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The power of choice

Anne Mahlum

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As a kid, Mahlum had her perception of life’s simplicity shaken when she learned that her dad was a gambling addict. She explains how she became determined not to let surprises and disappointments derail her as she became passionate about running and eventually started a nonprofit running club for people who were homeless. She discusses the importance of taking control of your choices and remembering that everyone, no matter their status, wants to be noticed, accepted and loved.


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I grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, and I had a pretty amazing childhood. I was pretty good at sports; I did very well in school; I had a lot of friends; and I had my fair share of boys chasing me around the playground. I also thought I had everything figured out by the time I was 12 years old.

I had life figured out so much that I actually kept a box underneath my bed of what I thought my world was going to look like when I got older. And inside this box were pictures of a huge white house with a white picket fence and pictures of what I thought my kids were going to look like and what my husband was going to look like. I thought life was going to be that easy. Because at 12 years old, it was.

When I was 16 years old, I got a hard dose of reality. My dad came home from work early and asked me, my younger brother, and my older sister if we could leave for a little while so he could talk to our mom. That had never happened before, and I knew something was wrong right away. But we left, and I was the first one to come home. My mom wasn’t there, and my dad was sitting upstairs looking somber and embarrassed and nothing like this superhero father figure I had known for the last 16 years. And that’s the day I found out my dad was a gambling addict.

Obviously, I didn’t have a lot of experience with addiction as a 16-year-old, so I didn’t understand it when I heard it. But I soon found out that that was not my dad’s first introduction with addiction. He had gone through drug and alcohol recovery when I was a kid. I never saw my dad struggle with any of those things, but my mom had for years. She dealt with deception and lying and cheating and irresponsibility—words that I would never use to describe my father. But for her, there was no way she was going through this again. And just like that, she kicked my dad out of the house that day.

It’s important to know that my dad and I had a very close relationship. He was just my person. There are people in life who have this really profound impact on us. My dad was my biggest fan. He would drive four hours to watch me play a game of basketball, and while I have a pretty good jump shot, it’s not that good. And for a 16-year-old kid who loves her dad more than life, I got really angry.

I spent the next three years having a pretty horrible relationship with my mom. She had ruined my life, and my parents being separated was not in my box underneath my bed. I tried to understand why my dad had to keep going to the casino and why he couldn’t just stop. He couldn’t. He tried to explain to me that every time he went to the casino, he was thinking what he was going to do when he won. My dad’s not a bad person; he’s just an addict. However, I began to be on the receiving end of the deception and the lying and the cheating and the irresponsibility. And I’ll tell you, it’s really difficult to love somebody who’s an addict.

So, I needed something to do with all of this negative emotional energy that I had inside me. Fortunately, because I love sports and working out so much, I started to run. I quickly got consumed by all the beautiful lessons that running teaches you. Running teaches you that you have no choice in life but to take things one step at a time. There is no way to get to mile one or to mile five without doing the hard work in between. And when you look ahead and you see a hill or you see potholes, you have a choice to make. You can either say, I’m going to turn around and go the other way; I already ran a few miles. Or say, I’m going to go left or I’m going to go right. It’s so easy to find the excuses in life. Or we can say, What if I actually just do the hard work? What if I push through and make it up the hill? Because if I keep going far enough and hard enough, there are going to be flatter, more beautiful roads ahead that maybe have fewer potholes in them.

I made this decision with my life: I’m going to go get everything that I’ve ever wanted. I’m going to get that life that exists underneath my bed in that box. I don’t have to be a victim of my father’s choices. I don’t have to act out. I don’t have to turn to drugs or alcohol. I don’t need to have my dad’s decisions have an impact on me in a negative way if I don’t want them to.

So I went to college, and I graduated early with two degrees. I decided to take out loans to go to graduate school, and I graduated early there too. I was on a mission. I had to be happy, and I didn’t want to waste any time. I needed to get to this place in this box.

I find myself in Philly when I’m 24 years old working for a nonprofit. And from the ages of 24 to 26, I have no clue who I am. I had been pushing and moving so quickly through life and was so convinced that if I just could get to this place in this box, I would be happy. Then I started to question whether I actually wanted those things. I don’t think I want to have children, and I’m not sure I want to get married. I don’t think I want a huge house in the suburbs. I think I want some meaning and some purpose in my life. What am I actually even here for anyway?

And I started to search for those things so much that it became obsessive to me. I was looking underneath the proverbial rock, and I was so committed to figuring out what to do with my life. If someone could just tell me, that would be great. It was a really lonely process. I got to the point where I was so frustrated that I quit my job. I quit my job because I thought if I took away my safety net or my security blanket, I would be forced to figure something out.

So I quit my job, but if there is one thing I know about myself at this time in my life, it’s that I’m a runner. I had run several marathons by this time. I was running every day at 5:30 in the morning whether it was spring, summer, Friday, Saturday, or Tuesday—not because anybody was telling me to or forcing me to, but because that’s the only place I wanted to be. I felt alive. I felt in control. I was self-empowered, and I felt strong and invincible.

