Play Like a Girl with Dr. Kimberly S. Clay

January 5, 2021

Dr. Kimberly S. Clay is the Founder and CEO of Play Like a Girl, a Nashville-based non-profit organization working to level the playing field for girls by leveraging the skills gained from sport to propel young women into male-dominated careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Since its inception, Play Like a Girl has reached over 25,000 girls and young women across the United States and Canada, as well as in Africa and the Caribbean. Dr. Kim began her career as a public health analyst at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Early in her career, she saw the gender gap in education and health firsthand while working in underserved communities across the South. This led her to establish Play Like a Girl during her doctoral studies in health education. In 2007, she returned to the classroom—this time, as a tenure-track professor—at the University of Georgia where she taught and conducted research exploring long-term cancer survivorship in women.


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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast, I am John Shegerian. I am so excited to have with us today, Dr. Kimberly Clay, better known as Dr. Kim. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Dr. Kim.

Dr. Kimberly Clay: Thank you. Thanks for having me, John. I am so excited to be here.

John: You are the founder and CEO of Play Like a Girl, and I am so excited to cover this topic this year in 2020, I have a daughter who is 34 now and is woman’s rights attorney, but I also, I am a newly minted grandfather of a little girl.

Kimberly: Congratulation.

John: So having you in this world is takes on such a level of importance. I wish you existed in your organization existed when my daughter was a little girl, but that is okay because these millions of little girls out there right now that could benefit from your great organization and you are going to tell us why, but before we get going into that. I want you to share a little bit about your back-story Dr. Kim. How had you even get here? How do you even come up with this idea or what did you do before? Give us your back-story back from the beginning wherever you want to start.

Kimberly: Yes. So many of us do, I have a storied past which is really shaped me and shape the work that I do at Play Like a Girl, I am honored every single day. I get up to live my dream and that is really what play like a girl is for me. I grew up on red clay dirt roads in road Mississippi. The 70s, 80s, and 90s when girls did not really have many sports and especially girls of color, black girls in my small town did not have the benefit of– you know, even having play as an option. In fact, I have done a number of public presentations and talks across the country about built environments during my career, and just recently shared a photo of my niece who is playing on a local community recreational softball team and they are literally playing in dirt and in grass for the most part. They basically where their street clothes whereas the white girls in town have the benefit of an actual diamonds and official jerseys and all of the balls and equipment necessary to feel confident when they play the game. So that is the condition in which I grew up. I grew up in a loving household of educators and hard workers. My dad was a factory worker who had served in Vietnam War and actually learn him about him needing the Mauryans and books as a college student reading about my own father.

With Tom Brokaw calling my house as a child and never understanding why because my dad was really important to history after returning from Vietnam. I always had a consciousness about the world around me and awareness that one I was different but different because there were gifts within need that there was a calling so to speak on my life to do something great to make an impact on the lives of other people. That is how I grew up and that is what I grew up searching the opportunity to bring to bear those gifts and that calling. So I left home really with one pursue and that was the leave Mississippi and never go back. Never go back to live permanently because there were constraints and continue to be constraints that often really dwell in mindset more than anything. I did not want to become confined by that and so my way out was education. I went to college at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. It is the only African-American Roman Catholic institution in the west. It is also the premier African-American or HBCU historically black college and university, replacing African-Americans into medical school.

I married a guy who at the time was a student pursuing that course of study. He went on to become a physician and honestly I say it was our marriage that really changed the trajectory for my life. For every girl we touch because I really went deep in terms of my study and in the STEM field, I was a cancer survivorship researcher. I started my career on the cancer prevention side. I had worked as a medical hospital social worker because I was trained in social work but really found my passion working with communities around public health. My career started at CDC. My first job at the Infamous Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

John: Which is now on the headlines every day.

Kimberly: Yes.

John: Wow.

