Global Game Changers: Interview with Founder Jan Helson

Jan Helson
Co-founder and chairman of Global Game Changers, Jan Helson.

Global Game Changers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides social-emotional learning (SEL) and character leadership development curricula for pre-K through 5th-grade students. Now, as September approaches, that organization is finding ways to gently discuss the events of September 11, 2001, with small children.

Co-founder and chairman of Global Game Changers, Jan Helson, recently discussed this organization via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): What inspired you to start Global Game Changers and why did you select that name?

Jan Helson (JH): I entered into education from a corporate business background. One of our family-owned companies, Golden Foods/Golden Brands: a global fats and oils business that employed commodity traders to chemical engineers to on-the-line production workers. Over the course of running the company with my husband of 20+ years, we started to notice some issues with our workforce, including high turnover rates with our production line workers.

Many young production workers, who came from at-risk and impoverished backgrounds, struggled in the workforce, lacking the confidence to effectively communicate within the workplace to become resilient and successful employees. They had become less able to communicate and less able to problem solve. As a result, my husband and I worked to develop a different culture at our business ― one focused on empowering everyone from high school dropouts to MBAs. But in the back of my mind, I wondered, “What if we didn’t have to wait until people reach the workforce to teach them problem solving and leadership skills?” When we sold our business in 2011, I knew that I wanted to help empower the next generation at a younger age with core social, emotional, and leadership skills.

When my daughter Rachel and I originally conceived of Global Game Changers, it was as a children’s book that we co-wrote. Rachel was only 17 and a freshman at NYU Tisch School of the Arts at the time and had recently accomplished raising $50,000 for breast cancer research by using her talent for theater. Her experience motivated us to learn about other kids – even younger – who had made a difference, in order to inspire every child to know they have a unique talent to make a difference in the world. As we spoke to readers about the book, the mission began to grow. I sought out experts: teachers, evaluation experts, writers, and more to take the ideas behind The Global Game Changers and transform it into a curriculum and a tool to empower our youngest students.

In 2013, born of an entrepreneurial-philanthropic spirit, we founded Global Game Changers as an education nonprofit dedicated to using service learning as a tool to build students’ social, emotional, and leadership skills starting at a young age. Her experience became the framework for our curriculum: MY TALENT + MY HEART = MY SUPERPOWER!®

MM: How did you come up with the protocols for talking to young children about 9/11?

JH: We’re lucky to work closely with several extraordinary educators on an ongoing basis as part of our Educator Advisory Council. For The 9/11 Lesson, we worked with Brandon Graves, a 3rd grade veteran teacher of 15 years from Louisville, KY. Mr. Graves experienced 9/11 firsthand as a college student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Not only did this personal connection impress upon him the importance of teaching about 9/11, but it also meant that other teachers – upon learning about it – asked him to help them incorporate 9/11 specifically into their classrooms. He was able to draw upon his experience to consult with our team to help develop tips and protocol, and in fact, filmed a video recording of many of those tips.

MM: What other difficult topics have you discussed with children?

JH: The Global Game Changers curriculum, which was the impetus for developing The 9/11 Lesson, helps children discover their Superpower to make the world a better place using our Superpower Equation: MY TALENT + MY HEART = MY SUPERPOWER!® When discussing or considering how to make the world a better place, you have to confront some difficult topics like bullying, discrimination, homelessness, hunger, dementia, and PTSD in order for kids to understand what they want to change. Focusing on the positive, and their ability to serve, is a key part of engaging in difficult conversations for us. Most recently, we developed a Violence Prevention curriculum which draws on understanding and expressing emotions to encourage more peaceful interactions.

MM: What are some of the reactions you’ve seen children have when they learn about these scary events?

JH: When we’re working with our youngest students, sometimes they worry that the scary thing we discuss can happen to them. Their brains don’t quite understand yet how to distance themselves from what they learn about in the way that adult brains do. That’s why it’s so important to focus on what they can understand and avoid the geopolitical details – at least until they’re old enough to process it.

MM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about your organization?

JH: In 2017, Ashley Novak Butler, the Executive Director for the Novak Family Foundation, invited me to present to her and her parents about Global Game Changers. The result of that meeting was that The Novak Family Foundation gave us a $1 million grant to build a national online educator platform to expand our reach nationwide.

The Novak family believes that everyone has the potential to be a great leader and adopted Global Game Changers as part of their education pipeline to provide programs that develop leaders of all ages who will be able to meet today’s challenges and make the world a better place. GGC represents the preschool – 5th grade part of that pipeline. That meeting changed the trajectory of our organization and was most certainly game-changing feedback!

MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes or topics might you like to explore in future initiatives?

JH: We’re lucky that our program comes with lots of dynamic characters, based on our origin as a book. We’re constantly exploring more opportunities to introduce those characters and the messages of our curriculum to a wider or different audience of children. As a businesswoman by trade, I’d also love to provide our students with the framework to develop businesses around their Superpower service goals.  There are so many skills that you develop as an entrepreneur that I think our kids need to succeed in the 21st century, and I’d love to marry that with the heart of service within Global Game Changers.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

JH: Of course, we’d love to expand the reach of Global Game Changers so that millions of students across the country are able to explore and learn from our curriculum in and out of the classroom. Due to a complexity of reasons, it is difficult for many students to make a connection between how what they experience in the classroom is relevant or beneficial to their long-term success. One of the ways we hope to help students make the connection is to develop interactive and edutainment-based programs that make our core mission more accessible to a broader audience.

We are currently working on an animated children’s show about a scrappy team of kid superheroes who use their unique talents to help real-life kids use theirs to battle Krumi, their archnemesis, a dark cloud that spreads apathy throughout the world. Ultimately, I would like to create meaningful change in the education system, where classrooms and schools would 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.

Your readers can follow my personal account on Twitter at @JanMHelson or can follow Global Game Changers on Facebook at @TheGlobalGameChangers Instagram at @globalgamechangers and Twitter at @GlobalGameChgrs