Outside the Ring: Elena Cox

By Jill Diamond on February 5, 2016
Outside the Ring: Elena Cox
Elena Cox is a savvy woman, thriving on the cutting edge of change, with barely a scratch.

“What an irony that the champion of physical force is actually one of the greatest international catalysts for the powerful soft forces…”

Sports and Philanthropy: A series of articles dedicated to those who’ve given their all and still give more. Each article will feature a different community champion; no belts, no medals, no ratings… just good people passing it on.

This month, at a convention of women in combat sports, Elena Cox wowed people with her straightforward no holds-barred talk on Athletes and Giving. We are familiar with many who share their time and talent for a cause they believe in; but the ins and outs of the process are a mystery to most.

Elena has a broad range of experience; starting in the nonprofit realm, traveling to various countries as both an executive and representative of various organizations with humanistic goals, serving as an adjunct teacher at Georgetown, and now moving on to create and head her own company, one which approaches higher education using high-tech acumen.

So who is Elena Cox? She’s a savvy woman, thriving on the cutting edge of change, with barely a scratch.

What is your background?  Tell us about yourself.

I come from a big family, and had the luck to be born in Spain and live in the United States, and have a lifetime of living, studying and working in many different places and being around lots of different people.

How did you become involved with sports?

In 2009 I was invited into an amazing coalition of professional athletes who wanted to push the boundaries of what it means to have a legacy and create positive change through their brands and platform. My introduction began with Athletes for Hope, expanded with an invitation to teach at Georgetown on the subject of diversity and social responsibility in sport, and spread out from there into local, national and global sports.

Do you play any sport yourself?

I grew up playing soccer, when there was no such thing as a “girls” team. So we played with the boys/men and then began forming clubs. My first coach was one of the most influential people in my life—as many coaches have been to many people.

Why is it important for an athlete to use their platform for the benefit of others?

Although the Nelson Mandela quote “Politics Divide, Sport Unites” is inspiring and true when it is true, the opposite can happen when sport becomes an economic powerhouse separated from its roots in community and inspiration. I think it is important that athletes use their platform for good because a) they have a voice that ripples and carries power across huge distances, and b) by doing this they tether the sport they are a part of to its promise. Sport is a huge economic machine. Without the grassroots authenticity of athletes coming from and giving back to their diverse communities, sport may not stay tethered to its greater power.

How would you convince one to do so?

I have never met a pro athlete that needed convincing that they got where they are with the help of others. Ever. They may have different takes on why and how, but they have seen too much—coaches who gave them something they could never repay or teammates or competitors who didn’t make it for a reason outside of their control. The real answer is that I would like to convince their “gatekeepers” who filter these opportunities that there is a way to leverage their athlete’s time and energy for good, and a way to waste it. And none of us benefit by wasting it.

Why do people listen to what athletes have to say?

I have no idea. Maybe because the ones who become great have often been great philosophers as well. That is not surprising when we consider that the great writers, politicians, actors, business leaders and musicians also have eternal quotes. If you make it to one out of one million perhaps you are a character to be listened to, or perhaps you are profound.

Have you ever seen this platform misused?

Inside sport philanthropy we tease a lot about the glamorous wasted golf tournament event that nets zero or worse. Athletes probably have their own tease back. Bottom line is it is hard to marry both the for-profit and the philanthropic legacy of an individual. And, the athletes who want to do that well understand that their trusted companion on the for-profit side should be different than their trusted companion on the non-profit side and yet these two need to be aligned under one vision.

What should an athlete forming an organization be wary of?

Forming an organization. Seriously. There are millions of non-profits, the majority of which are unable to sustain themselves. There are many equal alternatives to starting from scratch while maintaining independence.

If an athlete feels they are no longer interested in a group, or being cited by a cause/non-profit inappropriately, what can they do? Is there a recourse?

An athlete deserves to have his or her legacy. And if they have loaned their name or legacy to a non-profit and want to end that association they have every right to ask the non-profit to stop co-branding. Send the CEO an email. CEOs that would abuse that must be rare. If this happens, then the athlete can simply post (social media or on their own site) a clarification that they are not associated with that charity. I would never recommend getting into a dog fight with a charity in public, but then again, I cannot imagine a charity that has anything to gain by abusing a relationship with an athlete.