Kimberly: So yes, so that is where my real journey started. The roots are important because they define who I am. They gave me the foundation to really pursue my dream in life, but also to remain grounded in the work because you know this, many people listening know it. Being an entrepreneur, being a philanthropist in many ways, every day comes with like a world massive challenges. To wake up to the news that someone literally a college student, not a major celebrity, or major elite athlete or an Olympian, but an everyday person was kind enough to lend their milestone moment to share it with me and play like a girl, and the girls we serve. Talk about the lightning of a load that I wake up to every single day. So it is been a beautiful past two to three weeks because of Sarah Fuller, and I know we are going to talk about…

John: We are going to talk about that.

Kimberly: That is made for us.

John: Let us go back to where you growing up. With you and athlete yourself, when you were a little girl.

Kimberly: I was not. I was the academic in my family. We are five of us in my household kids and my older brothers play football and basketball. My sister play basketball and ran track which was the only sports available for girls of color, white girls tended to play softball and I think now they have added, again, 30-plus years later. They have only added soccer and so yes, it is kind of mind-boggling. So I was more into the music and the arts and reading all night all of that good stuff, yes.

John: Yes. I did not realize though. I was so excited to talk with you today because of the issue of gender equity being so important to me and to the world at large right now, and I think hopefully the world is more open to that but I did not realize when you were a little girl that it was much more beyond gender equity was social and racial equity as well in terms of different colors, having different equipment available to them.

Kimberly: Yes. There is a concept that taught in the classroom, which is so important, especially for helping professionals, physicians, clinicians, folks, who are on the front line right now, right?

John: Right.

Kimberly: Racial disparities and so my career at CDC started as a part of what is called Reach 2010 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Research Projects that were funded all across the country. One of the things that we know is that zip code determines the quality and the quantity of healthcare in this country. I taught in my classroom a concept that is well-known in my field called Racial Residential Segregation that we are separated. Yes, we have the freedom and the ability right now to be integrated schools to be able to eat and die where we want to, but ultimately, are we truly equal and I would say Covid is proving that we are not. We are not equal in this country, and race continues to be just as gender, to your point to be a divide and it typically happens based upon our zip code.

John: Going back to your mom and dad. It is always fascinating people’s genesis story, where they came from, and how they were informed. When your dad came back from Vietnam, tell me what he did that set him apart from other veterans.

Kimberly: My dad was actually the radio controller in the [inaudible]. He gave the testimony that led to many of the grand marshals and decisions that were made to punish people who had done injustices towards the Vietnamese and the Viet Cong in Vietnam during the war. So again, bravery, he never talked about it. Honestly, I did not know any of it until I was a sophomore in college reading a history of a war history book for summer program. Was able to later verify all of the information but it was so important to my legacy and knowledge of who I am, because now I understand why I make some of the brave decisions that I have to make. Even against the odds and I am proud to say I am his daughter, Charles [inaudible] was his name. He died prematurely, secondary to heart attack stroke and diabetes at age 67, just 5 years ago. Yes.

John: He lived, he walked the walk and that informed you in terms of bravery, courage and how to lead.

Kimberly: Yes.

John: Wow.

Kimberly: Absolutely. So now you are at the CDC, walk us through a little bit. I do not want to skip over this. You mentioned earlier, you were a cancer survivor?

John: No. So I got cancer survivorship research.

Kimberly: Got it.

John: After though, have not been caregiver to a brother who was a patient at Saint Jude that lost his battle to cancer, as a child.

Kimberly: Got it.

John: Now you are at CDC, you are highly educated. Where does in the journey? Where is the epiphany that you have got to do more that you have not done enough and that and where did you come up with this? How did the stars align to do next step?

Kimberly: That guy I married. Finish medical school at Emory. We are in the City of Atlanta together decides to go to pediatric cardiology fellowship, but by way of residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. They gave me a moment to stock reflect and consider what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, to stay at CDC with the bedtime I did, but I recognize in order for me to be a leader even within this government agency as a woman. I have not needed a PhD or an MD because women were not at that time allowed to rise the ranks of directors and vice presidents within structure without a degree at that level. So I decided to go back and pursue the PhD. So this was right after my masters and so I worked and then went back for my PhD wall mark completed residency. It was actually during that time that Play Like a Girl was birth.

