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From Olympic Tracks to Classroom Impacts: Steve Mesler’s Journey

From Olympic Tracks to Classroom Impacts: Steve Mesler’s Journey

CanadianSME Small Business Magazine recently sat down with Steve Mesler, CEO of Classroom Champions, to discuss the parallels between elite sports and entrepreneurship. Steve Mesler, an Olympian, drew from his experiences in athletics to establish Classroom Champions, an initiative that merges sports and education. This unique program taps into the wisdom of Olympians and Paralympians, teaching children vital life skills such as perseverance and goal-setting. With the recent support from The Energizing Community Collective, Steve’s vision is poised to make a significant impact, particularly in underserved communities, highlighting the transformative power of combining passion with purpose.

Steve Mesler is the Co-Founder and CEO of Classroom Champions, a non-profit that brings together children and the world’s best athletes to mentor and teach kids the skills they need to succeed in and out of the classroom. After breaking a 62- year drought for Team USA by winning an Olympic Gold Medal in the 4-man bobsled at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, Steve was inspired to bring the values, lessons, and experiences he and his fellow Olympic and Paralympic athletes had gained through sport into classrooms. Since creating Classroom Champions, over 200 athletes have taught more than 1 million students about decision making, goal setting, perseverance, and teamwork to support their mental health, wellness, and academic achievement.

How did your entrepreneurial path lead to the creation of Classroom Champions? What drove you to uniquely combine the realms of athletics and education?

From my experience, elite athletes tend to be naturally entrepreneurial in some way. To get that far, especially on the Olympic side, you need to be able to sell yourself – just like starting a business. You’re seeking sponsorship to fund your journey, all while aiming to impress coaches and teammates with your performance and personality to align with or shape the team’s culture.

Then, there are the common characteristics: the discipline required to adhere to a plan while remaining open to identifying and implementing necessary adjustments, the capacity to navigate the continuous shifts between enthusiasm and setbacks, and the drive to continually seek opportunities for self-improvement and the betterment of your team or company.

From Olympic Tracks to Classroom Impacts: Steve Mesler’s Journey

For me, transitioning from sports to entrepreneurship felt like a natural progression. While training for the Olympics, I realized the importance of various skills, as mentioned earlier, and many others. I believed that if we could instill these skills in kids from a young age, we had a real opportunity to positively impact both their life paths and society as a whole.

That’s the basis of Classrooms Champions: Taking the journey and experience of Olympians and Paralympians to teach kids the mindsets and skills they need to succeed in life. Skills that we often refer to as “traits” – that are often fixed like grit, perseverance, goal setting ability, mental health coping strategies, and emotional regulation – are teachable skills that can simply be learned and implemented, and are life-changing.

In order to teach these skills and mindsets to kids, to make them come to life in each and every one of these students, we leverage Olympians, Paralympians, and more to both talk about them, but also to tell their personal stories of success and failure in implementing them.

And then we needed to wrap that in an easy-to-use program for teachers, which eventually has evolved into options for schools and districts that include full-blown curriculum, virtual mentorship programs, and more.

I’m incredibly proud of where Classroom Champions is today. What started as just me, the Olympian mentoring, with my PhD educator sister Leigh supporting, a handful of classrooms around the country a over a decade later has seen over 300 Olympic, Paralympic, professional and collegiate athletes lend their experience to millions of kids across North America in partnership with thousands of schools and school districts.

My entrepreneurial path has allowed me to see Classroom Champions as much more than a classroom program, that’s how it’s been able to expand, garner partnerships and break moulds like it has today.

Classroom Champions recently secured a significant funding amount from “The Energizing Community Collective.” How do you anticipate this will transform the outreach and impact of Classroom Champions, particularly in underserved communities like First Nations Reserves and Métis Settlements?

The support The Collective has provided is no less than transformational. The need for stronger support in First Nation and Métis communities post-COVID is likely as high as it’s ever been. The resources are already at work as we’ve seen a 10x increase in support to provide to Indigenous communities in Canada that are asking for programming with the goals of improving mental health outcomes, grades and attendance for students, and building the social-emotional skills that are required to enter the workforce in the future.

Classroom Champions’ ability to bring on not only experts, but Indigenous people as experts, to run the outreach programs into these communities, coupled with the ability to continue to build the Classroom Champions Circle program and curriculum to meet the needs of communities is unlike anything we’ve done in the past. We are capturing elder stories, hiring Indigenous educators and animators to bring those stories to young students, and then gifting that content to the originators/Nations and communities is monumental.

The Collective’s financial support in three-year blocks is allowing these communities to bring on programs at no cost to them, train and support the teachers, and improve the programs. Then our team will be working with the communities, the sponsors, and government in the future to ensure stability of funding lines.

The connection between Classroom Champions and the communities where your supporting energy companies operate seems profound. How have these local ties influenced the strategies and priorities of Classroom Champions?

That’s a great question. Simply put – the energy industry has influenced some of our strategy, but not our priorities.

When we expanded the organization and opened up the Canadian Charity in 2013, we set out to identify the areas of need and where there was opportunity to make the biggest impact based on what we had been seeing in our research from the first couple years in the U.S. The Board of Directors identified that as low socio-economic urban, rural, and Indigenous communities. And because of the virtual nature of our programming and impact, the organication can deliver to the most remote areas as long as they have internet, or cell service – which is very unique.

