Inclusion Through Education: A Conversation with Special Olympics CEO Mary Davis

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  He was 16 hours in. His feet ached of blisters, cuts, and bruises. His whole body was exhausted, screaming at him to stop. He had swum 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles, and was now on his way to completing the final stage of his journey, a 26.2-mile run. Every step brought him closer to his goal, and every step forward meant ignoring the creeping self-doubt in his mind.  16 hours, 46 minutes, and 9 seconds after he began his journey, the hard work and pain paid off… He heard his name announced over the speaker as he crossed the finish line… “Chris Nikic, you are an Ironman.”  On November 7th, 2020, Chris Nikic completed his first Ironman. It’s an incredible feat for anyone to accomplish, but there’s something about Chris’s story that makes it that much more impressive — Chris was the first athlete with Down Syndrome ever to complete an Ironman. It’s a powerful story that Mary Davis, the CEO of Special Olympics, tells to illustrate how the organization is trying to create an inclusion revolution. What does that mean? Find out on f Business X factors. 

Main Takeaways:

  • Inclusion Revolution: Being inclusive to people with disabilities is not only the right thing to do, it is also good for business. According to the Harvard Business Review, inclusion directly enhances the workplace, and teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report high performance. It has also been found to increase work attendance by almost one day a year per employee, which reduces the cost of absenteeism. The traits that distinguish inclusive leaders from others are humility, awareness of bias, curiosity about others, cultural intelligence, visible commitment to diversity, and effective collaboration. 
  • Get Hyperlocal: It does not matter whether you are an organization that is trying to improve the world for disabled people, an awareness campaign about the environment or a business you are trying to grow, a bottoms-up instead of a top-down approach builds trust. Knowledge of local cultures can help to foster an understanding of an international agenda or an appetite for brands. It also means that big brands should change their offerings on a local level to adjust to the tastes of different cultures. Getting hyperlocal means understanding what truly matters to customers in any given location and adjusting marketing to locals tastes and preferences. 
  • Become a Storydoer: Storytelling is a powerful tool for any organization or business. In the case of non-profit organizations, it is often not hard to find stories about the great work that is being done. What is more important is to not only share the outcome-oriented stories, but to share the action that produces those results. Storydoing should mobilize people to actively support and promote a cause, or, in the case of a business, to actively promote a brand. Customers should feel they are not only buying or supporting a product, but they are also getting a story that draws them in to move beyond a product. 
  • How to Manage Public-Private Partnerships: Contracts between government and business or private organizations can be enormously complex, but they can accomplish what neither side can do alone, like expanding infrastructure where funds are limited or provide much-needed help for non-profit organizations. The process of structuring a PPP involving a large number of people often takes many years. To avoid failure, find a government champion, draw in people with expertise and take note of environmental and social considerations.


Key Quotes:

“We have spent over half a century working to create a more open, a more welcoming environment for everybody trying to end discrimination by opening the hearts and minds of people all over the world. 97% of the population do not have an intellectual disability. How do we create an environment for them so that they are more inclusive in everything that they do and that they are more accepting of people with intellectual disability in their communities and that they truly understand the gifts and the talents and the great benefits that all persons, no matter who or what they are, can bring the richness they can bring to communities and to society? That’s what drives our inclusion revolution.” “They are the best teachers that we have to teach love, to teach joy, to teach compassion, to teach beauty and to teach fearlessness as well. And all the other things, to teach courage, to teach that determination. And they do. It’s not that they can, they do teach us so much.”  “We need to expand our work because at the moment we have about 6 million athletes in the program who are people with intellectual disability. But when you think that there are up to 200 million people in the world with intellectual disability, we have a lot of expansion to do, and we need to look differently about how we’re going to do that work as well, and really move into the digital space.” “We go into all these countries to change attitudes, to change mindsets, to change behaviour, and to have people understand. And one of the great challenges for us is that over 60 or 70% of our athletes come from developing countries. And in many of those countries, it’s a stigma to have a child with intellectual disability. So, you can imagine what it’s like for the families of those children that are born with an intellectual disability. And they’re often so side-lined.” “Too often, communities struggle to include people with intellectual disability. And a lot of it actually comes from not understanding. A lot of it comes from ignorance. So, we find, for example, oftentimes in our school systems, we have people with intellectual disability that are bullied, that are marginalized, that are maltreated. And it’s because when we dig deeper with our programming in those schools, it’s because the students don’t understand, or they lack the education of the giftedness and the abilities of people with intellectual disability.” “We put an awful lot of effort into building partnerships, whether it’s with the medical profession or the educational profession or the sports and the sports institutions, the sports’ governing bodies that we work so closely with as well. But also, we need to build sustainable government partnerships around the world, and that takes time and effort to do that because every single one of those governments in the 190-plus countries that we’re involved in should all be supporting the work that we’re doing… And that’s always a challenge for us.” “We tried to organize the movement from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down. So, when we do our strategies, we work very much as teams through the regions and get feedback from programs and the people and the coaches on the ground, and the various different people that we have — family members, athletes themselves. And then we build our strategic plan out of that. So, it’s very much a bottom-up organization as opposed to a top-down organization.” “Utopia, of course, would be true inclusion where everybody is accepted and respected. Unfortunately, at the tide is turning, but it hasn’t turned at enough and it’s still a tragedy that there’s so much stigma that there’s so much indifference in the world, that there’s so much ignorance in developed as well as developing countries and all of this, our athletes are facing all of that today.” “Our job, as I see it, is to continue to fight fear, to fight the stigma and the bigotry that exists and to ensure true inclusion, not just lip service inclusion, but true inclusion. So, the day a person with an intellectual disability has open access to society, to community, can use their talents to go and work in the community, can play sport, can have fun. can do everything that everybody else does. That’s when Special Olympics would feel like we’re doing a good job.”


Mary Davis is the CEO of Special Olympics International, a movement that currently serves over 5 million athletes with intellectual disabilities, holds more than 100,000 competitions annually and welcomes more than one million coaches and volunteers who help make grassroots operations possible. Mary started with Special Olympics soon after college as a local program volunteer and coach. Since then she has served in a series of leadership roles, helping create our first ever Regional games, the 1985 Special Olympics European Games, working to build a powerful national Program as CEO of Special Olympics Ireland, and helping globalize the movement as CEO of the first Special Olympics World Summer Games held outside the US, which were the 2003 Games in Ireland. Mary is married to Julian Davis and has four children: Jonathan, Rebecca, Emma and Patrick. — Business X factors is produced by Mission.org and brought to you by Hyland. For over a decade, Hyland has been named a Leader in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Content Services Platforms, leading the way to help people get the information they need when and where they need it. More than half of 2019 Fortune 100 companies rely on Hyland to help them create more meaningful connections with the people they serve. When your focus is on the people you serve, Hyland stands behind you. Hyland is your X factor for better performance. Go to Hyland.com/insights to learn more.


Episode 20