Jill Vialet, CEO & Founder, Playworks


Using athletics to teach children life skills

  • I’m increasingly aware of the context to which being an effective leader is predicated on a very high level of empathy
  • We have a strong culture around leading from the middle; but the dominance of empathy in their style really seems to be a key sign about whether or not they’re going to be successful.
  • Empathy is a learned skill like anything else, and I think that diminishing opportunities for kids to play means that there is a diminishing opportunity for them to learn and practice the skills of empathy


What inspired you to create Playworks?

I am part of that generation of women post Title IX.  I got to play a lot of sports growing up, and I’ve always loved sports, games, and playing outside. My kids, on the other hand really aren’t growing up with that unsupervised play.  I am a mom, and I must admit that I spend a lot of time thinking about how different my kid’s childhood is from my own, because I spent a huge amount of time out in the local neighborhood as a kid unsupervised with varying degrees of structure that was owned by the kids themselves.

I competed in all sorts of sports; I ran track in high school, and played basketball and soccer.  For me, some of the social skills I learned in those moments really helped me form who I am today as an adult woman running a non-profit that’s scaling and operating in 22 cities across the country.  I do think that so much of my success is attributable to the fact that I grew up with play and sports being integral to who I am.

What are you trying to change with Playworks, and ideas of structure versus unstructured play?

I sometimes joke that I know we’re on the right track because I’ve been called both a vanguard of the Obama nanny state by more right-leaning folks, and a recess fascist by more left-leaning folks.  I have to laugh because I do think that structure is very important and it’s a misinterpretation to think that when we were growing up there wasn’t structure, but I do think what has changed is the answer to the question of who owns the structure and how do you create a really healthy way for kids to learn the skills that they effectively need to navigate the structure?

How do you define leadership, and how is leadership cultivated at Playworks?

I am increasingly aware of the extent to which being an effective leader is predicated on a very high level of empathy.  It’s not a skill that the Fortune 500 Company has historically spent a lot of time lodging in their top leaders, and I increasingly recognize it in the folks who are leaders at Playworks.  We have a strong culture around leading from the middle; but the dominance of empathy in their style really seems to be a key sign about whether or not they’re going to be successful.  Empathy is a learned skill like anything else, and I think that diminishing opportunities for kids to play means that there is a diminishing opportunity for them to learn and practice the skills of empathy.

Can you describe a time in this entire process of starting up Playworks where you faced tremendous self-doubt, or challenge, where it just seems like there’s no end?  And how did you go about overcoming that?

About 8 years ago, the Robert Wood Johnson foundation made a $4.4 million investment in us to test our model in three cities outside of California.  We’d been operating here in the Bay area and were having a tremendous amount of success, and there was an increasing amount of demand out in the rest of the country.  So we began this process of trying to open these new offices and figure out how that would work.  We first launched in Baltimore, and then in Boston and D.C.

While all this was happening, a number of our senior staff came to the point of not feeling like they had faith in my capacity to execute against the plan.  I think they didn’t really see themselves in the expansion.  Overall, there was a significant amount of underlying doubt amongst them about the wisdom of this course of action.  They were desperately unhappy, so they went to our national board and basically said, “this is a terrible idea”.

This was incredibly a hard time for me partly because these people were people who I’d worked with for a long time and was very close with, and partly because it became abundantly clear that, while I had brought a lot of great skills and strengths to the role, management really wasn’t chief among them.  I realized that I had been managing by having great people who didn’t need a lot of direction and instruction, but from this project there was really a much more singular need for management as a functional expertise.

While I still believe that they were wrong for thinking that, I did have to come to terms with the fact that they were right that I hadn’t effectively managed the situation so that they could see themselves at the organization in the future.  It was a really interesting time because I had to realize what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at.  I also had recognized that I had always thought that I was good with change and that other people weren’t as good with it, but really what was going on was that in the past I had had more control over the change than anyone else.  Therefore I realized that there needed to be more empathy on my part and I had to realize that bigger meant different as well.

So we began a process of bringing in more functional expertise, and ultimately I got out of the role of managing, and into a role where I was more outward facing and evangelizing.  It was hard, and although I was unhappy about it, I never considered quitting.  I vividly remember thinking as I was running up a hill one day, “God I would never stop running up this hill” and for me that felt analogous to the idea that I wasn’t going to stop trying to scale this idea of making it possible for every kid in America to get to play every day.

People talk about mentors and advisors in building reservoirs of emotional supports.  Can you talk about where you’ve seen effective mentorship, both in your experiences as a mentor and mentee?

I feel like I’ve been really lucky that I’ve always had great mentors- sometimes funders, sometimes other non-profit people, and even a good number of women who went out of their way to be supportive and available for me.  But for mentors and mentees, there always has to be a balance.  The balance includes not needing too much, and always being responsive when someone creates an opportunity.  In my experience, a lot of people are willing to create many opportunities for you if you are willing to walk through the door.  You also have to realize that sometimes you walk through doors and incredible things happen, and sometimes you walk through doors and it’s kind of a bust.  But you have to continue to stay open and willing to walk through those doors.