Do athletes generally get paid for being the face of a cause?

This is an important subject—for all of us. When a charity pays someone to be the “face” of their cause all authenticity to the purpose disappears. And people who care about the cause tend to find out which is bad for both the charity and the athlete. The key to finding a happy alignment between charity work and brand work is for the athlete to have their teams aligned under one vision. That way, the charity work becomes a great extension of the athlete’s brand and strengthens their ability to attract sponsors. Charity work is not a revenue source.

Do you think it’s appropriate for non-profits to use the same skills as for profits? Make the same money?

There is a lot of overlap between the skills and values required for a talented and successful for-profit and an impactful non-profit. And, in both categories, when the skills are missing, the core business/operation fails. So heck yes.

As for money, let’s be clear, non-profit is a tax term from the 1930s (I believe). Today, there are billion dollar non-profit systems, like hospitals and universities and others that are categorized “non-profit.” And they recruit high level people with for-profit like benefits. Another example, should the NFL be considered a non-profit? Should the CEO of NFL be aligned to income levels of the CEO of a homeless shelter? I think a more accurate term is charity, and I would suggest that charities look at the ratio of what they pay the CEO compared to what they pay the person on the front line in their organization doing the charity work. Do not let that comparison become an unwieldy gap.

What is the most effective way athletes can use their celebrity?

Every athlete who can tap into their own life experience, stick to what they know and do it well is a powerhouse. That’s how they made it to where they are. So whether it is environment, poverty, cancer, abuse, foster care, women’s rights, justice, whatever, when an athlete weighs in on a social issue it is heard. I live in DC. Many policy discussions are advanced on The Hill, when an athlete is used to represent the cause. That is just reality.

Any key words or phrases you’d like to share?

Individual potential. That is what we expect of an athlete. Let’s expect that of our own next generation.

Who shines? Why?

It is hard to separate out one amazing individual or group among so many. However, since you asked, I believe the ones that shine are those who can put as much into their legacy work as they ever put into their original sport to begin with. Think of what it takes to be a CHAMPION by age 20 or 25 or 30. Then, over a period of time, it is over. Think of what it takes to put that much effort in for decades and decades more. Those are my superheroes.

Who’s inspired you?

Tony Hawk has achieved a for-profit, non-profit balance that is mutually beneficial, incredibly authentic and includes one of the best business models inside the foundation that I have ever seen. He doesn’t build skateboard parks for the skaters. He gives them the playbook and provides little rewards along the way, through to the end. This is profound. Most of education aspires to do this kind of motivation/goal reinforcement and can’t figure out how to do it to scale. He has. And, what I love most is this was not an obvious achievement for someone like Tony. Tony came from a sport that used to be labeled a nuisance—“NO SKATEBOARDING”—not an art.

Equally, Muhammad and Lonnie Ali have been a tremendous source of inspiration to me. Even more so because I only discovered his inspiration later in my life. The “soft skills” are what many people call things like “courage, conviction, respect, confidence.” Ali is a catalyst for bringing out these qualities in others. What an irony that the champion of physical force is actually one of the greatest international catalysts for the powerful soft forces.

The individuality of Tony and Muhammad and others stands out to me right now. Sport has figured out how to play to individual strategy and strengths using data and analytics and a reliance on the so-called “soft skills” development. I want to bring this expertise over into education to make sure that each individual is being given the feedback, reinforcements and supports, allowing them to rise to their highest individual potential.

Do you feel you inspire others?

I try very hard to every day. And every day, I review how I might do better the next day, because I am hit or miss to be honest. Ask me in 20 years.

Can you cite an instance where someone, perhaps someone not as famous, made a real difference?

Every single day not-famous people make a huge difference, usually in lives they touch. The difference between them and famous people is that famous people do not have to be physically present to make a difference.

