We Meet Jill Vialet, a Top 30 Global Social Entrepreneur

Jill Vialet, Founder & CEO of PlayworksThe NextWomen Social Entrepreneurship Theme

Recently named to the Forbes Impact 30 as one of the 30 leading social entrepreneurs worldwide, Jill Vialet is the Founder & CEO of Playworks, a national US non-profit organization that improves school climate, reduces bullying and increases student engagement in school through play and physical activity.

Playworks is the only organization in the States that provides trained, full-time program coordinators, called “coaches,” to low-income schools in major urban areas to focus on recess and play to support learning. Launched in 1996 at two Berkeley, CA elementary schools under the original name ‘Sports4Kids’, Playworks now has full-time coaches in 360 schools in 22 cities around the US. Playworks expects to serve more than 270,000 students directly and through training services that will reach more than 480 additional schools and community organizations this year.

In addition to its direct service, Playworks provides training and technical support so that all schools can enjoy healthy, inclusive play at recess and throughout the school day. Playworks plans to expand to 27 cities by 2015. The ultimate goal of is to serve millions of children daily through direct service and training.

Prior to Playworks, Jill co-founded the Museum of Children's Art (MOCHA), an organization dedicated to helping families and communities celebrate the art and creativity of their children. As executive director, Jill developed an “artists in residency” program in the schools and brought artists to work with children in pediatric wards of hospitals. She served as the executive director at MOCHA for nine years, ultimately expanding its programs to reach 20,000 young people each year.

A Harvard University Graduate, Jill was a Eureka Fellow from 2000 to 2001 and selected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2004. Jill and Playworks were selected as a member of the Clinton Global Initiative in 2009.

We spoke to Jill about the social enterprises she most admires; her predictions for this year’s big trends in social enterprise; and why The NextWomen readers should join Jill at a Playworks recess!

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Playworks and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

JV: I was running a children's art museum back in 1996 and a principal at a school where we had an artist residency in place asked if I could do what I did with the arts with recess. I'm not sure if I even recall "deciding" to turn the idea into reality.  Once the idea was conceived of, it sort of took on a life of its own.

TNW: I was fortunate not to be bullied at school, but was singled out as a geek because I worked hard. I still occasionally feel the impact of that social exclusion today! What impact do you hope Playworks will have on students, not just whilst they are at school, but in later life?

JV: I think most kids struggle with inclusion at one time or another, that we all feel "different" in some way.

 My biggest hope for Playworks impact is that will teach kids the power of empathy and that it will create experiences for them that confirm their beliefs in their own inherent capacity to be a changemaker.  

That combination seems like an extraordinarily powerful combination essential to raising a generation of happy, engaged citizens.

TNW: Playworks is your second successful non-profit. Museum of Children's Art (MOCHA) is an organization dedicated to helping families and communities celebrate the art and creativity of their children. What lessons did you learn from co-founding and running MOCHA which you applied to founding Playworks?

JV: I think starting and running MOCHA made it abundantly clear how much I needed other people to own the idea if I was ultimately going to be successful.  I've been really lucky to get to work with some amazing people, and to have the good sense to get out of the way when others knew more than I.

TNW: Playworks has an ambitious expansion plan with the goal of operating in 27 cities across the country by 2015, providing play and physical activity to more than 1 million students every day. Eventually, would you like to expand internationally? If so, to which countries?  

JV: We've done some training in other countries, most recently Indonesia and we're looking at Ireland and Brazil - and we've done some exchanges with non-profits in India and South Africa. I think there's a lot for the US to learn from other nations and as long as we can keep it framed as an opportunity for reciprocal learning, we'll explore new opportunities.

TNW: What is the difference for you between a non-profit and a social-purpose business?

JV: Not a lot other than being owned by the public and ultimately accountable to the communities we serve.

TNW: As innovators, do you believe that entrepreneurs have a heightened social responsibility? Which social issues would you like to see entrepreneurs tackle in the next five or ten years?

JV: I'm not sure I'd say entrepreneurs have any great responsibility, but I'm a big believer in the idea that everyone can be great because everyone can serve. That being said, I would love to see entrepreneurs tackle the barriers that seem to exist in scaling great non-profits.

We have no shortage of ideas, we need some entrepreneurial muscle to figure out scaling and summoning the collective will to make lasting and important changes. 

TNW: Which social enterprises do you really admire and why?

JV: I try and learn from everyone - I'm a huge fan of Dorothy Stoneman and YouthBUILD. Obviously Teach for America has executed a scaling strategy as well as any in the past 50 years. Darrell Hammond at KaBoom is a friend and valued adviser. And I watch Roseanne Haggerty (Common Ground), Paul Schmitz (Public Allies) and Gerald Chertavian (Year Up) closely because I think they're brilliant.

TNW: What do you think will be the big trends for social enterprise in 2013?

JV: In education I think you'll see a lot more discussion around non-cognitive skills.  Overall, I think the idea of managing to outcomes is really going to change how the most effective non-profits are run and how the most effective funders are investing.

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?

JV: I've been lucky to have a few over the years. Most recently I realize I've come to rely quite heavily on the counsel of Nancy Barrand and Jane Lowe from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I think it's an unusual relationship to have with a funder and I doubt that we would have come this far if they hadn't been willing to be unorthodox partners.

Bill Drayton and the Ashoka staff and fellows have also had a huge impact on me and Playworks, fundamentally shifting my understanding of scale and contributing to a far greater sense of possibility.

TNW : Is there anything we haven’t asked you but you would like to share with our community?

JV: Just that working with the Playworks coaches in our 22 offices across the country has given me reason to be extremely hopeful about the future, and that if anyone is looking for an inoculation against the overbearing cynicism that's out there, we'd love to take them out to see a recess at a Playworks school.

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