Each year, the University of Pennsylvania awards one organization the Barry & Marie Lipman Family Prize in recognition of great leadership and innovation in creating positive social impact. The 2016 winner is Soccer Without Borders. Chosen from among over 170 applicants from around the globe, this organization uses the world’s most popular sport as a jumping off point to create programs that help turn around the lives of at-risk youth in the U.S. and abroad. 

Mike Useem, professor of management and director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at Wharton, sat down with Soccer Without Borders co-founder Mary McVeigh to discuss the network they are building to help young people — many of them refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants, and most of them young women — get educated, break down barriers and find success in life.

What follows is an edited version of that interview.

Mike Useem: Let’s start with a little bit about you. You went to Dartmouth College, played soccer there, even turned pro for a while. So you’ve got a soccer career behind you.

Mary McVeigh: I do. I’ve played soccer since I was four. I still play very recreationally in Boston. But I’ve just been very fortunate to have had the chance to have that be a part of my life. Opportunities just kept coming, I guess, and I’ve built a network of friendships and great coaches that have really shaped me, and really shaped the outcome of my life.

Useem: That’s great. Most people who play a collegiate sport, once college is finished, they’re finished with the sport. Even among those who turn pro in, say, the NBA or NFL — after not so many years, they’re out of the game. But you managed to keep your feet in the sport, so to speak, even after you stopped playing professionally — by forming this organization, Soccer Without Borders. This really is a cause-driven agenda. Tell us a little bit about the mission of your organization and why you got it going?

McVeigh: Soccer is one of the world’s few universal languages, and that can be really powerful. I mean, think about a World Cup, and how many people that brings together — how many people watch, how many people are passionate about it. The idea is, how do you use that to influence positive change? How do you use that to motivate kids to reach their potential? How do you use that to build bridges across racial, economic, cultural, religious divides, and really bring people together and build something positive?

“Soccer is one of the world’s few universal languages, and that can be really powerful.”

That was the idea when we set out: How do we use this sport that has a lot of really important interpersonal lessons that you can draw on to build character, to build skills, but then also to build community? We’ve been exploring that now for 10 years, and I wouldn’t say we’ve got it perfectly right, but we’re doing something good. The model’s been working. It’s been applied in a lot of different contexts. And we’re excited to keep innovating and keep finding ways to use this universal language for positive outcomes.

Useem: I know you’ve got an office in Cambridge, Mass., and you’ve got 400 or 500 volunteers around the world working with you on this. But let’s make it more personal. You traveled to Nicaragua. Let’s mentally fly down there with you, maybe drive an hour outside of the capital there, to a small town that’s called Grenada, after the Spanish town by the same name. Different from the isle of Grenada, which has a certain history that we’re probably mostly familiar with. You arrive, you probably got there by bus.

McVeigh: It was in the back of a pickup truck, actually.

Useem: Ok, not even a bus. So, you pop out of the back of a pickup truck, and then what?

McVeigh: Our goal when I first went to Grenada was to find a way to give access to this amazing sport to girls. That’s something that was really not done there. There were so many levels of boys’ sports, particularly baseball and soccer, that had been built. At the time, there were boys leagues from under 10 all the way up to Premier League, professional. But on the women’s side, it was virtually nonexistent. And there are a lot of cultural and economic reasons why that was so.

I would say the first memory that I have of really seeing what this could do is when we started doing soccer clinics in schools around Grenada. I was joined by my friend Ann Cook, who’s now the associate head coach at Penn State. And on our way home from work that day, we came across a pickup game. There were six men, playing three versus three, literally under a streetlight. And it was 9 or 10 at night, maybe a little later.

“How do we use this sport that has a lot of really important interpersonal lessons that you can draw on to build character, to build skills, but then also to build community?”

Useem: And you couldn’t resist.

McVeigh: And we couldn’t resist. So, it was two of us women and then our friend … who was Nicaraguan, who had been helping us build the program. And so we had three. We had enough to play in. So he asked, “Could we play winner?” And they literally just looked at us and laughed. They had no idea that Ann Cook was a Hermann Trophy finalist, played in the WUSA. She’s amazing.

Useem: You were All-American yourself.

McVeigh: I could try to hold my own. So we played in, and it was the typical style — you score, you stay. We won nine games in a row. And you could see, at first, it was, “Who are these women?” Then it was, they’re joking with each other, “Oh she beat you,” and they were embarrassed. Then by the end, we were just another team.

Useem: Common ground.

McVeigh: That was when I knew that this could change people’s perspective. They didn’t need to be embarrassed about losing to women. It was just, “They’re good players.” And they could see us that way.

Useem: It’s a really interesting point too, because you bridged a divide by playing against them. The common ground was the game of soccer.

