CEO Stories with Gabrielle Kurlander, All Stars Project
Gabrielle Kurlander, CEO of the nonprofit All Stars Project has used her own theater and performance background to build an organization that focuses on youth development. The pandemic served as an opportunity to expand the program’s reach beyond its core four cities with online programs, aimed mostly at people in their high teens years and early twenties.
WRITING A NEW SCRIPT
Performance, says Kurlander, allows people to create new versions of themselves. For people growing up in underserved areas with limited opportunities, the All Stars Project gives them a tool to help them see possibilities and feel confident pursuing new opportunities. For someone who has never been in a corporate setting but now has an internship, performance gives them a chance to “practice” being at home in an unfamiliar situation.
CREATING HER OWN ROLE
Kurlander knows from experience how important and powerful a tool performance can be. She had to “practice” becoming a CEO herself and being the person who could into corporations and ask CEOs to contribute resources, including people, and money. “What performance helped me do is create a version of who I wanted to be as a CEO that was both true to who I am and true to something that I wanted to create so I could go to these new places,” she recalls.
The textbook definition of philanthropy is to “exert oneself on behalf of others.” Rather than looking to government grants to help the All Stars Project grow, Kurlander chose to hew to the true spirit of philanthropy. “We wanted to go to people because we could be more innovative, we could be more entrepreneurial, we could actually create new connections between people with money and people with less money.”
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POC: I’m here today with Gabrielle Kurlander, the CEO and President of the All Stars Project. Gabrielle, thanks so much for joining us today on This is Capitalism.
GK: Oh, thanks for having me, Patricia. It’s great to be here.
POC: So Gabrielle, All Stars Project sounds like its sports-related. Is it?
GK: Well, no, not exactly. The All Stars Project is a national non-profit and we are really about youth development. And we use a performance approach, we use performance as a tool on stage and in life to help young people who are growing up in places of poverty, in places that are under served, where there isn’t a lot of opportunity, to help these young people go on and pursue their hopes and dreams, learn more about the world, create a place for themselves in it.
POC: Talk to me a little bit about what you mean by “We use performance.”
GK: I started performing when I was about 11 years old. And what you find with performance is we have innovated to use it as a tool not just on stage but in life. So performance, it gives you a way to create new versions of yourself.
So the reason this is relevant to the All Stars Project is that young people who are growing up without a lot of opportunity, without a lot of experience of things outside of their neighborhoods, they need a tool, they need a mechanism, they need something to do. How do you get over that hump? How do you build your confidence? How do you do new things? Well, performance helps you to do that.
So let’s say for the first time, you’re going to go into a corporation because you have been offered an internship. Well, performance, if you think about it, you can practice how am I going to shake someone’s hand? How am I going to look them in the eye? How am I going to introduce myself? And you can perform those things and you can make mistakes during performance, you know, there is no right or wrong. So it kind of helps free people up.
So in the All Stars Project, we direct young people in creating new performances as a way for them to recreate their lives and have new opportunities.
POC: So talk to me a little bit about how you get kids interested in this because it might be a little bit of a not-familiar concept to them, the idea of performance.
GK: We do old-fashioned, grassroots outreach. So we go, we meet young people where they are, meaning we walk through their neighborhoods, even if some of the neighborhoods are some of, frankly, some of the toughest and most violent or most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in our country. We go into some of our schools, some of the schools that are struggling the most, and we talk to young people.
Sometimes we bring even other young people and we’ll create a performance right there as a part of the outreach to show them what this is. But we tell them you can come into the All Stars Project regardless of your grade point average, regardless of how you are doing. If you want to grow as a leader, you want to experience new opportunities, you can come in and we’ll use performance and help you to grow.
POC: What is the age group that you are really looking at?
GK: We kind of specialize I’d say in teenagers, upper teens, 16 to 21 and even into the early twenties, even after young people graduate from college we have some opportunities for them. We have performance programs that involve kids who are in middle school or kids who are in grade school. So we do all of the ages.
But at the All Stars Project we found that sometimes when you get to be a teenager you can feel especially trapped, you can feel especially that there is not opportunities for you or its…you can really be having a tough time. We really look to interest those teenagers in our programs.
POC: How did you take your theater background and turn it into this national non-profit?
GK: I think that what I found when I was growing up, my own experience was that performance helped me be a successful and confident person when more traditional schooling at that time was not achieving in that way as well. So I really saw just the way performance opened up my life.