It was not intentional. I always have to give the disclaimer because it was literally a classroom project turns– passion project turned on profit.

John: Wow.

Kimberly: We were at that time really focused on sport and physical activity for the purpose of disease prevention. So using programming as an intervention to help black and brown girls in Alabama at that time cancer, breast and cervical cancer were on the rise among young women. Specifically, again, related to zip code in the area of Anniston Alabama where the federal military dump site, where families and individuals had developed cancer and other types of debilitating diseases. So we wanted to create ways that individuals could begin to change their lifestyles in those other areas that were pre dispose them to chronic illnesses. So that is really where Play Like a Girl starting over time as many organizations and businesses do we evolve to be responsive to the needs of our audience. Recognizing that one, we wanted to really focus our effort around how we could leverage sport to truly propel girls forward. How could we, one, keep them healthy, two, keep them from dropping out which was so critically important because girls drop out of sport at twice the rate of boys before the age 14, which is that transitional year into high school. By dropping out, girls then forfeit, everything else that is just naturally a part of sport, the teamwork skills, the sportsmanship, confidence, and leadership skills, which really position women for career success, on and off the field whatever that sport is. So we awaken to that in 2015 Ernst & Young and ESPNW did a global study looking at women in the C-suite, question that was post was, how many of these women actually played sport and what role has sport played in their career. They found that ninety-four percent of women in the C-suite played sports, fifty-six percent of them through college.

John: Wow.

Kimberly: That changed everything for play like a pro.

John: Wow. Wow. For our listeners out there who just joined us, we have Dr. Kimberly Clark. She is the founder and CEO of Play Like a Girl, and to find Play Like a Girl and to become part of her great mission, either as a mentor or to donate, go to iplaylikeagirl.org. It is a beautiful site. I have it up in front of me. This is something you should be involved with. Now, what year did you launch actually the website? When you starting this, just step back for a second. You launch the business and the organization like just say as an entrepreneur, what year?

Kimberly: In 2004. So we have just celebrated 16 years in October.

John: Incredible, incredible, incredible. So now everything changes the stats are out, it is proven now that leaders have a sports background in them, which is fascinating. Women leaders.

Kimberly: Yes.

John: What happens next?

Kimberly: What happens next as I go to the board and I say, ah, aha moment. We have got a really make this shit and one how we position, the work that we do and how we tap into this collective of women. Be coaches, mentors, role models, cheerleaders, professionals, whatever, we have got to really focus on the needs of girls in this moment and how we deliver to address those needs and one of the things recognized in a Gatorade study as well as one with the women’s sports foundation was that the reasons girls drop out, you know, there are many and the multitude of them. However, very significant were the fear of failure, the fear that there is no future for them in sport, and the lack of representation of women who look like them.

Our focus was addressing those issues, helping to build girls confidence, helping them to see more by exposure, more women of varied backgrounds and across all sectors, all industries, all jobs, but in particular, to challenge girls to also think themselves capable of being the next generation of innovators, creators, developers, coders, scientist, because, again, repeatedly we ask girl, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Of course, we get an athlete every now and then, but we get the nurse, really the doctor, never the surgeon. We get the teacher and not that these are not respectable careers because I have done a lot of them that were just named. I grew up with an educator in my home, but we know that girls can do it all.

That is really what we wanted to do is take the limits off for girls and truly focus on making this the last generation of first and that is what our work really represents is closing that gap between what a girl thinks, sees, perceives, and what she is really able to accomplish.

John: I love it. It is just it makes me so happy that you are doing this important work. It makes me so sad that I have not even heard about it until just recently to the Sarah Fuller opportunity and that is when I read about you and said, I have to meet Dr. Kimberly Clay and then I read about Sarah and I read about your organization. I just was blown away because I do not see enough of this out there, they just not enough. Talked a little bit about the magic of the Sarah Fuller opportunity, but then let us go back to the blocking and tackling of the future ahead.