Okay, you asked for an example. A talented PR person used her social media to share concerns and adventures of her bulldog with a cleft palate. It went viral because the dog was deemed “adorable” with his deformation. A teenager, with years of cleft palate surgery herself, wrote to this woman and noted that in her life nobody found it “adorable” and much as she also loved the dog, it would have been a different life to be treated the same. The PR person had an “ah hah” moment, and they both ended up on national TV helping sensitize the world to how standards of beauty can hurt. This was my friend’s daughter and being in the spotlight was so totally out of character for this teen. But in the moment, because she had lived it and was finally being able to share it, making the difference gave her confidence to show up in front of the cameras and hold her own.

What is the best way for athletes and sport’s organizations to get involved in humanitarian efforts?

Four things:
1) Find a trusted collaborator—assume the athlete’s core competency is not humanitarian efforts and find someone that gets that and also gets the athletes brand and join forces.
2) Consider an alternative to an athlete forming a foundation or charity.
3) IF the goal is to be a positive catalyst in the moment of a disaster—find someone to communicate with the Public Safety Director or highest level person in the moment of the disaster. They are VERY clear about what they need, as bureaucracy reigns are subject to the real politics of who is reaching the governor (this last point is specifically and anonymously provided by the person in charge of numerous emergency moments in our lives since 2000.) The alternative is that the athlete sets up a recovery effort, which will inevitably hit a lot of hurdles in implementation.
4) If you are serious about having a humanitarian impact, assign someone you truly love and trust to tell you what you could be doing better on a regular basis.

What are you doing now and why?

Sport uses science to continuously produce a better training instrument, or better attire, or better simulator for training and achieving goals. Learning, goal pursuit and education are integral and integrated in sport. However, inside our education systems, there is very little of the agile, individual, scientific resources that every student can access to improve their pursuit of goals. So my team and I are bridging that gap. Specifically, we are using science to optimize outcomes for both the students and higher education systems. In higher education for every student who makes it in, only one in two cross the finish line, and this level of underperformance in higher education is a huge opportunity for improvement.

How can people learn about Vibeffect?

Anybody with an interest in our science can visit www.the vibeffect.com. They can also look for us this year on the program In America hosted by James Earl Jones which will be airing on public television throughout the year starting in February.

Outside the Ring: David Berlin
Outside the Ring: Sam Hadfield
Outside the Ring: Steve Farhood
Outside the Ring: Kathy Duva
Outside the Ring: Comanche Boy
Outside the Ring: Margaret Goodman
Outside the Ring: Allen Furst
Outside the Ring: Lonnie and Muhammad Ali
Outside the Ring: Bruce Silverglade
Outside the Ring: Mauricio Sulaiman
Outside the Ring: Luke Downdey
Outside the Ring: Kevin Iole
Outside the Ring: Barry Halbritter
Outside the Ring: Chicago Youth Boxing Club
Outside the Ring: Robert Guerrero
Outside the Ring: Mike Tyson
Outside the Ring: Teresa Tapia
Outside the Ring: Israel Vasquez
Outside the Ring: Holt McCallany
Outside the Ring: Monique Sciberras
Outside the Ring: Joe Dwyer
Outside the Ring: Dr. Nitin Sethi
Outside the Ring: Richard Steele
Outside the Ring: Boyd Melson
Outside the Ring: Elena Cox

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  1. Eric 08:49am, 02/06/2016

    Politicians, actors, musicians, and athletes are the last play I go for help when I’m looking for answers. However, I do think Yogisms are pretty profound. It is pretty disturbing how some of these characters are held up as pillars of society when in fact, a lot of them are sociopaths, narcissitic, self-centered, morally bankrupt individuals. I find it very disturbing at how the gullible public often looks up to individuals that are the epitome of the bottom of the barrel. Nelson Mandela is a fine example, MLK is another, of two individuals who are deified in this society despite their past. I doubt a saintly figure should be a womanizer, plagiarizer or have his FBI records sealed until 2027 for example, and most people have no idea who the real Mandela was, thanks to a controlled media indoctrination. Both men were avowed communists at a time when this was “supposedly” the evil ideology that America opposed. You will receive far more wisdom and the actual TRUTH from the common everyman of society than these so called celebrities who don’t even live in the real world. Many times a lot of these “celebs” wish to make a public spectacle of their philanthropy for all to see instead of giving anonymously. Common advice for anyone entering prison is to never accept “gifts,” that there is always an ulterior motive, probably the same “outside” as well.