I moved to New York City – I grew up in a small town – moved there when I was 18 years old to pursue acting. I met the All Stars Project, it was a very grassroots effort, and I became the founding CEO. And it’s kind of funny to talk about it now, Patricia, because it wasn’t entirely clear what I was the CEO of, to tell you the truth. When you start when a non-profit is just getting going and the funding isn’t established yet, everything is in front of you. You don’t really have anything there.
I think that being a performer helped me do things that I had never done before. So when I went out and started, for example, going to affluent adults and asking them to support this, and the All Stars Project were 100 percent privately funded, I had never asked people for $50,000 or even $10,000. And I think I used my performance background to help me take a deep breath and do that performance and in doing it as a performance eventually I learned how to do it.
And I think that it’s that same kind of methodology that we bring to young people and also to adults because the All Stars Project is really a partnership between caring adults, affluent adults, and young people from the poor and underserved communities. And we help all of them to grow together.
POC: Is it about imagining a character or is it about imagining a different part of yourself? Or maybe it depends on someone’s point of view about acting, if they are a method actor or not.
GK: [Laughter.] Yes, well, I think it’s as much about doing. So the great thing about performance is you can start right now.
So what performance does, I think, is it lets you see. We’re not saying to them “here is the character you have to create,” you get to create it yourself. So it gives you total freedom. It’s not coercive, it’s saying to you you can create a new version of yourself, you can take everything that you are but you also can try some new things.
So, if you want your character to be a little more studious, well then you can perform a studious person. If you want to be a great question asker, let’s do a performance of asking questions about things that we don’t know anything about. So performance is kind of a…it’s almost like a freeing mechanism.
POC: Gabrielle, what did you have to create for yourself in terms of a role or a persona? You said that you had not asked anyone for $50,000 or $10,000. I’m going to guess you probably hadn’t even asked for $1,000. So how did you write your script?
GK: Yes. Well, you know, I think at times when I began leading the All Stars project and I was the President and CEO at the time, now I’m the CEO, I had this image of what a CEO was and it didn’t fit with me. And I thought, well how am I going to be the CEO? Because that’s not who I am. My family wasn’t in business, I didn’t really know people who were CEOs, I had never owned a suit – you know, some of the very basic things.
But at the time, as someone in my twenties, it was pretty intimidating, to tell you the truth, these kinds of things. And I think what performance helped me do is create a version of who I wanted to be as a CEO that was both true to who I am and true to something that I wanted to create so I could go to these new places.
And we do the same thing with young people and I think it is actually an important key to issues of diversity and issues of belonging. I think that there needs to be more conversation about belonging. Because you can have all the diversity you want, you can put all kinds of different people together but if you don’t create a sense of belonging for all of those people, you’re not going to be successful.
So if you are an African-American young person who is in a corporation and you’re in a room and mostly white executives are there maybe it’s the first time, you can learn through performance to create a version of yourself that’s what you choose to be.
It doesn’t have to be the same thing as you are in your neighborhood but it doesn’t exactly have to be exactly like those other people in the room either. It can be this new creation of your own making and that’s what performance helps people to do.
POC: To extend the metaphor a little bit, the theater metaphor, it almost sounds like you’re enabling, empowering, and encouraging young people to write their own script.
GK: Yes. Exactly, Patricia. We are. I think enabling is a great word, empowering is a great word. We all want to write our own script. And I think for young people who are growing up in places of poverty they get a lot of messages and some of the messages are you have to be perfect to succeed. Well, none of us is perfect and we can’t be perfect and in fact perfection is kind of the enemy of growth, it’s the enemy of opportunity.
POC: I love the idea that perfect is the enemy of growth.
GK: Well, yes, I say that because you get frozen if you’re trying to be perfect all the time. But sadly, if you grow up without opportunity and if you have just much less than a lot of other people in the country – you don’t have the same kind of clothes, you don’t go to the best schools, you don’t know about things in the world because you have never experienced them – you think somehow that the minute you get an opportunity you have to be perfect. And that is just impossible.
We have a young woman who grew up in West Dallas and she experienced poverty and violence in her life and in her neighborhood. She was the first person in her extended family to go to college. And she came into the All Stars Project, she came into our Development School for Youth and she got opportunities to become an intern.
And what we do in our internship program – we have hundreds of corporations that partner with us and they provide internships – is we train young people how to create new performances and we give them training in resume writing and public speaking and all kinds of exposure. We also train the adults. We train corporate professionals too. So it’s really a two-way street.
POC: Let’s talk a little bit about the corporate involvement because I think that is always the flip side to these wonderful stories of nonprofits like yours.
