their lives. Such that they get to see something different. So we do that by engaging them in hands-on stem experiments and exercises we have. What we call STEM Saturday, which is a makerspace workshop where they get to tinker, they get to code, they get to practice robotics and some other fun things, engineering as well. In fact, the girls have produced music, they have developed apps and games. We even have a 10 year old girl, Carwyn Wilson in our program, who participated in our STEM and entrepreneurship camp last summer, who has started her own line of skin products called Roux by Carwyn. She’s from New Orleans. So it's the confidence that the girls gain through all of these experiences, plus the skills. Those hard skills they get as well, that really grants girls permission. Not that they should have to have permission. But often it is seeing that it is possible, having an example and a role model. That’s critical. And so we do that too through our mentoring program. We take girls out into industry work environments through corporate field trips so that they get to see women in STEM in action. So it's a myriad of things, but ultimately it is about bolstering and building their self confidence.


Allison: Wow! I definitely think that’s such a great idea because I remember for me, the reason I wanted to be in STEM was exactly that. I saw a female in STEM, and I saw myself. I knew that was what I wanted to be, and I saw it possible. And I remember it was in 7th grade for me, in middle school. It totally changed my life after that. And similarly, in my classes right now, I’m getting that reinforcement of the importance of making smart goals, learning about failure, and having a growth mindset about it. Kind of moving on from it. It’s so important. And it's great that young girls are learning about it too!


Dr. Kim: Well that’s great to hear too! Because when I was in school, formal education didn’t include any of that in messaging. We didn’t learn anything about growth mindset. You just picked yourself up and you kept moving. Did you gain a skill with it? No. You know you just do what you do to survive. So to be able to 1) see it formalized at your level. But yes to be able to offer it to girls in middle school for me. That’s a huge point of success for us as an organization.


Allison: Oh yeah for sure! And then I think one last question is how can people help or get involved in this cause? Because it’s so important.


Dr. Kim: Well college students - we’re always recruiting interns. If you’d like to intern or volunteer I really encourage folks to visit our website at iplaylikeagirl.org/jobs. Which is where those jobs and internships would be posted. But if you have an idea about anything you want to do and there’s not currently a posting, simply send us an email through our website and propose or ask for the opportunity that you’d like to pursue. In terms of general population - we’re always in the position of need in terms of donations so I won’t even belabor that one. But a big part of what we do is the mentoring piece, especially now during COVID, when we’re depending on digital education and learning for our interactions with our girls. So I encourage folks to visit our website at iplaylikeagirl.org/mentor. There’s a short form where you can add your personal information and be added to our list for mentors for the upcoming cycle. We just closed mentor applications for the spring cycle. But girls- actually applications for girls anywhere in the world who want to participate in our mentoring program can do so. It's a lot of fun, it's interactive, high energy, hands-on. But you also get the opportunity to learn about women’s careers from big companies. I saw a list this morning - we’ve got Uber, Apple, JE Dunn Construction, a local company here in Nashville, Home Depot, everything in between is represented among the women who are mentors this year. So that’s a huge way to give back. But also again get the girls in your circle- your network, your community, your family, your school- get them involved as mentees in the program and all of that information is available on our website.


Allison: Wow! Well I think that’s a great way to wrap up this episode of SciSection! Thank you Dr. Kim so much for talking with me today! And for our listeners definitely go do that - go check out iplaylikeagirl.org.