Stand and Deliver: Find Meaning with Purpose, Passion, and Profit with Kathleen Tullie
by Lisa Gable · 10 Oct 2022 · 11 min read
My Stand and Deliver series highlights women who lead through inspiration and aspiration. Today’s article advocates private sector engagement to support children and teens in achieving physical and mental health and well-being.
I chose to interview Kathleen Tullie because she has broken the code for how to live with purpose, passion, and profit. Kathleen is a former Head of Social Purpose at Reebok International and Founder & Executive Director of BOKS kids. Prior to joining Reebok, Kathleen founded the BOKS program (originally known as Fit Kidz) in 2009. Before that, Kathleen had an accomplished, eighteen-year career in real estate finance, including managing deals in Japan.
After receiving a melanoma diagnosis, Kathleen decided to leave the corporate world and become a stay-at-home mom. That lasted about two weeks. During this time, she came across Dr. John Ratey’s book Spark, which talks about the positive difference physical activity has on all of us. Reading this book, she had her aha moment. Dr. Ratey’s book coupled with Kathleen’s determination drove her to empower parents to provide an opportunity for kids to be physically active before school. BOKS was born.
Today, she is focused on leveraging her experience and network of partners to create lasting impact in the health and wellness space.
Please introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about your career and what excites you about your current stage of life.
First, I would like to thank you for having me; I am honored and humbled. My career has been a bit circuitous. As the opportunistic individual I am, I took a leap of faith, shortly after college, and was forced to trust nothing but my gut. It led me to a few years working hospitality in Tahoe, finance in Japan, getting my MBA in Scotland, asset management in Boston, and starting a nonprofit in my local town. The nonprofit BOKS (Build Our Kids Success), grew into an international program and gave me the opportunity to be the head of social purpose for a multinational company for the last twelve years. I feel blessed, lucky, and grateful to have these varied experiences.
In my current stage in life, I would like to once again combine my experience and my networks to bring together partners in the public and private sectors to create lasting impact in the health and wellness space. My team did it with BOKS, and I know it is possible with the right partners and the right team, and that excites me.
Tell us about a major transition period in your life and what prompted the change.
Can we all say 2020? It was a very challenging time for so many.The years 2020 and 2021 served as a culmination of cascading events that tested, and still do test, my mental and physical stamina.
In February of 2020, my sixteen-year-old daughter was med-flighted from a GS Ski Race after crashing into a tree. The two years that followed this accident proved to be the most challenging of my life and my daughter’s life. She had multiple surgeries, and while we were so focused on her physical recovery, we didn’t realize the mental impact the accident had taken—add that to the immobility and the isolation from Covid-19. The accident had a massive impact on her and a huge ripple effect on our family.
In July 2020, I lost my mom to a stroke.
In 2021, my daughter’s physical and mental health issues continued to escalate.
The final event was in March 2022, when I was laid off. The biggest disappointment was not that I was laid off due to the sale of the company. The biggest disappointment was that the nonprofit I had created and licensed was sold as a part of the sale agreement. The new entity would only keep a fraction of the staff and a fraction of the budget, only focusing on serving US students. While I am eternally grateful for the years of support from the company, I was faced with the reality that it was no longer my baby and the growth and impact I had hoped to continue with the program would not be a reality.
These events have made me more empathetic, aware, humble, and resilient. I will take my experiences, including the building and scaling of an international program, and combine it with my personal passion and experiences and start writing the next chapter in my life.
What are the three top tips you have for a woman trying to assert her influence and ideas?
How do you help unleash leadership at all levels?
A leader gives people opportunity and empowers them with confidence. A leader needs good followers. And in this relationship lies trust. I am not sure if I was a great, or even good, leader. But, I always believed that I could trust the individuals I hired, and I gave them a lot of independence. I believed they would rise to the occasion, and they almost always did, often exceeding their and my expectations. I definitely believe that micromanagement stifles growth. Believe in people and let them run with their ideas.
Tell our readers about a passion project of yours, why it’s unique or special, and what attracted you to it.