Kimberly: Yes. So that moment, it was not planned the Sarah Fuller moment. In fact, I was notified by a text message from a board member. I was boarding a flight headed home for– headed home from Dallas my other home from the holidays, from Thanksgiving and did not really have time because I was in transit to truly look into it, check. When I got off the plane at being a Nashville’s airport it was completely bananas. I do not know. It is been a sweet, sweet moment because to the point you made previously. Our name has been heard. Our name has been confused with other campaigns that have been out here. Our name has been used by others because we have been trademarks a very long time. Our name has been heard. It is recognize, it is known, people know we are doing this work, but often in full transparency because we do not reach 25,000 girls a year or we do not have a goal to reach a million by 2025. We are looked over by the big corporations, by the big athletes, the big celebrities, who had the ability to completely change the lives of a million girls. By 2025 if they started with the first 1250 in Nashville.

John: Right.

Kimberly: My heart is constantly weary because I know the work that I do is valued and valuable and is truly making meaningful impact and changing a complete generation. I am scratching, sometimes to survive and to keep it alive for 16 years and for the last 10 to do so without salary or benefits or staff. I have literally just hired had the confidence and faith to bring on a person. Literally, six months later Covid hits and we have to furlough her and it was my commitment to Hannah because she took a risk for me and for Play Like a Girl to not let her get lost in the fray of everything that is happening, we did pay check protection loan, we have done all the things, and she is been patient to allow time to pass so that things somewhat mellow out. So she still here, a year and almost a quarter later and that speaks to the kind of people who keep coming our way. The Sarah Fuller, someone I had never engaged with someone we had never seen or heard of other than they had just won the SEC championships for women’s soccer and we knew the name and the context of soccer. She literally on her own chose to take Play Like a Girl on her journey during a milestone moment that changed history. History and not history for sport, not history for women’s sport, but it changed history.

It happened to also have changed history in the context of those things, but she chose us and that is the sweetest part of it. Yes, we have seen an increase in giving, we have seen an increase in purchases of merchandise in our online shop. In fact, we have to shut it down for the holiday because we want to enjoy our families to and not be shipping in the last few hours before Christmas. Just the thought that another woman used her platform, her ability, and her influence to share it with not me, but the girls like the girls. So today, in a few hours, she is our guest mentor, we do virtual mentoring with about 50 girls across the country. They have 98, about a hundred mentors 98 or so who are paired to 3 to 5 girls, and we, each week on Thursdays, have guest mentors come in and present skills or speed mentoring sessions and so, we thought it was just the perfect ending to 2020 to invite the star of Play Like a Girl, Sarah Fuller, so I cannot wait.

John: You are ending a very tough year for all of us on the highest note possible and that just sounds, that is sweet. That is beyond sweet. How many young ladies are part of your program on a regular basis, both young girls and then also mentors and how can we encourage more to join?

Kimberly: Yes. So prior to Covid, we actually serve to combine 1250 girls and women annually. 2019, I think we were right at 1160. We are in that range of 1250. This year we have not done our final count because the virtual reality in which we live, has really blessed us with some opportunity that we would not have pursued had it not been for the pandemic. So that is allowed us to reach girls and expand our borders beyond national which we already did program across the country in partnership with brands, athletes, teams, and leagues, but this allowed us to go even the further directly to the girl.

John: Right.

Kimberly: Also, we had a partnership this summer with LinkedIn that allowed us to recruit 1600 women, 1600 women professionals across the country from Silicon Valley, Big Apple, and back to Music City, who are the women that we are training and getting ready to mentor girls. I encourage folks if you are interested in mentorship, which is a great way to give back and make a difference. We have tons of opportunities will be rolling out some new formats of programming in the new year, but visit our website and iplaylikeagirl.org//mentor and there is a quick little form with basic information name and email address I think in your company and role. We will be in touch. That is a great way to give back.

John: Let us step back here. Probably LinkedIn why do not work. I mean, let us give them a shout out and also say, I hope they do it again next year and I hope other organizations get involved to do this.

