Jan Helson

Co-Founder of Global Game Changers Children’s Education Initiative

Jan is a dedicated philanthropist, passionate entrepreneur, and successful businesswoman. Along with her husband Tim, she operated and developed Golden Foods/Golden Brands for 20 years and built the brand into a global leader in the industrial baking industry. The convergence of her daughter Rachel’s philanthropic journey and Jan’s professional journey was the impetus for co-founding Global Game Changers Children’s Education Initiative, Inc. (GGC) in 2013. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit now provides social-emotional learning (SEL) and character and leadership development curricula that empower students to overcome apathy, feel empathy, and foster a sustainable connection to service.

Thanks to the generous support of the Novak Family Foundation, GGC was able to develop a custom online platform for educators and expand its student empowerment program nationwide and abroad. The curriculum is now taught to pre-K through 5th grade students in 49 states and 13 countries.

In addition to operating a real estate development company, Jan co-wrote two award-winning children’s books, Philanthropy: A Big Word for Big-Hearted People and The Global Game Changers. Jan serves on the University of Louisville Nystrand Center of Excellence in Education Advisory Board and the National SEL Providers Association Advocacy Committee. She has two grown children, Rachel and Jackson, and lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband, Tim and their Australian Shepherds, Amigo and Peanut.

IG: @globalgamechangers

Where did the idea for your career come from?

Before working in the education nonprofit space, I worked in business, running a global fats and oils manufacturing company with my husband Tim. Over the course of several years, we started to experience turnover with line employees at a different rate than before. When we looked into the cause, we found employees who didn’t have the tools to succeed in terms of academic skills – like reading a company manual – or social skills – like understanding the important role they played or understanding how to correct a mistake. While we were developing tools to support our employees, I started to wonder to myself: what if someone had provided these tools to them at a much earlier age? My second catalyst for Global Game Changers came from my daughter Rachel. Upon learning about the prevalence of breast cancer among close family and friends, Rachel became motivated to take action. My husband and I encouraged her to use her talents to make a difference. Rachel had always loved acting, so she put on a musical to support a breast cancer organization. Not only did she get the joy of giving back, this process also helped her develop innumerable life skills that have led to a fulfilling and successful career. So when I got the opportunity to choose my path after we sold our company, I knew that I wanted to help young kids using the tools that I had seen in action in my daughter’s life.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I am usually awake by 6:30, but slow to get out of the house. First thing is coffee and fresh fruit, then I dive into emails, phone calls, and texts. I try not to schedule meetings before 11:00. My office is in the city, but I live on a farm outside of the city, so I catch-up with my daughter, my son, and my sister on the telephone to and from the office. Flexibility is a quality I stress with my staff because I believe it’s incredibly important to our success. And, to be honest, there is no “typical” day for me. I spend some days meeting with my team, some talking to schools, districts, or partners and some days bearing down and working from home. I balance my work with Global Game Changers with the real estate development business I continue to run with my husband and the needs and support of my family. I rarely eat lunch, but my husband and I always have dinner together. And, you can find me back in my comfortable spot with my computer late into the night. The work I do energizes me, and I tell my staff that they can expect emails from me routinely after midnight, but they shouldn’t feel like they have to respond till the next morning!

How do you bring ideas to life?

At any given moment I have dozens of ideas swimming in my head. Passion, hard work, and support from a lot of generous people, bring many of them to life. The others stay on my to-do list.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I am excited that there is a trend toward project-based learning in elementary and secondary education. This shift provides much needed, hands-on practical experience for students to learn and make a real-life connection to their academic curriculum. Global Game Changers program is grounded in project-based learning for this very reason.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I am a habitual list maker and have been since I was very young…grade school young. Lists keep me organized and are critical to my success. At the end of every day, before I go to sleep, I review the current day’s task list, remove the items I completed, and add any new items, usually comprised from handwritten notes I have taken during meetings throughout the day. I keep a master list, affectionately called “the bible” and a daily list, disseminated from the bible as tasks for the next day + I keep a pen and pad of paper bedside, which I use all too often! One of the last things I do at night is print my updated list so that my tasks and thoughts are prioritized as soon as I wake up.

What advice would you give your younger self?

​​That’s hard. I have been so blessed and had so many great mentors and amazing opportunities. I am a product of those influences and experiences. If I gave my younger self advice, and I took it, it could alter my path and I wouldn’t want my path to be any different than what it is.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

That I am easy going. My husband, my kids, my family, and friends…just laugh when I make that claim. I know I’m type A, I’m intense, I thrive on multi-tasking, and I don’t back away from conflict, but seriously, I am easy going.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Let things roll off my shoulders. I counsel anyone who wants to advance into a leadership role about the importance of having broad shoulders. You can’t take things personally; you have to let them roll and you have to be able to make difficult decisions that may elicit criticism.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Face time. And no, I’m not talking about the Apple technology (although I am a devoted Apple user (Mac Pro, iphone, and Apple TV). I think that as a society, the more comfortable we become with technology, the less comfortable we have become with personal interactions with other people. But I believe that there is no substitute for a personal call or visit to stop by and see someone. There is so much that you cannot convey over email or text message. Recently, I was visiting a school for a simple project. As I met with my contact, we started to discuss the whole Global Game Changers program in more depth. That conversation led to the school’s adoption of our full program. If I hadn’t been there in person, that relationship would have taken much longer to build. There is no replacement for in-person connections.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I think the failure would be to not learn from my failures. Failure is an inherent part of being an entrepreneur. If you launch enough ideas, some will fail. Learn from the experience and move on to the next great idea or lesson.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Ever since I entered the nonprofit space I have been intent on finding ways to help nonprofits run more like businesses and monetize themselves so they are less dependent on fundraising. I think a well designed and well marketed ecommerce social platform of goods produced by or for nonprofits would elevate their reach and impact exponentially. If anyone is interested; reach out or just run with it!

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Buying my team ice cream after a particularly busy and stressful week.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I really work well with Microsoft Outlook. Global Game Changers has our email through Gmail, but I funnel all my Gmail into Outlook – much to the chagrin of some of my younger colleagues. Outlook is just a really great virtual filing cabinet; visually clean and functionally organized.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Take Charge of You, a self-coaching book by David Novak, former CEO of YUM! Brands and Jason Goldsmith, professional sports performance coach. I found it to be a refreshingly easy read, chock-full of practical and straightforward guidance and reminders that are relevant to all entrepreneurs, regardless of where you are in your career.

What is your favorite quote?

The Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Key Learnings:

  • Don’t write off the value of personal connections. Communicating via email or text is not a good substitute for talking to someone.
  • A “master” and “daily” to-do list are critical tools for staying focused and organized.
  • Entrepreneurs are inspired by all aspects of their lives, personal and professional.