Women in Business Q&A: Kathleen Tullie, Director of Social Responsibility for Reebok

Kathleen Tullie is the Director of Social Responsibility for Reebok and the Founder and Executive Director of BOKS, a free before school physical activity program for kids that is backed by Reebok and the Reebok Foundation. BOKS is the primary initiative of the Reebok Foundation.
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Kathleen Tullie is the Director of Social Responsibility for Reebok and the Founder and Executive Director of BOKS, a free before school physical activity program for kids that is backed by Reebok and the Reebok Foundation. BOKS is the primary initiative of the Reebok Foundation. Tullie began the program in 2009 at one school in Natick, Massachusetts and under Kathleen's leadership it has since expanded to more than 950 schools worldwide. Major accomplishments since creating the BOKS program include partnering with the Partnership for Healthier America, Alliance for a Healthier Generation and being honored by First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative at the 2013 Partnership for a Healthier America conference in Washington, D.C. Kathleen is a member of the Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Obesity Solutions and serves on the Physical Activity Innovation Collaborative. Kathleen has also been featured in numerous publications.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Opportunity! I truly believe that you must seize opportunities that come your way and turn any obstacle into a motivation. Throughout my life, I would thrive on challenges and infuse my ingrained passion and persistence - be it student government, the Greek system, jobs, etc. My drive to seize all opportunities stems from the fact that I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a very loving and supportive community of family and friends who empower me with the belief that we can do anything we put our mind to. I believe my support system in combination with my optimistic determination and altruistic view of the world has been a benefit to my life experiences.

I also consider myself to be incredibly lucky. I have been surrounded by amazing people and have been given wonderful opportunities. I often liken the success of BOKS to Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers because it is all about being in the "right place at the right time" with all the stars aligned. I thank God for these alignments.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Reebok?
In previous jobs, I have been blessed with wonderful managers who have been true mentors for me. They believed in me and gave me projects that let me prove myself. These experiences made me realize the importance of an individual's growth. People crave opportunities where they can show execution and receive recognition. It is critical to feel like we are contributing.

Going from the world of corporate real estate finance to the non-profit realm has reinforced many skills that I developed along the way. The analytical business skills I had gained are also beneficial in the non-profit world, as well as understanding budgets and motivating a workforce. The biggest difference between the non-profit world and the financial world is the level of passion that is involved. Having passion ensures execution. As we know, vision without execution is a hallucination. Working with BOKS is not about a financial bottom line, but rather a social bottom line-- changing lives and the health of our younger generation.

One of the biggest highlights of my career was when the BOKS team had the opportunity to share the stage with First Lady Michelle Obama to promote the benefits of being physically active. First Lady Michelle Obama has played a pivotal role in raising a healthier generation through nutrition and fitness and we were thrilled to be recognized by her for our commitment to get kids moving.

Going from one school in 2009 to close to a thousand just three years later has been quite an achievement. The numbers speak of the need that we are meeting. Whenever I hear from a parent, teacher, or student about how BOKS has made a positive impact, I cannot help but grin. The testimonials truly show that our program is making a lifelong impact. The inspiration and satisfaction I receive from this feedback is more than anything I had ever gained in the corporate finance world.

Initially, I thought the biggest challenge would be approaching schools about a free program that was provided by Reebok. I thought that schools would want to steer clear of corporate "marketing". By working with Reebok, however, I realized that because of our shared vision and values, Reebok can contribute to the broader impact of BOKS and its mission to get kids moving. Thus, schools welcome us. I continue to strive to find BOKS' proper placement as the signature initiative of The Reebok Foundation, while sitting within a for-profit company.

Tell us about BOKS and how it is helping to encourage children to embrace a healthy lifestyle.
BOKS is a free, before-school physical activity program that aims to help improve kids' academic performance and overall health by providing a turnkey curriculum of physical activity and nutritional knowledge as a way to jumpstart children's brains and better equip them for learning. The program is run two to three times a week before, during, or after school by moms, dads, teachers, community activists, and volunteers. Each class offers an opportunity for kids to socialize, participate in a running-related activity and skill of the week (such as push-ups or sit-ups), play a team game, and then cool down and engage in BOKS Bits, a discussion about nutrition.

In fact, a recent evaluation of BOKS conducted by the National Institute on Out of School Time (NIOST) reinforces and demonstrates strong evidence that physical activity, especially before school, can have a tremendous impact on both classroom performance and behavior. In the evaluation of more than 500 participants, BOKS children improved significantly more than their control-group peers on assessments of working memory. BOKS children were more active outside of school compared to their peers and demonstrated increased nutrition knowledge.