Kimberly: So this particular program was one of many LinkedIn for good initiatives that they actually devised in order to respond to the Covid pandemic for nonprofits and small businesses. So it was a dedicated donation of the equivalent of what he would have been about twelve thousand dollars in ads and in mail sponsored post that allowed us to target and pop into the end mail box of thousands, thousands of women.

John: Couple questions doctor. Did they approach you or did you just use your bravery and your chutzpa and you approach them?

Kimberly: This was a formal program within LinkedIn, so it was brought these shared, I think I may have learned about it on one of the money serves that I get emails from, yes.

John: Right. Talk about little bit about your mentor profiles for the young woman out there that want to get involved, one understand, do they fit your profile to be a mentor. Who should be a mentor out there for you?

Kimberly: When every woman who is truly making a difference in on the rise in her career. Early career, mid-career, and certainly, we want as many senior executive women as we can get right. End of career also. We see women in STEM. Our programming is specifically built to help propel girls into male-dominated careers in science technology, engineering, and Mathematics where, again, girls have the opportunity to at least earn higher pay and truly break intergenerational cycles of poverty and inequality with their families and communities. We do not limit our mentors to the stand profession. So what we message is that every woman is welcome. We do want more women in STEM for the purpose of our programming and our mission specifically, but any career field, any sector, any industry is welcome. We are also trying to expand the geography as well which is why LinkedIn was so important for us because we want our girls, wherever they are in the country, for those who have never left their neighborhoods to be able to see the possibility of getting out because that was for me, the way to my future and the way to now being able to make the difference in the lives of the girls I serve, is that I saw a way out it was actually a distant cousin who had been to Xavier as a student. She was a speech pathology major and I never met her, and I think to this day, I have never met her, I read about her in our local newspaper and I put a pin there and I said that is where I am going to college, did not know a thing. It is been the greatest, greatest decision of my life.

John: What a gift. Like you said, minds and hearts can change but those spirit– that spirit of inspiration or hope so giving more of your young ladies mentors that can push them, pull them, inspire them, is really what we are trying to do. If when you go to bed at night you just think possibility. If it was done right and money was and capital was not your biggest challenge, how many mentors, how many young ladies would you want to have on your platform?

Kimberly: Yes. If we did not have the challenges and you know all of that, which I do not think we are going to have them for very much longer. I have the faith to believe it.

John: Yes, I agree.

Kimberly: He would be on every college campus, within the six or more. The SEC, the NCAA, all of those, where college women are mentoring down to high school and middle school girls through play like a girl chapters. That is my vision. My vision is to meet the need through a near peer mentoring approach where girls get to be mentored not only from senior executive women and women in mid-career, but also women who are not far ahead of them because I think it is so important to be able to see that it the struggle is real and that it is possible and you can do it at every step of the way. In middle school, sometimes it is hard to envision yourself at 25, 35, 45, but you can certainly bet your bucks that a girl can envision herself at 25, or 15 and what it is going to take to get to 15 and then at 15 what it is going to take to get to 25. So that is, I think the way that we also scale to get our program out to all of the girls who are constantly asking for play like a girl in their communities.

Now, we have talked about mentoring. Mentoring was a pivot in the pandemic. We have not always done mentoring. Mentoring was our answer to a problem. It was a great answer, but we actually core programs. We do summer camps, which is how girls enter our program in 5th and 6th grade and then we run afterschool programs where girls get to take a deep dive into STEM careers through exposure, to corporate field trips, we do STEM Saturday Makerspace workshops where they get to build, create, and design. We do hackathons and STEM challenges where the girls identify a real world problem and they create a tech driven solution to it through mobile application or website or product, and then we also we would not be played like a girl if we did not play. So we actually partner with sports teams and athletes to actually provide sports clinics to our girls and those are typically highly specialized and we are very fortunate in Nashville to have several national leagues, minor leagues, and teams. It allows us to offer soccer, softball, baseball, football, and we are missing basketball, but Memphis is nearby, so we are hoping to do something with the grizzlies very soon and then golf is the game of everywhere and of course we would not be in Nashville based company if we did not play ice hockey. Because Predator run this city and they are one of our biggest partners and friends and so our girls go on the ice through our sports clinic and…

John: That is beautiful.

