View from Venus: Interview with Alexis Jones
Putting the Heartbeat Back into Humanity, One Project at a Time
Written by Deborah Hamilton-Lynne
Photography by Paige Newton
Upon meeting Alexis Jones, the first thing that captures you is her smile, then comes the energy and the passion that fuels her entrepreneurial journey. A graduate of Westlake High School, she was at one time best known for her moxie on the reality show Survivor. Today she is best known as an activist, motivational speaker, writer, and producer, having founded I AM THAT GIRL and ProtectHer, two innovative and impactful initiatives driven by social impact and her desire to empower women and encourage all people to act on their basic humanity to “be a good human.”
Whether she is creating sexual harassment and assault prevention programs for the NFL and NCAA Division 1 athletes and corporations, or lobbying for social reform, or producing award-winning documentaries, or speaking, or creating and curating conferences and events, Jones is focused on one outcome: “inspiring human kind to be better by putting the heartbeat back into the world, one project at a time.”
Jones most recently won The Jefferson Award, the highest national honor for public service. She has been featured as Oprah’s #SuperSoul100, AOL’s MAKERS, was an Ambassador for L’Oréal’s STEM initiative, DELL’s #Inspire100 List, Fast Company’s “Female Trailblazers," ESPN’s “Pop Culture’s Top Ten,” Girl Scout’s Woman of Distinction and was highlighted as one of the five most influential women in Texas as a Profiles in Power winner.
We caught up with Jones after she had just completed a gift to herself — a caretaking around-the-world tour that included some bucket list adventures and stops. Taking a break from her hectic and demanding schedule left her recharged and ready to once again change the world for the better in 2019.
DEBORAH HAMILTON-LYNNE | So for those of us that know you one question that I have never asked is was Survivor truly as bad as it seems on the show?
ALEXIS JONES | It's 100 times worse than anything they show on TV. I broke my hand on our first challenge and cut my foot with a machete on day 19. I was the only contestant that got stung by one of the world's most poisonous scorpions three different times and I blew out my knee on day 31 — they edited it all out. It was brutal.
DHL | So after surviving that you felt like you could do anything, even an entrepreneurial journey. You say that through, “innovation, authenticity and kindness” you set out to empower women, and while you were still an undergraduate at USC you founded I AM THAT GIRL. Tell me about the impetus behind that group.
AJ | First of all, growing up in Westlake was really challenging for me because it was a very wealthy environment. I had all the normal teenager insecurities which were exacerbated by the fact that my family wasn't wealthy. Then I got a scholarship to USC — one of the most expensive private schools in the country, and it was Westlake on steroids, because it was the same environment. I was displaced again and living in California where I didn’t know anyone. I remember sitting down with six girls in my sorority, and I said, "We have a lot of conversations about things that don't matter. It's such a first world luxury. What if we had conversations about things that did matter — fears, doubts, insecurities, and the things we wake up struggling with, and our hopes, dreams, and aspirations.” And they said, “Yes, absolutely.”
The first meeting, those six girls showed up. And six meetings later, we had 347. We kept outgrowing venue after venue.
DHL | It was something that was born of the kind of unacknowledged need. It was something that was always below the surface that needed someone to bring it up to give it air, and you did that.
AJ | We're not born threatened by each other as women. It is a learned behavior — a cultural script that is handed to us from such a young age, and then we adopt it as truth, not realizing that we are all perfectly, wonderfully flawed. The glue that holds humanity together is that we all have these fears and doubts and insecurities.
We had nowhere to talk about it, to ask the hard questions, to take our frustrations. The group was a safe place where we could put our guards down and be honest. My one rule was that I wanted everyone to feel seen and heard and to feel like they belonged, and in this space to have permission to be fully honest and fully seen, and to dream as huge as imagined.
DHL | So the movement was to inspire girls “to be loved and express exactly who they are.” With that mission the organization has grown to include over 1.2 members in 24 countries with a large support team. How did that happen?
AJ | When you have the courage to put something out into the world and say this needs to exist, it becomes its own beautiful entity. We have an amazing team, and the team is always evolving. People coming and going and adding their little bits of flair and their magic, and, again, it's also a testament of what happens when extraordinary people come together with one vision. The growth was very organic. It is this intangible force that maybe you give a spark and then just this bonfire erupts.
I was but one girl who realized more than anything that I needed something that didn't exist. And sometimes we think that is selfish to focus on our needs, but whenever I give any talks I'm always telling people, "Stop changing the world. Just change your own. Just fix your own. Just heal yours. Just do what brings you the most joy." And then you have a shot at doing something extraordinary. And, I Am That Girl is certainly that.