Children who have participated in BOKS want more of it. Over 95% of participants want to come back for the next session and report that they are having fun. Knowing that children are willing to get up earlier to get to school so that they can move around and are also having fun is very telling. When given the opportunity, children want to be physically active. Additionally, parent surveys report that BOKS children want to continue to be healthy. They encourage weekend physical activity family outings and become "cupboard detectives" by weeding out unhealthy food choices and asking for healthy ones.

What advice can you offer women who want to follow a similar career path?
Follow your passion and be willing to work when you need to work. When you are starting out and have opportunities in front of you, put 100%+ in because you only get one chance and one life, and if you do not seize that opportunity, then someone else will. We are responsible for our own happiness and destiny; we are the ones who pave the path. And also remember that little things can make a difference, whether it is a hello and a smile to a stranger or letting someone cut in front of you in a line.

By following your passion, all the other pieces fall into place. If you are happy with your career, then that happiness will carry over into other elements of your life, whether it is your family, your husband, or your lifestyle. Let passion keep you fueled to always put in 100%.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Do I? Not sure I would call it balance ☺. I try to be around as much as possible for my kids - they are my number one priority and before I know it, they will be out of the house. My kids and husband are also incredibly supportive and helpful - we are not only a family, but we are a team! The nature of BOKS allows for me and my BOKS team to have flexible hours with a lot of travel and many opportunities to visit schools. Due to our untraditional hours, I believe that you work around the clock to get your job done and allow the flexibility to be with your family.

Running is also my medicine that keeps me "not gruffulo-like" as my kids would say. No matter how busy my day is, I make certain to take my daily dose of endorphins. I also encourage my family and my team to get their daily dose. We know it makes us healthy, happier, and more efficient so we must walk the walk.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I personally believe this issue has been put to rest. I realize there is a lot of negative research and press out there about women in the workforce - equal pay and the glass ceiling to name a couple. The way I look at it is that we need to be our own individual advocates. I actually believe that women have an advantage as we are a minority in the workforce and therefore have a better chance to shine. It all comes back to "opportunity."

Instead of focusing on the issues, I believe that you need to find an opportunity that will create a place for you that fits. If you don't agree with how you are being treated, move on.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
As I mentioned earlier, I feel truly lucky to have had supportive and motivating managers who have been true mentors for me. They guided me to use my passion and optimism to constantly contribute to a common goal. Mentors are a tremendous asset and I have been fortunate enough to have mentors in all aspects of my life. In my previous jobs, my mentors believed in me and gave me the "odd" projects that let me prove myself. I have had the opportunities to cross paths with people who have inadvertently been mentors to me throughout my journey. Whether that mentor helped me navigate the new avenues of the non-profit world, or found ways to help create the solution to physical inactivity, these mentors made a positive difference on my life. Having had numerous positive mentorships, I recognize the importance of my teams' individual growth path and I try to act as a mentor to them.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many female leaders who I admire and have been an inspiration to me. I am not sure where to start. Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Ellen DeGeneres, Melinda Gates, Oprah, Eleanor Roosevelt, Melba Beals, Anne Sullivan, Margaret Thatcher, and Michelle Obama...just to name a few. All of these women had a tremendous amount of passion, believed in their mission, did not take no for an answer, and forged forward in creating a better world. There was never an excuse--only a solution. I also have great admiration for those women (Oprah, Ellen, Melinda Gates) who have used their leverage to give back. Just imagine if we had more of these women in our world. I really do believe in the power of women.

What are your hopes for the future of Reebok and BOKS?
I would be thrilled to see every kid in America be more active before school. Physical activity and nutritious eating are key components to living a healthy lifestyle, but now more than ever, school children are growing up without access to regular physical activity. Recent news research shows that our unprecedented obesity rate, a result of unhealthy lifestyles, is now a national security threat for the USA. It is imperative that we take the necessary steps to get kids more active to help them create healthy lifelong habits that give them the opportunity to perform better in school. We hope that the free tools and resources available through BOKS will empower more volunteers nationwide to implement BOKS in their community and local schools.

I would also love to see physical activity and physical education brought back to schools on a daily basis. People, not just kids, need to move and we need to create those opportunities for people until it becomes second nature. We need to complete a real lifestyle shift by creating a culture of participants instead of a culture of spectators. There are so many individuals out there that want to give back and make a difference and have their job be something which fuels their passions. Imagine a world where companies genuinely took on the issue of kids' health and wellness as part of their corporate responsibility platform and encouraged their employees to engage in initiatives like BOKS as part of their work week.

Reebok has made tremendous strides in showing that they firmly believe in the power of being active and eating healthy. If you walk around the Reebok campus, you will see many options for the employees to move throughout the day, such as spin classes, CrossFit workouts, a walk on the track, or a bike ride on a nearby trail. In the cafeteria, the healthy food choices abound. As we progress into the future, I hope that Reebok will continue to "walk the walk" and that BOKS will continue alongside, showing people that a healthy lifestyle that starts in elementary school continues into adulthood and life in the workforce.

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