GK: Well, interestingly we are mostly funded by individuals. We built a very large…some thousands of individual people who contribute to this cause. And we really pioneered something, Patricia, called involvement philanthropy. So some years ago I decided I was going to look up the term ‘philanthropy’ in the Oxford English Dictionary and see what the definition is. So I looked up philanthropy and it says that philanthropy is exerting oneself on behalf of your fellow man. The thing that struck me about this is the word exerting. It’s not giving, it’s not helping, its exerting.
POC: Gabrielle, I would normally ask this at the end but I am so enthused by what you are saying that I want to ask you right now. If someone wants to get involved with the All Stars Project, how do they do it?
GK: Well, they can go to our website, www.allstars.org, and you’ll see that there are opportunities to volunteer. So there are many things you can do at the All Stars Project. You can volunteer, you can bring us into your corporation, you can become a development coach. We are in four cities, we have offices in Dallas, Chicago, New York, and in Newark, New Jersey, so you can come and volunteer in person in those places. We are also though in more than 20 states with our virtual programs.
We do another program, Patricia, that people can be involved in called Operation Conversation. So this is really a program that I created with my colleague Antoine Joyce. I’m a white person and he is an African-American man. And we created this program because a lot of people came to us and they said, “You know, we want to do something about racial inequity, we want to do something to help the country and help diverse people come together but we don’t know what to do.”
And so Antoine and I created this program, you can come into it, it’s small groups and we use performance to take diverse groups of people through a series of exercises where they can connect to each other in new ways and find out about who each other is and have new kinds of conversations.
If we’re all going to learn to be together and know who each other is, we’ve got to create those conversations ourselves, not from a script, but we’ve got to, as you said earlier, we’ve got to make up the script ourselves and that’s what Operation Conversation gives you a chance to do.
POC: So it sounds like there is a lot of opportunity for you to reach a lot of people then, especially because you have expanded through this virtual platform.
GK: I mean, that’s been amazing. I can tell you, when we started going virtually, we didn’t really know if it was going to work. We had done everything in person, just like probably the rest of the world. We found that the virtual programs have been very effective.
We’re about relationships, we’re about connecting different kinds of people, wealthy people and people growing up in poverty. African American, Hispanic, white people, people of different sexual preferences, people of different ages, people of different political beliefs, people of different ideologies, this is what the All Stars Project does, we build community with diverse people. And we found that virtually we could create context where there was a lot of intimacy and a lot of new kinds of discoveries being made. So that was pretty exciting.
POC: Did it surprise you, as you were ramping up the All Stars Project, that you would need corporate support? Did you imagine it would be very grassroots, very individual, a lot of well-intentioned, obviously, people willing to, as you say, exert themselves?
GK: I mean, you can be a nonprofit and you can choose really not to be funded, you can be an all-volunteer outfit. And in fact, before I was the CEO, that’s what the All Stars Project was. It was a volunteer effort and did wonderful things with volunteers.
But if you want to get bigger, if you want to reach more people, you know you’ve got to get funding and then you have certain options. And one of the options is to go to the government for government funds. The All Stars Project, we didn’t choose that option, we felt that we wanted to be private, we wanted to go to people because we could be more innovative, we could be more entrepreneurial, we could actually create new connections between people with money and people with less money.
The government, in my view, does some things well at times but I think that building social capital is not one of them. I think the government needs to provide a safety net for people who are struggling. But we need to move beyond just charity to growth if we are going to change things.
So private philanthropy, that’s where you can do it. And what we have found and what was fascinating is we went out and first we started talking to literally hundreds of thousands of individuals in this massive effort on the streets and knocking on doors and reaching people. And then we found a lot of them worked on Wall Street. This is literally true, I mean it sounds kind of funny, they not only worked on Wall Street but they were generous people. And they started giving $100 and then they gave $1000 and then they said, “I want to get involved.”
And then we created a program where we went to some of our corporate supporters and said, “Will you take an internship?” And at the time, Patricia, nobody was taking high school interns in the corporate world. They only took college interns. And we helped, first in New York City and now all around the country, we have helped pioneer a high school internship program that was for young people who were growing up in poor and underserved communities. And the corporate community has been enormously generous in partnering with us in that creation.
POC: It’s so interesting when I hear you say words like entrepreneurial and innovation because those are words that are often associated with capitalism. I think sometimes people view capitalism and philanthropy as occupying two separate worlds, if you will. And they really don’t.
GK: Yes. Well, I mean, I think entrepreneurialism, innovation, these are some of the most wonderful aspects of capitalism and I think that in philanthropy – when you are privately funded – if our donors stop giving we go out of business, it’s just as simple as that. That’s true of the corner store, that’s true of the All Stars Project as a privately funded nonprofit.
