In 2011, when Jan Helson retired at the age of 51, she proclaimed that her “second act” would be devoted to giving back. Her dream was to help to make the world a better place for future generations.
A successful businesswoman and entrepreneur, Helson and her husband Tim had operated and developed Golden Foods/Golden Brands. The Louisville, Kentucky-based brand was a global leader in the industrial baking industry. Over a span of 30 years the Helsons launched and managed many other new ventures.
But this new chapter of Helson’s professional life was sparked by something personal.
In 2004, Helson’s daughter Rachel learned that four of her aunts had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Rachel was 15 at the time, and she was intent on helping in any way she could. With guidance, Rachel decided to use her lifelong love of theater to produce her own theatrical benefits to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research.
During her college career at New York University and into her professional career, Rachel Helson continued to use her theater and production talents to support this cause that was so close to her heart. Jan and Rachel Helson wrote two books, PHILANTHROPY: A Big Word for Big Hearted People and The Global Game Changers. The books highlight an enduring message: anyone can make a difference no matter who you are and where you come from. The overwhelming response to those books was “This is great, but we need more.”
Ultimately this inspired the creation of the non-profit called Global Game Changers and the organization’s superpower equation: MY TALENT + MY HEART = MY SUPERPOWER. Global Game Changers offers a free curriculum to educators consisting of social-emotional learning (SEL) and character and leadership development programs. It uses the superpower equation to empower students to overcome apathy, feel empathy, and foster a sustainable connection to service.
Global Game Changers launched with a three-school pilot program featuring teachers from a public, private, and parochial school. It has now been implemented into hundreds of elementary schools in the United States and beyond.
As Jan Helson shares, the Global Game Changers curriculum addresses key flaws in the system. “Our education system needs to change. It doesn’t set up students for success. Students, particularly those from our most at-risk populations, fall through the cracks every day,” she says. “The current system doesn’t account for the way our world and our workforce have changed. I believe in practical and hands-on experience for all students. Global Game Changers reflects that. We focus on real-world problems, solutions, and actions.”
Jan Helson shared more.
What does the Global Game Changers curriculum look like?
Jan Helson: Our program not only builds leadership and social-emotional learning skills, it 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-kindergarten 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. 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.
Who do you consider mentors?
Jan Helson: 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. 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. 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 1960s. His approach to everything was unconventional.
My husband, Tim, also possesses a genius financial mind. 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.
What challenges have women faced, compared to their male counterparts, in trying to disrupt an established industry?
Jan Helson: To be honest, I feel as though I haven’t faced as many challenges as my female counterparts. Only in rare instances I felt like 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 special at the time. Luckily, it’s getting to be less special. 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.
What’s one book or podcast that has a deep impact on your thinking, and how?
Jan Helson: David Novak’s How Leaders Lead is a favorite podcast of mine. He interviews leaders from a lot of different spaces and discusses the lessons learned on their journeys to becoming good leaders. I find the candid and casual conversations to be insightful and inspiring, especially learning the different paths interviewees took to becoming leaders.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Jan Helson: 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, with more autonomy to meet the specific needs of their schools’ students and families, and their accountability is determined by the growth and sustainability of their students’ data. A lower student-to-teacher ratio would help ensure each student gets the individual attention they need. Classrooms and schools should be interactive and experiential, so that students receive a practical education to develop the skills and acquire the resources they need for a career path that makes them feel comfortable and confident.