Every morning, I ran by a homeless shelter for two years, and I never thought twice about the people I saw at that homeless shelter—because they’re homeless, and I have nothing in common with somebody who’s homeless. I ran on the other side of the street with my headphones in. But for whatever reason, in May 2007, this group of guys started to wave at me. I’m from North Dakota—if you’re going to wave at me, I’m going to wave back at you. Pretty soon we started to build a really fun rapport that was happening every morning. And just like that, I got an idea. Why am I just running by these guys and leaving them there? Why do I get to be the runner and they have to be the homeless guys on the corner? And I could feel myself being drawn to them. I figured out pretty quickly why. It was because they reminded me so much of my dad, who is an addict, and that’s what I associated homelessness with. And he’s funny and sarcastic, a little bit rough around the edges. It was almost magnetic.

I got really excited about my new idea, which was that I’m starting a running club for these guys who live in that shelter. I called the director of the shelter, and he tried to think of the nicest way to tell me that homeless people don’t run. And I said, “If you could just ask them. And if you could ask them, I’ll be there three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I’ll bring shoes and clothes. There’s no more work for anybody else.” And he tells me not to get my hopes up.

Well, as I mentioned, I quit my job before, and I’m interviewing for other positions. I get approached by this huge company in Philadelphia called Comcast, and they want me to come and work in their government affairs department for a six-figure job, stock options—I didn’t even know what those were at the time—and health care benefits. It was everything you could possibly want as a 26-year-old. And if there was any part of me that wanted this life that I thought I wanted as a kid, man, this was the opportunity. So I took it. I took it, and I asked for five weeks so I could just get this running club idea up and going and could get enough people involved that it would work without me. Fortunately they said yes.

I badgered the director of this homeless shelter, and pretty soon I got an email back with the names of nine guys and their shoe sizes saying, “All right, Anne, what’s next?” I’m really excited. I got shoes donated for these guys. I got shirts. I got shorts. And I make a dedication contract because I’m going to go meet these guys now for the first time. This dedication contract says, “If you want to be a part of the running club, you’ve got to do a few things. You need to show up on time, you need to come three days a week, not two days a week. You need to come with a positive attitude, and you need to support your teammates.”

So I walk in there that night with my dedication contract and my shoes and my clothes for these guys. There are eight African American men and one white guy, and they’re all crossing their arms looking at me wondering what some young, white, blonde girl is doing in here. They’re wondering what I’m getting out of this and what it is I want from them. I immediately open up about my dad, about running and how much it’s done for me. I kid you not, I felt like I had found my people, after two years of not feeling connected to anybody and not being social and not really knowing what I was supposed to be doing. It was just immediate, and I knew I was supposed to help these guys.

I shared with them the dedication contract, and they sort of all looked at me and looked at each other. They nodded their heads, and you could tell that they had not been looked at like that in a really long time, if ever, in their lives. Here I am, a perfect stranger, expecting excellence from them. I didn’t say, “You know what? You’re homeless; it must be really difficult to live in here. There’s no way you’re going to be able to make it three days a week. And there’s no way you’re going to be able to show up on time. So just do the best that you can.” There was absolutely no negotiation for what these rules were. And every one of those guys signed that contract that day, and I signed it too.

We had our first run on July 3, 2007. I had some media contacts, and I wanted to get the word out. I wanted to get people involved. So I called them and told them what was going on, and they had the same reaction: “Anne, homeless people don’t run. You mean you’re raising money for those who are homeless, right? No, no, no. There are these nine guys who are running from this homeless shelter.” They just couldn’t believe it. Why? Because the stereotypes that exist around those who are homeless are that they’re lazy, that they don’t want to work hard, that it’s their fault, that they’re dangerous, that they’re addicts. And there are these generalizations around people who are runners, especially at 5:30 in the morning, that they’re hardworking, ambitious, dedicated, and focused. These two things don’t go together. How could somebody who’s homeless be a runner?

That morning on July 3, all of these news stations and newspaper outlets were there having to know the answer to their burning question: “Why are these homeless guys running?” So they go over and talk to Mike and Darren and Joe. They get answers like “I wanted to meet some new people.” “I’m 50 years old, and it’s about time I got in shape.” “I used to run in the service, and I was pretty good.” “I want to see if I’ve still got it.” “I thought it might be fun.” You could just feel the humanization fit into these reporters, and all these articles started to be written. We started to be on TV, and this group started to grow, and there were 20 to 25 people there. Over the next two weeks, there were two simple observations that helped me realize this was what I was supposed to do with my life.

The first observation was that these guys were showing up every single day, and they were on time. I learned through my dad the hard way that you cannot force people to change because you want them to, especially a grown man. And the second observation was the reaction I would get when I tracked their miles at the end of each run on a poster board that I would bring. Their names were on the left, and the numbers at the top represented the miles. I would take a Sharpie next to everybody’s name. And these guys were pushing and shoving behind my shoulders to watch me give them credit for the work they did.