Kimberly: We are planning one right now with the Predators, yes.

John: The last time I was actually in Nashville, Predators were in a playoff game, and it put the city was unglued. If glue is a, I mean, the right way to put it, it was a glue. I mean it is so, everyone fit, I had no association with the Predators I felt the electricity. It was great.

Kimberly: It is. I think what makes the preds the preds. Is the level of community service and give back. They are present, all year long. It is not just in season. I think that is one that– you know, we are in the south, we expect a lot of our sports teams and players, no matter where we are.

John: Right.

Kimberly: There is something unique about the Predators and I think it is from the top down. There is a woman, part owner.

John: Oh, well.

Kimberly: Organization. We need with their hearts and I could just about bit that there is a woman influencing whether it is at the foundation with Kristin Fisher who is one of our great friends and partners over there, or if it is with ownership, but I think that is so critical to also recognize that not only do women bring the hard skills, but we bring the heart skills as well. With your critically important to businesses being productive, effective, innovative, and also being global monsters, and that is the case with the Predators.

John: That is wonderful. I do not want to end without sharing this. Covid has made fundraising much more difficult, especially for great nonprofits like yours. Can you give a shout out to in terms of capital raising for this year, for next year given that, this is a difficult time for everyone. Your husband himself is on the front line as a doctor. How can we help financially continue to support your great organization and mission?

Kimberly: Yes, thank you. Giving it something we encourage year-round and this year we are taking a different approach. We are really encouraging people to consider a monthly gift of recurring monthly gift because monthly gives help us to predict operating expense. Now if we have the budget through those monthly recurring gifts that we can depend upon, we can serve a whole lot better without having to stress out about the bills. So that is what we are really encouraging. So we built a community around it called the Squad. So if you visit our page our website at iplaylikeagirl.org//join, you can join our Squad and do so with a monthly gift of any amount but we encourage at least fifty dollars or more every month to help us continue this important work. Then what we commit to do is for those who are local we gather, of course, and celebrate the work that we are doing and the impact were making in the lives of the girls, bringing the girls directly to the donor, so that they get to see and hear their stories personally. Then we also have started a new monthly impact report delivered via email called High Five where we celebrate those stories, we tell them we celebrate our donors. Just as a way to say thank you, but also to show them where the impact of their gift is being made and how it is making a difference in the life of each girl that we touched.

John: I love it. For our listeners out there, again, please go to iplaylikeagirl.org, you could become a mentor, you could donate, like Dr. Kim said on a monthly basis or if you want to do an end-of-year donation, it is all good. Before we say goodbye for today, Dr. Kim, so what is happening with Sarah Fuller? She is coming on and how is that going to work? How is that going to work?

Kimberly: Oh, God. It is going to be so much fun. She and I are going to have a really informal conversation around mentorship. We are going to talk a little bit about football, of course, more about the issue of low representation of women in STEM, because she herself is actually pursuing a STEM degree. This is our senior year, finishing up in medical society and that body of work, pursuing a STEM career herself. So we will talk about that and then the most important piece is that, she will take questions and offer advice to girls who are on the line. We have a hundred girls and who are registered for that today which we share for now in a hundred and we just want them to be able to receive from her. They have been asking for the last two weeks and to be able to deliver on that, it is like the best gift leaving the end of programming before the holidays.

John: Wow. I just want to say thank you for your time today. Dr. Kim. You are the best gift, I think that we have had on Impact this year. This is a special story of STEM, of gender equity, of sports, this is something that we want to cover more. I want you to know, I want you to– you are always welcome back here. For our listeners to find Dr. Kim, her colleagues, and her important work they are doing, please go to www.iplaylikeagirl.org. Learn more about them, become a mentor, also donate, give. Give of your time and give any capital you can. Dr. Kim, you are making an important impact in this world. God bless you. God bless your family. Thank you for spending some time with us today on the Impact Podcast.

Kimberly: Thank you.