How Running Can Change The World: Q&A With Ashoka Fellow Molly Barker

Molly Barker is a yogi, a four-time Ironman triathlete (!), an author, and a recovering alcoholic. She’s also a social entrepreneur, an Ashoka Fellow, and the founder of Girls on the Run, a program that empowers girls to grow up joyful, healthy and confident through an experienced-based curriculum with running—yes, running—at its core.

In this Q&A, Ashoka Changemakers’ John Converse Townsend offers a peek into the mind of a game-changing innovator (Fast Company recently named Barker into the “League of Extraordinary Women,” a group of 60 influencers who are truly changing the world).

Q: What’s the big deal about running?

Barker: Running takes this experience we call “being human” and provides an opportunity to witness it in both the spiritual and physical realms. Where we choose to position the act of running on this continuum is up to each individual person and has much to do with where they are in their own life’s journey. I receive tons and tons of beautiful letters from little girls in our program, and the heartfelt messages in each and every one beautifully articulate this continuum.

“When I run I realize I can set a goal and accomplish it.”

“When I run I get to spend time with my friends. It’s so much fun!”

“When I run I feel joyful, free and strong.”

“When I run, I become beautiful and like who I am.”

“When I run, I feel like I can change the world!”

There is so much running can teach us about life and our perspective of it.

Q: So, you had a good idea. How did you turn your vision for change into reality?

Barker: I think all big ideas start as a vision, a dream, a “what if” in our imagination. I could “see” what a girl in our program would “look” like after she completed it: strong, comfortable in her skin, empowered yet humble, authentic, real. I stayed focused on this image of what could be, and it was almost magical the way what I needed to occur just began to happen—the right books, the right people, the right thoughts, the right connections, the next right thing to do.

I’m in that phase now, as I’m prepping to launch a new big idea. When I have clarity of vision (the vision for the big idea) and when I stay completely focused on that (the doing), the tasks to accomplish that vision simply appear like cobblestones on the path ahead of me. I lift my foot, not yet sure where it will land, and magically the cobblestone appears and I know what step must be taken, what next action must occur. We must first have faith, though, to lift the foot not knowing what is next. It’s both an exhilarating and terrifying process!

Success, for me, comes when I see the light go off in someone’s eyes, when something they haven’t seen or known existed suddenly enters into their reality. For example, at most of the Girls on the Run 5Ks (our 5Ks are the culminating, celebratory “graduation” event for our 10- to 12-week curriculum-centered program), I stand about 100 yards from the finish line rather than at the finish line. Because it is there where a young girl crosses into an awareness of what is possible when she sets her mind to something, what is possible when she believes in herself, what is possible when she is open, vulnerable, strong and present!

I deal with adversity primarily by going inward. I go for a run. I write. I breathe. I practice yoga. I also talk it out with a close circle of friends and family. I try not to be reactive but take the time to ponder how I might approach the adversity in a way that will “grow” me and those involved. I believe at the core of all adversity is fear, and haven’t we all been afraid at some point in our lives? If I lean into that reality, it becomes less about the adversity and more about moving folks into a space where they feel safe to share what frightens them. The situation can then become an opportunity to bring people together.

Q: What is it like, as a woman, to be a CEO? What, if anything, would you change?

Barker: Funny you ask. I am not a CEO. Liz Kunz currently serves as the president and CEO of Girls on the Run. Finding her was a gift, not only for me personally, but for the organization. I’m beginning to see, especially as I get older (!), that my skill sets are in the starting, creating, founding, inspiring, and lifting up an idea from the intangible imaginary space of our dreams and pulling and pushing it into reality.

Liz has creatively integrated the innovation of Girls on the Run (along with its core values) into what has historically worked in other non-profits while also keeping her eyes on and ears tuned to what could be done differently. Thanks to her and the amazing team of staff in our offices around the world, Girls on the Run is now a living, breathing sustainable organization that will live well past my time on Earth. I am living the founder’s dream, quite frankly.

Q: Care to share any details about what’s next?

Barker: I must do as we encourage our girls to do: live in that joyful place where I am fully self-actualized, where all my gifts and talents are being fully utilized. I’m taking the strength and joyful “you can do it” attitude the girls and supporters of Girls on the Run have unleashed in me to tackle the hyper-polarized state of our nation and the devastating effect this has on the ability of our nation’s leaders (specifically Congress) to effectively do their job.

It’s going to question everything about what I consider a very narrow view of political leadership and offer up an innovative and broader vision for what is possible when we expand that view to include empathy, compassion, deep listening, and genuine connection. I feel very much like I did when I started Girls on the Run. I knew then, as I know now, that it will be life-changing as well as world-changing.

Q: What’s the number one quality you look for in people—teammates, coworkers, etc.?

Barker: Curiosity coupled with the willingness to ask the hard questions. This, I believe, is precisely what children do so well and with absolutely no inhibitions. Somewhere along the line, we become fearful about questioning cultural and social norms.

Q: What type of world do you envision for girls/women?

Barker: The vision statement of Girls on the Run states it perfectly: “We envision a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams.”

Q: The world would be a better place if ________.

Barker: The world would be a better place tomorrow if we took the time to listen and see each other, to really listen, really see what lives behind the fear, the stereotype, the anger, the “other.”


Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on Forbes