I think one of the things that I’ve done well is to look for peer mentors in less likely places.  Some of the most effective mentors that I’ve had have been people in career sectors other than education.  I like a healthy disagreement or a variety of perspectives; I really believe in the power of diversity.  For example, through Ashoka, I met this amazing Ashoka fellow based in Detroit named Joe Williams.  He’s a former felon who runs this extraordinary ministry/rehabilitation program for other former felons.  They did all sorts of counseling work to help reverse the horrific trends of recidivism.  If you see me and Joe standing next to each other, you would never think that we would be fast friends.  But, the way he can see a future in which recidivism isn’t the debilitation factor that it is today – that young men and women coming out of prison can be continuing citizens in our society – he can see it like it’s happened.

There was a familiarity in that singular vision to my ability to see us living in a world in which all 60,000 of our public elementary schools have someone who is focused on play and recess, and who is contributing to a school climate that is part of learning and physical activity.  Joe has that same kind of myopic slight lunacy that I found so familiar.  So, when we launched in Detroit, even though our work doesn’t overlap in any way, shape, or form other than caring about people, he jumped at the chance to help connect us in Detroit, and to be an advocate with local foundations.  It was just a generosity of spirit, and that really meant a lot to me.

You have a tremendous amount of responsibility with your work, and you also have a family.  How do you integrate your work and family life?

I’m divorced, so I have a blended family of two kids of my own, and three step-kids between the ages of eight and sixteen.  They’re amazing; they are the most important, best work I’ve ever done, and I love being a mom.  I’m always struck by the extent to which I do have this incredibly luck because I’m a CEO, and I have a family situation where people really appreciate my work and are super cooperative.  I am able to piece it together in a way that I think is unusual, and I try not to take it for granted.

I’m also very mindful with Playworks and the people we employ to make sure we create an environment that is family-friendly.  I feel like we really try not to glorify busy, and not to have people working crazy hours.  In my opinion, if you’re going to be a non-profit that’s encouraging people to play, and if you value children and families, you have to value them to your utmost ability.  So here we are very mindful about “walking the walk” too.  But it’s hard. People work hard, people put in long hours, but we try to create an environment that’s flexible, because families require flexibility.  I have no doubt that I probably have the most flexible situation of anyone here, and I’m very appreciative of it.

What advice would you give the twenty two year old Jill who just graduated from college?

I’m a big fan of leaps of faith; they have served me very well.  I also think you can’t overstate the importance of having meaning in your life.  You can find meaning in a lot of ways; there are a lot of meaningful for-profit work as well as non-profit work.  Working with people that you respect is extraordinarily important, having work that engages you and that really feeds your heart and soul is just absolutely the best choice I’ve made.

I also think perspective is everything.  In my life, I know that I want to have meaningful work, I want to make a difference, I want to be successful in seeing Playworks actually scale, and I also want to make sure that I have a great relationship with my partner, my kids as they grow, my friends, and my family.  I’m not perfect at it; I make mistakes all the time and I ask for forgiveness all the time.  The most important thing for me is the idea that we shouldn’t settle for anything less than having meaning in your life, and above all, we should never lose our sense of humor.



Jill Vialet has worked for more than 25 years in the nonprofit sector, during which she has focused her entrepreneurial skills on founding and growing two successful nonprofit organizations.  In 1996, Vialet launched Playworks with two schools in Berkeley, California.  Currently the organization brings play and physical activities to children across the country, with offices in 23 cities.  During the 2012-13 school year Playworks will serve over 400,000 students through direct and training services, reaching more than 750 schools and youth-serving organizations. Prior to Playworks, Vialet founded the Museum of Children’s Art (mocha) in Oakland, California. She served as the executive director at mocha for nine years, ultimately expanding its programs to reach 20,000 young people each year.

Vialet graduated from Harvard University where she studied medical sociology, played rugby, and became actively involved with Harvard’s service-learning community. Vialet served as the director of Harvard’s Public Service Program during the 1986-87 school year. In 1996 she was awarded Radcliffe’s Jane Rainie Opel Award for achievement by a young alumna.

Vialet was selected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2004. In 2009, Vialet and Playworks were selected as a member of the Clinton Global Initiative.  In 2011 Jill was named by Forbes magazine as one of the top 30 leading social entrepreneurs and recognized by the Women’s Sports Foundation as one of 40 Women Leaders in honor of the anniversary of Title IX.  In 2013 Jill was awarded the James Irvine Leadership Award.


The LifeChat Series in Sport was created in partnership with Beyond Sport. More information at www.beyondsport.org.