In this podcast, we are talking with Coach AK, President and Founder of Empower 2 Play. Our discussion centers on how to keep going when you keep hitting walls, trusting in the process, the benefits of finding strategic corporate sponsors, and differentiating yourself from other nonprofits.
Coach AK, President and Founder of Empower 2 Play, is a soal entrepreneur, former professional athlete and educator who has worked with thousands of students and athletes from around the world. Through his travels to over 30 countries, he uses the power of sports to bridge communities, and identify and link next generation youth ambassadors around the world.
Athletically, as a former 4 x All-American runner from the University of Oregon, he understands the impact athletics can have on one’s life. As an educator, Coach AK served as the Associate Dean of Students at the St Paul’s School as well as the Summer School Diversity and Scholarship Director and Admissions at Phillips Exeter Academy. While at the St Paul’s School, Coach AK helped lead community building efforts during the controversial sexual assault trial in 2015.
Coach AK has appeared in advertisements for companies such as Nike, Yurbuds, Sony, Women’s Health, Fox Sports and was even a contestant on the Fox hit show, “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader”. Unfortunately, he was not smarter than a 5th Grader!
Through Empower 2 Play, his team has worked with governmental agencies as well as companies such as United Airlines, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Unilever, to provide sports instruction to unite and provide cross-cultural engagement, educational scholarships and life skills development to youth. Currently, Empower 2 Play has expanded operations into Haiti and has teamed up with the State Department and Livit Now to conduct a 10-day sports diplomacy initiative using live virtual reality technology.
AK’s mission is to make a more empathetic and connected world through the power of sports. He believes everyone has the ability to make an impact on this world. The question is who are the ones willing to take the risk.
You can listen and enjoy the full discussion with Coach AK in our podcast, but here are some of the highlights.
Difficult Tasks Seem Easy in Hindsight
Looking back now on the start-up process, Coach AK says that now it seems easy. But as we as individuals and organizations go through the processes of starting a business, it gets easier as we move through the processes. The challenges of days past seem simple now compared to the new tasks at hand. It is just the learning process. Coach AK compared it to lifting weights.
“At the start, it was hard for me to lift up just the bar, it was so heavy, but now I’m lifting up 300 pounds. It’s still heavy, but when I look to doing that process from the start again, it’ll be like I could do it all day….”
It’s still a challenge, every single day. But it becomes easy when you look back. It’s what you thought was hard beforehand becoming more commonplace.
A Big ‘Why’ Keeps You Going
When the going gets tough for Coach AK, the mission, the kids in need – his ‘why’ kept him going. He would think about how many kids around the world wouldn’t have an opportunity without them, and how it would affect the communities they serve. It’s not an option for him to quit.
“If someone adds that additional pressure of when things are really, really hard, or when you get that rejection that you didn’t expect, or when you’re expecting that funding to come in but it didn’t come in, and can I continue to do this, that is really … my inspiration. You know, you have these kids that one day woke up, went to a sports camp, and by the end of it they had an academic scholarship…”
Sometimes it’s in the ‘Bad’ Moments that the Magic Happens
When asked if he had had a failure that turned into a learning experience, Coach AK talked about one particular camp experience they were planning on filming. The perfect situation he was hoping and planning for didn’t turn out at all as he had planned. Instead of sunny skies, it started pouring rain and the game had to be cancelled. But the result was a major shift in their mission. Instead of empowering communities one sport at a time, it became about creating a global family one sport at a time. They realized that sports was just the vehicle.
“…really what that camp did for everybody … it took away all of these layers, like the clothes you wear, where you’re coming from, and realize that that no longer matters. This sport allowed us all to be on a level playing field and see each other for who we truly were. Our biggest failure actually happened to be our biggest success, and changed our whole entire mission.”
With Corporations, Look for Strategic Partnerships
Coach AK’s experience with fundraising started with hitting many walls, but began to move forward when they began developing strategic partners with corporations. He recommended looking at fundraising through two different lenses – the philanthropic lens and the corporate lens. Sharing their message through media, video and images has helped them with finding corporate sponsors as it clearly shows the work they are doing. It provides transparency. When having conversations with corporations, he advises understanding what the corporation is looking for and approaching it from that perspective.
Know Your Strengths – and What Differentiates You
Coach AK’s parting words of wisdom were before you start building your organization to “understand what is in your toolbox before you start, because that is going to be the main driver, the main relationship-builder, as you move forward in this organization.” In other words, what advantages do you have that make you stand out from anyone else? Who are your supporters? Networks? Your background and experience? What is your story?
What strengths do you have that will help you build the strategic relationships that will help move your organization forward? How do you build trust with others that you are going to help you fulfill your mission? “These are all things that you need to really shape as you move forward . . .” You need to recognize the unique things that you bring to the table. What others will recognize as the assets you bring to the table – the types of networks and social circles you have supporting you.
“People want to align with people with good brands, with good stories, with good influencers. Why are you going to pick one over another? It’s going to be the enhanced stuff that you bring, because there’s going to be other organizations that are doing something similar. How are you going to find your way to stand out?”