I have seen, unfortunately, and it’s very sad but I have seen a lot of government-funded programs for young people that use old techniques that are not high quality. And I know a number of other privately funded nonprofits that really have very high standards for what they provide to young people, and just because young people don’t have a lot doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be getting the very best from us. And I think entrepreneurialism, innovation, high standards, high quality – these are some of the things that private funding really contribute.
POC: Where does All Stars Project go next?
GK: Well we are really investing, Patricia, in our partnerships, both our corporate partnerships and our nonprofit partnerships. So on the corporate side of things, we have some big partners, one of the big accounting firms, we have people in the Wall Street firms, we have one of the big entertainment firms is pioneering a year-long apprenticeship program with the All Stars Project as part of their diversity and inclusion initiative.
We also are doing some wonderful work with the community college networks in Dallas. And we are really hoping to bring some of our techniques, our performance approach, to young people who are in a community college setting.
As well Patricia, we work with police departments. So we have a program called Operation Conversation: Cops & Kids. And we are working with the New York City Police Department and the Newark, New Jersey Police Department to train their trainers in our community engagement approach so that they can train their officers who are interacting with people from the neighborhoods and the communities everyday.
We are interested now in partnering with bigger institutions than us so that we can really scale and impact in some new ways. So I think that’s where we’re going.
POC: So Gabrielle, when you first came to New York as an 18-year-old, thinking you were going to be a performer, is this better than what you imagined?
GK: [Laughter.] Oh yeah. I have been so lucky. I did dream about being a performer growing up and I think I have both had the opportunity to create all kinds of performances… You know, I actually have worked in the theater my adult life also, I’m about to be involved in my fortieth theatrical production.
So I had a chance to create those kinds of performances but as I said earlier, you know, I’ve also been able to develop as a business leader, as a CEO, and create new performances of myself and meet so many different kinds of people from all walks of life, Patricia. I think that has been so gratifying to me.
I think capitalism has been such a progressive system, it has done so much, we’ve made so much progress in science and medicine and in all kids of fields of endeavor through the system of capitalism and at the same time I think in the areas of our country that are poor, we haven’t made as much progress as we need to. And I think poverty, what we see there is it’s not simply an economic category, though we need to address the economic needs, it’s also a social category.
And, in fact, Patricia, there is a really interesting article, a research study that just came out, maybe you heard of it, by a Harvard economist named Raj Chetty. And Dr. Chetty found that people with lower incomes were more likely to improve their financial situations over time if they were connected to people with higher incomes. And the issue of social mobility, upward income mobility in America, is really one of the challenges that faces us.
And the All Stars Project, this is what we do is we create relationships, exactly what Dr. Chetty is talking about, relationships between affluent Americans, middle class Americans, people growing up oor, people from all walks of life, so that we can expand the opportunities and the growth for everybody involved.
POC: If you come from a background with less resources, you can see people with other resources but you don’t necessarily know how to get there. You don’t see any bridge, any path, any connection, any way to connect.
GK: That’s right. And that path, you don’t see the path, you don’t see the bridge, and you also don’t have the tools to take the path. You need to both see the opportunity but then you need to be surrounded by people like you, unlike you, all kinds of people who are supporting you to do these new things, to grow in ways so that you can get on that path and pursue your dreams.
I really love philanthropy. I think that America has one of the longest traditions of volunteerism of any country in the world, more people volunteer in America than anywhere, which I think is just extraordinary. I think volunteering is something that we can all do. And you should volunteer about things you feel passionate about. And I think people can find it just enormously gratifying.
POC: Gabriella, it is obvious you have found it gratifying and I’m sure you have made it gratifying for people on both sides of the equation, if you will. So Gabrielle, any last thoughts that you’d like to share with us? You have given us a lot to think about and I think it’s really amazing what you do.
GK: Oh well thank you, Patricia. I think if I was going to say…give you a last thought it would be that I think we need to not only drive things through data, not only drive things through economic success and money, we need to look at people’s hearts and minds.
I think data and money can do a lot and is doing a lot but it’s not everything. We need creativity, we need human relationship, we need new opportunities for people. And so I really just urge all listeners, you know, find something you’re passionate about and go do it. You know, if you love cats, go volunteer at an animal shelter. You’d be surprised the kinds of worlds that will open up for you. I know because I lived it and it opened it up for me and I just… I’m very lucky. So, thank you.
POC: Well you’re still living it, Gabrielle. And thank you so much, Gabrielle Kurlander, CEO of the All Stars Project for joining us today on This is Capitalism.
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