This is similar to my future aspirations. BOKS, originally called Fit Kidz, was my passion project. I read the book Spark by Dr. John Ratey, where he explained that twenty to thirty minutes of exercise before school proved to make kids happier, more focused, less anxious, and do better in school. I was determined to find a way to create an opportunity at my kids’ schools for them and their friends to run around and play before school. The science and evidence for natural intervention was so compelling. A few moms and I did just that, and it grew into a program of over twelve thousand enrolled schools with close to one million kids signed up in the USA, Canada, Japan, and Indonesia. A team of experts from MGH (Massachusetts General Hospital), Harvard, NIOS, and Dalhousie University completed multiple long-term studies on the efficacy of the program and the positive impact on kids mentally and physically. The lasting impact we witnessed with the kids was very rewarding and makes you wonder why we don’t give every child the opportunity to move and play before and during school, ensuring that kids’ mental and physical health is just as important, if not more important than academic subjects.
Who inspires you today and why?
I believe inspiration comes from within. It depends on the hour and the day—a lot of time it is nature, or a story, or an individual. Yes, I could list a group of famous women I believe are inspirational due to their challenges, humility, dedication, and passion. Sara Blakely. She wouldn’t take no for an answer and remains humble and kind even with her fame and fortune. Michelle Obama—purely authentic and always working for the underdog. Jessica Long—born without legs and given up by her biological parents at birth—went on to win sixteen gold medals in the paralympics. My former BOKS team and my friends—gosh, I can’t even imagine where I would be without my supportive, funny, and loving friends and teammates.
All that said, if I had to pick one or two people who inspire me, it is my kids. First, my daughter Paige. She has endured a tremendous amount of setbacks in the last few years, and yet she remains steadfast and determined. Her perseverance, resiliency, honesty, wit, beauty, and empathy are unmatched. With every punch, she gets back up, fighting stronger, knowing that life has so much opportunity. She epitomizes the saying, “how you do anything, is how you do everything.” She is a kind and formidable human spirit.
My son Cameron has a commitment to discipline and grit that is unrivaled. He had his own adversity. He didn’t crumble under the pressure; he rose to the occasion with kindness and conviction. He is laser-focused, thoughtful, and he is anyone’s best friend and always has your back—the perfect wingman. He is a unique teenager, in that his idea of a great afternoon may be meeting a veteran on the park bench and listening to stories of his past and then walking the new friend home.
My kids put smiles on my face, warm my heart, and, most importantly, inspire me to keep living and be the best person I can.
What is a future aspiration?
Well, that changes daily! However, I would say that it comes back to the same theme of creating a healthier future for our kids, mentally and physically. We have so many resources in this world, and yet there is so much sadness, loneliness, depression, and poverty. We can create more public-private partnerships that help drive systemic change at the policy level to ensure our kids have a bright future.
With suicide as the second leading cause of death among teenagers and self harm rates up 350 percent in the last year, we have a mental health pandemic and need to do something about it. I believe it needs to start at the community level, with reimagining education and healthcare. It will take tremendous collaboration with political leaders, schools, doctors, and CEO’s making it a priority. I’d like to take my experience and network and help be part of the solution and see this change in my lifetime.
My Key Takeaways
I first met Kathleen in 2010 through our work together on Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. We found a common bond when comparing our less-than-traditional career paths and our experiences working as female executives in the male-dominated business world of Japan. As we spoke more, I quickly came to appreciate Kathleen’s innate ability to make a difference through each step she takes and her willingness to never take no as an answer.
Because of this trait, my favorite quote from Kathleen's interview is:
“No is the beginning of yes.”
What strikes me the most about her interview is Kathleen’s willingness to trust her instincts by uninhibitedly pursuing unique opportunities across multiple sectors. Kathleen not only recognizes she has the skills to solve a complex problem, but she also does not wait for anyone to give her permission to do so—and neither should you.
Every day, people should be energized and inspired to act with purpose; however, many people lack the self-confidence to do so. Yet, today more than ever, the success of our communities depends on forward movement, not perfect alignment.
Your moment to demonstrate leadership may be right now. When you hear someone say, “That can’t be done,” prove them wrong!
Sometimes there are no perfect answers. You may make decisions in gray space, so bold honesty is required. Admit that you don’t have all the answers but recognize the situation could continue to devolve unless action is taken.
If things are crumbling around you, pick up the baton and run the race. Offer solutions to critical challenges and highlight what you personally plan to do to meet those challenges.
You may fight the good fight only to see gains slip sideways as new hurdles emerge, so be prepared to adjust your approach again…and again.
Let your story be like Kathleen’s—one of survival and success.
What lessons did you learn from Kathleen’s interview? Let me know what inspired you by connecting with me on Instagram or LinkedIn. You can also sign up for my newsletter and buy my book, Turnaround: How to Change Course When Things Are Going South, at www.lisagable.com.