McVeigh: It’s about getting people to see each other for who they are — for their talents, not by some stereotype or some perception of what their limits are. And it’s about getting people to see that about themselves, too — helping the girls see you can be anything you want to be. It’s not just what society tells you what your limits are.

Useem: Take us through the first couple of months in Grenada, when you had literally nothing but a few contacts, and you had to build something.

McVeigh: It’s really about making contacts, and figuring out who are our champions on the ground. It wasn’t about me being able to go home and do this from afar. It was, who are our people here that believe in the same mission? So one of the first things we did was join a men’s soccer team since there was no women’s team. A lot of the men on that team became coaches of ours. We also managed to find the handful of women who had challenged tradition and were playing, and roped them in to become coaches.

Then we literally went door to door, or school to school, inviting girls to play. You do little clinics and show them. They think they can’t play. You watch them go through this transformation of, “I can’t do that, that’s not for me.” And then, “Oh, I can. You know, I can get two juggles,” or, “I can make that pass.” And they get hooked, because it’s something exciting. It’s new. “There’s an adult that’s interested in me and my skills. And I feel positive.” We were able to bring girls into the fold that way, and get something started that could sustain.

“The lesson that always replays for me is about recognizing what you can and can’t do, and making sure that the things you do choose to do, you can sustain them and do them well.”

Useem: All people doing startups say they have some great days and they have some really tough ones. What were one or two of your setbacks along the way?

McVeigh: There have been many. I think one that stands out, since we’re talking about Nicaragua, is finding your own limits of what you can and can’t do — you know, the challenges of poverty and of equality, they’re very complex. And you can only provide so many services and so many resources. We had this one girl, Yelba, who lived right next to the one soccer field in town. She had grown up playing with the boys, and she came out to our practice, and she was talented. You know, our eyes lit up. We were saying, “We’re not here to make professional players, but this girl clearly has a passion for it.”

Through the program, she ended up playing for the under-20 Nicaraguan national team, which was very disorganized at the time — but it existed, and it was a huge, breakthrough resource. But just the complexity of the needs she had. Her parents were really upset that she made the national team. It was in [the Nicaraguan capital of] Managua; it meant she couldn’t do as many chores around the house. Who’s gonna pick up the slack? The national team was paying for her bus fare, which her parents would oftentimes steal.

It was just very complicated. There were health issues. This is somebody who’s coming from a background where her nutritional needs hadn’t been met. So playing at a higher level, could her body handle that? It just sort of took us down a road of asking: Can we be a school and a hospital and a counselor and all of these things? What are the limits of what we can do?

Useem: And the answer was yes?

McVeigh: The answer was actually no. We ended up not being able to bridge that for her. At times, we realized, all of our focus was on this one girl when there were so many others who were in the program. How many resources can you devote to one person? It was really a gut check of, “What can we do? What can we do well? What are the limits? And when do you need to let someone go if you can’t meet the needs that they have?”

“I think measuring impact with kids is incredibly challenging, for the same reason that, when you’re a parent, you know you’re planting seeds, but you don’t know exactly what’s going to grow.”

The lesson that always replays for me is about recognizing what you can and can’t do, and making sure that the things you do choose to do, you can sustain them and do them well.

Useem: For a lot of people who are getting something going, they have a vision of where they want to go. But the actual model of how to do it, you’ve got to invent by doing and learning, two steps forward and one step back.

McVeigh: Trial and error.

Useem: So that was you. Mary, in reference to the name of your organization, Soccer Without Borders — help us understand what you mean by “without borders.”

McVeigh: I think it speaks to the universality of the game. And it also speaks to breaking down barriers. It’s about, how do we erase some barriers that exist in the world for people, based on different circumstances?

One of our major focus areas right now is on the newcomer population: refugees, asylees, immigrants. And you know, literally, “borders” comes to mind when you think about that, and you think about people who are stateless, have lost their homes, have been forced to flee war, persecution, violence. How can you help them rebuild a home in a new place? Soccer is a pretty powerful tool in that effort.

Useem: Make the connection. Let’s take refugees in Turkey, or Greece, or Nicaragua. There are a couple of million people traveling by foot today, as we speak. As they come into a team, they build at least a relationship with the coaches and the parents and so on. But how does this bridge into something bigger than soccer itself?

McVeigh: You hit the nail on the head there. The family and support of the team is incredibly powerful. And the mentor-mentee relationship that’s formed with the coach. But then there are other concrete skills and resources that kids need in order to access opportunities and pathways, particularly in the U.S.

How do you fill out a FAFSA form? How do you know to take the SAT? Are you prepared for the SAT? What sort of interview skills do you have? Are you comfortable talking with somebody and presenting yourself in a way that could help get you a job? These are all very hard skills that kids need to practice. And they’re coming from a number of different cultural backgrounds. They’ve had interrupted schooling. They may not have had a pathway that’s very consistent, or one that builds up to a job or higher education. So we’re trying to fill in those gaps.