From Olympic Tracks to Classroom Impacts: Steve Mesler’s Journey

From there we began to identify funding sources and being based in Calgary, the energy industry was first in. Crescent Point Energy, who was actually Classroom Champions’ first corporate partner (in the U.S. in 2012, actually) helped us learn how to work with the industry to understand their needs to improve the communities they live and operate in.

We have learned, and then developed and continue to evolve a strategy over the years to help be a single-source provider for companies who have wide geographic needs to invest in their communities.

Before Classroom Champions, any company, whether in the energy sector or not, that operated in ten communities and aimed to invest in education for a skilled future workforce and improved schools for employees’ children would typically need to collaborate with ten separate charities. This approach required significant resources and coordination on the corporate side. Moreover, there was a risk that 50% of these charities might face challenges in effectively delivering their programs.

Now, Classroom Champions can fulfil our priorities and mission to empower kids socially, emotionally, and academically in rural and Indigenous communities while aligning with the delivery and logistical needs of sponsors.

Geri Greenall’s (Spartan Delta CFO and corporate lead of the Energizing Communities Collective) idea, to aggregate the industry to work together to help Classroom Champions reach scale and thus amplify everyone’s investment, was brilliant. Instead of working with numerous charities, we offer a centralized solution. This approach maximizes efficiency, reduces administrative burdens, and ensures that our programs effectively reach and benefit the communities we serve. Seeing everyone working together has been just fantastic.

And I’ll also say this – yes, we ensure alignment between the communities and corporate sponsors as much as possible, but in my experience working all across North America, there isn’t one industry that is as generous and supportive of their communities as this industry.

The people who lead these companies, on the whole, get it. They get the need and they get the incredibly crucial role they play in these communities. And that’s been really refreshing to be a part of.

From Olympic Tracks to Classroom Impacts: Steve Mesler’s Journey

With the new funding, tens of thousands of children in Western Canada are set to benefit. Can you provide some insights into the expanded educational programming and the kind of skills and knowledge these children will gain?

I touched on this a bit above, but when kids are involved with Classroom Champions programs attendance rises, grades improve, and teachers enjoy their jobs more.* The cascading effects of that are invaluable. When kids are motivated (and excited) to show up for school, the trajectory of their lives could change. On top of that, they’re learning skills like perseverance, goal setting, leadership, empathy, and mental health strategies that they can use beyond just their lives in the classroom. McKinsey & Company foresees solid interpersonal abilities to be second only to technology skills in importance of the future workforce. The skills and mindsets Classroom Champions teach kids will set them up for the utmost success.

Thanks to this new funding, Classroom Champions is already providing in-person training and professional development to teachers in Western Canada, for the first time in our history. And research shows that it is more effective than virtual for teachers.

As I’ve mentioned, deeper work with Indigenous communities is happening through the Classroom Champions Circle program, and more communities will meet their Olympic or Paralympic mentors in person than ever before. In fact – I’d love to have readers join us this coming spring for one of those community celebration events!

*Classroom Champions 2022 Report to Community

Classroom Champions offers a unique opportunity for athletes to mentor schools through technology. How has this athlete-mentorship model influenced student achievement and mental health, and what are the feedback and experiences of athletes participating in the program?

In today’s world, there’s no shortage of role models, but there is an outnumbering of positive role models. Kids can jump on TikTok and get insight into the minds of influencers and celebrities, but they’re rarely talking about things that will improve the lives of our youth. In fact, both research and common sense tell us part of the current youth mental health crisis can be attributed to social media and these outside influences from the traditional model of kids learning from their families, close community members, and teachers.

Instead, kids today are comparing themselves to what they see on the internet. And we all know that isn’t real. With Classroom Champions, kids have direct access to a world that does improve their self-esteem and mindset. The direct access to their Athlete Mentor allows for growth and development in the right areas; allowing kids to understand their worth, build their value set, and stay focused on their goals.

We’re also seeing fascinating results from district-led research showing 3-4x improvements in student mental health and wellness outcomes compared to other programs. This is connected to long-term research that shows people high in goal-persistence (stick to those goals!), perseverance, and positive reframing (take a bad and make it a good) have lower levels of anxiety and depression. And those are the exact skills and mindsets Classroom Champions programming is teaching through these athletes and curriculum.

In terms of athlete impact: 100% of athlete-mentors report that participating in the program helped them prepare for life after sport. They not only feel the power of the emotional impact they have on kids, but their participation truly sets them up to feel confident in their abilities and skills after sport.

From Olympic Tracks to Classroom Impacts: Steve Mesler’s Journey

What guidance or piece of advice would you give to individuals looking to embark on their own entrepreneurial ventures, especially in the realm of education or social impact?

I would say, first and foremost, make sure you are energized by it. The hours are long and you will need that passion to get you through the chorus of nos, the failures, and the challenges that lie ahead. That goes for entrepreneurs overall, but doubly on the charitable side because there is no “exit” plan in the sense of selling the company that may keep you engaged during the hard times.

From there – prioritize what you want your outcomes to be. What do you want the people who use your idea to think, feel, and or do once they engage with you? Too many people focus on some awesome way of doing things that can be accomplished through simpler or cheaper means.

Lastly, and I could go another 10 points but we’ll keep this tight, if you’re the only one who thinks it’s a good idea… you might be onto something! If it was obvious and easy, someone’s likely already doing it. Go out and find your people, your funders, and your users – they’ll be out there!

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