That was a big aha moment for me because I realized we’re all the same. Everybody in that room—those guys, myself—were all looking for the same thing. We wanted to be noticed. We wanted to be appreciated and valued and loved and cared for. Those are things we seek out every day. We look for them in our friendships, in our jobs, in our intimate relationships. And if we don’t get them, we leave them. We find that we search for them someplace else.

So this theory forms in my head that these guys are going to be homeless the rest of their lives if they don’t learn how to love themselves and see themselves as somebody who is a runner, an athlete, dedicated, focused, responsible. How do we change their identity from those who currently see themselves as undeserving, not capable, not worthy, as homeless—and that it’s their fault that their life is like that? How do we change how they see themselves?

And then what about all the other people in the shelters in the whole wide world who need a program like this? When you’re 26 and naive, it works in your favor because you have no idea how much work is ahead of you. On top of that, my personal life was finally getting some clarity. For 10 years, all I had was anger and resentment and no reasons why my dad had to be a gambling addict, no reasons why my parents had to separate. And now to realize, I can take all of that pain and use it to help people. I mean, it doesn’t really get much more of a perfect story for healing.

So I did what any respectable 26-year-old would do, and I called my mom. I called my mom and said, “Mom, I’m not going to take this Comcast job. This is what I’m supposed to do with my life.” She thinks I’m nuts and tells me to grow up. “What do you mean you’re going to do this? Like for work? What are you going to pay yourself?” I said, “I’m going to raise money. I’m going to make this into a nonprofit. I’m going to hire staff. I’m going to build programming.” And she said, “You know, that’s the silliest idea I’ve ever heard of. It’s so great that you’re volunteering, Anne, but let it be that.”

Then I called my dad. My dad, concerned for my safety, was not a fan of the idea. I called my mentors. Same thing. “How much savings do you have?” None. “Do you have any experience running a nonprofit?” No. “Do you have any background in homelessness?” No. “Do you really think this is a good idea, Anne?” I realized I wasn’t going to get the validation from any of the adults in my life, and that this was a moment when I had to ask myself some questions and put myself out on a limb.

And there were three questions.

One: What if everybody is right? What if this idea is Pollyanna and silly and stupid and I should just grow up? Maybe they’re right. Maybe I should take this job, and I’ll help these guys when I can, but I’ve got to look out for myself. I’ll help them when I can, right? I knew I would spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened to those nine guys and everybody else that I thought I could help through sport. And through sport, help them love themselves. That wasn’t an option.

Two: What if everybody’s still right, and I don’t take this job, and I put everything and my time and my energy and my passion into helping these guys, and everybody quits? The novelty runs off; the media goes away; it gets cold; and no one wants to run anymore in January at 5:30 in the morning. I’m left with no job and a bruised ego. I’m a smart girl, so I thought I’d get another job, and I’d be able to recover from that.

But the third question was: What if it actually works? What if I’m right? Because the worst-case scenario wasn’t so bad when you really put the reality to it. My decision came pretty easy. I called Comcast, thanked them for the opportunity, and surrounded myself with really smart people. We started building and growing and learning and screwing up so much. We would fix those mistakes and then make a whole slew of other mistakes, fixing those too. Over the next six and a half years, we built a fully-fledged, nonprofit organization with a $7 million budget and over 50 staff members. We help people in over 12 cities with a 46 percent success rate of moving people from living in a shelter to independent living, job training, employment, and housing—all through helping people love themselves and changing the way they see themselves.

But six and a half years in, it’s time for me to do something else again. It’s time for me to create something else and challenge myself differently. I did my part, and I turned the baton over. Then I started a for-profit company around a fitness company that I started. I did the same thing with community and trying to create something that would help people and help women become the strongest versions of themselves. And there will be a time when it’s also time to move on from that and do something new.

Sometimes we get so stuck in our jobs, in our relationships, in our own head, doing the same thing over and over again, and thinking we don’t have control of our choices. We stay in relationships that aren’t benefiting us anymore. We stay in jobs because we’re so scared to do something different. What if it doesn’t work out? I’m not really that happy here, but the unknown is too scary.

We are all going to experience disappointment in life—pain, grief, loss, and suffering. But what I have learned in my life is that the only thing I can control is myself—how I treat myself, how I treat you, my attitude, and how I use my time. And when things happen to us, such as my dad being an addict and my parents’ separation, I have a choice there too. How am I going to respond to the challenges that happen to me in my life? I hope all of you learn the difference between what you can control and what you can’t control and to let those things go, and also understanding, respecting, and embracing the difference.

Mahlum

Anne Mahlum is the owner and CEO of Solidcore, a fast-growing boutique fitness company she founded in 2013. She was previously the CEO of Back on My Feet, a non-profit organization she founded in 2007. Mahlum has been named ABC World News Person of the Week, a CNN Hero, New Yorker of the Week, and a top 40 under 40 individual by both Philadelphia’s and Washington, D.C.’s Business Journal.

 

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