One of my peers in this work, I thought, made a great analogy the other day. He said, “It’s like Swiss cheese. There are a lot of holes. And they’re not all in the same place.” You’re trying to plug them, but it’s not about a consistent model that’s going to work for everybody. It’s about a model that’s flexible enough to identify the holes and provide the resources to fill them.

Useem: You know, I think historically, the U.S. Peace Corps often sent people who would become coaches in developing areas as well. The model that you’re using now is not unlike, I think, what the Peace Corps has done historically, which is to help people through an initial engagement in a sporting activity. It could be badminton, could be soccer, could be baseball in some areas. But it’s baseball, plus. Or it’s soccer, plus. Let’s think about the “plus” then. After you’ve got a team — maybe even a winning team — how do you help say, the girls in Nicaragua, take the next step in putting their futures together?

“We want to equip the kids with the skills they need to reach their full potential, whatever that is for them.”

McVeigh: One thing we do is try to identify what obstacles or pitfalls exist. What are the challenges that they’re going to face? In Nicaragua, research would tell you that 28% of girls are pregnant by the time they’re 18. That’s a challenge. And 52% of kids don’t make it on to secondary school. That’s a challenge. You can identify what are the common pitfalls, and ask, how can we shape our program to address them?

So one thing in Nicaragua is, we want to bridge that transition to secondary school. So starting in sixth grade, we offer what we call half scholarships. Public school in Nicaragua is not free. There are uniforms, there’s a small matriculation fee. So can we provide that? When the girls come to an activity, they earn a point. They can use those points to purchase school uniforms and school supplies.

Then, in secondary school, we offer full scholarships. If they earn it through positive participation in the program — there’s also an application that we help with — they can actually choose any secondary school they want. And we pay for it. We’ve identified that this is a period of life where they can go one of two directions. How can we intervene and make sure it’s a positive path? You know, the Peace Corps has some very concrete areas that they focus on and that people are trained for. I think what we try to do is similarly understand the culture and context that we’re working in, and make sure that we shape the program to meet those specific needs.

Useem: I would assume that the girls who are hopefully heading towards high school or beyond in Nicaragua are residential. They’re living there, at home, with their families. When it comes to people on the immigrant trail, they often haven’t been there that long, and families have been broken up. It’s a much more difficult population to work with. How do you go about even creating a team that’s sustainable and able to repeatedly play among an immigrant population that’s on the move?

McVeigh: That is a significant challenge. One thing is you want to catch them early, and be a resource early. We work directly with resettlement agencies, with schools, with community partners that would know when people arrive, and immediately try to get them into something positive. We don’t have a closed-door policy with our teams. Sometimes our teams can swell to 45 kids over the course of a season, or more. It’s not what people traditionally think of as a team. You know, kids want to play games. And in the United States, playing games means pass cards and paperwork. Bridging that — how do you get a kid ready to be able to play on the team? That’s a lot of problem-solving that our coaches do.

It’s also motivation for the kids. They arrive, they play in, they get to know the community. They immediately have access to all the academic support, language support. But to play on that team, they’ve got to stick with it. And they can vote with their feet. They can control their own fate in that regard. I will say, we had one family that was in our program in Oakland (Calif.) that then moved to Greeley, Colo. where we have another program, and ended up captaining our middle school team in Greeley. I think it would be so amazing if that could happen more often, because families do move and migrate in order to pursue opportunities where there are jobs. We are seeing a huge migration to the Midwest, the Central Plains. Our Colorado program tends to be a second resettlement type of city. You do start to see the differences in where people move and where opportunities are.

Useem: When you look at what you’ve done, what sort of metric would you use to say when you’ve succeeded with, for example, the team down in Nicaragua. How do you know when that particular setting, that particular investment of your time, is paying off?

McVeigh: I think measuring impact with kids is incredibly challenging, for the same reason that, when you’re a parent, you know you’re planting seeds, but you don’t know exactly what’s going to grow. But we have boiled down what we try to measure into five things.

One is academic advancement. Are they able to gain access to those credentials that are meaningful, that are going to open doors? One is language development, particularly with newcomers. Can you acquire the language skills you need to participate in the economy and access opportunities?

[Another] is social capital. How well are we connecting the kids to networks and safety nets? One [more] is healthy lifestyles, which is being a happy, healthy, active person who is able to avoid risky behaviors and value their body. And the last one is personal development, which is I think, a little bit more abstract. But we want to develop happy, confident, competent, compassionate people; people who are good people.

I think, too often, kids have a lot of external expectations that are put on them. Other people define success for them, [such as] getting into Penn, or it looks like getting that job. We want to equip the kids with the skills they need to reach their full potential, whatever that is for them. For me, if they’re happy, healthy individuals who are reaching their goals and aspiring towards that, that’s good enough for me.