DHL | So in 2014, you had an “appointment with destiny.” You were asked to speak with the top 12 high school quarterbacks in the United States about respecting women, and had an aha moment, which led to ProtectHer. So talk to me a little bit about that.
AJ | I always refer to ProtectHer as “this is what happens when you say yes to the universe.” This is what happens when God opens up a door — All you have to do is say “yes.” All you have to do is walk through. I had been doing girl empowerment for over a decade, and that was really my niche. It was where I was super comfortable. It was where I'd worked really hard and felt really good about the work that I was doing. Trent Dilfer and Yogi Rot, two incredible men that I love and respect, called me and said, "Is there any way that you'd come and give the top quarterbacks in the country a conversation about respecting women? I'm giving you direct access to changing the game in a completely different way by speaking to the influencers in the game." How do you say no to that? I was scared because I just didn't feel like I was ready. I told my husband Brad, who was a college and professional athlete that I didn’t think I could do it, but he said, "Just get up there and talk and speak from the heart, and say why this matters." And then he gave me a game-changing pointer when he asked, "Do you know what young men are going to be in the room?" And I said yes. And he said, "Well, if I were you, I would pull pictures of their sisters and moms and girlfriends, and I'd put it in your presentation.
DHL | So he was speaking from experience about the things that would move him.
AJ | Yes, being a professional athlete for nine years, he said, "We've heard this talk from every which way, but you're going to immediately reframe it. You're not talking about girls in theory. You're not talking about the hot sorority girls that they're trying to hook up with. You are talking about the women and the girls that they love and that they respect the most. And if you can tie it back to that you will make them see that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.
DHL | And it worked.
AJ | What shocked me was that after showing their sisters’ photos, quickly their body language went from relaxed and giving me the eye to getting their full attention. Half the guys started tearing up especially when I started giving them sexual assault stats. I was not prepared for such an emotional and visceral reaction to this conversation, but I knew it made an impact.
DHL | So you went from that talk to knowing this was another unmet need, something else that needed to be addressed. Another entrepreneurial initiative was born and you put together ProtectHer and began to speak to entire teams for the D-I. How did that come about?
AJ | Well, again, this is kind of that divine intervention and timing. When the Ray Rice video went viral, suddenly sexual assault and domestic abuse was the number one trending issue on social media. And the video of my talk aired on ESPNU the next week. This was years before #MeToo and Time’s Up, and I was that girl on TV having tough-love conversations with young men about why it matters that they respect, protect, uplift and encourage the girls and women in their life. It was kind of a paradigm shift. As a feminist, I had an epiphany: “Wow, we're missing the boat to not include men into this conversation, because we actually need them. And it takes a lot of humility to say we're not going anywhere, we're not pushing humanity forward, unless we can get everyone on board with this.”
But this isn't a locker room problem. It's not a university problem. It's a cultural, systemic problem, so it's showing up everywhere. What started as, "Oh, ProtectHer is just for male athletes in a locker room," all of a sudden became a much bigger conversation that was about teaching all people to treat all humans with dignity and respect. And so then my work was really cut out for me.
DHL | But I think that was because of the paradigm shift that you had, when you realized that if you're going to teach men to respect women they have to respect themselves first, because their disrespect of women, to me, comes from their disrespect of themselves.
AJ | Of course.
DHL | If they respected themselves, they would never do that. That's the first thing. And the second thing is when you shifted from shame and blame to including them in the conversation, because I think that you said that shame has never been an agent for change.
AJ | Shaming and blaming is just not effective. I know that women are angry — it's justifiable. It's righteous anger. It's understandable. We have to honor that, to create space for that, and we have to figure out how to help heal that, not just for individual women, I mean it as collective femininity. We have to figure out how to love women back to life, and simultaneously, if our end goal is we want to see violence against women going down and we want sexual assault numbers going down and we want to eradicate it, then the solution comes back to practicality.
As a social scientist I'm able to separate the emotional side and understand our end goal from a purely data-based standpoint. We've never seen any kind of behavioral changes that have been effective using shame, blaming or anger. If we as women could have the humility to recognize that what we've been doing isn't working, I knew that we needed a different technique and decided to start from there.
I think men had been awaiting the invitation. They've been awaiting the, "Hey, you can come sit at our table. And not only can you, but we want you to. And we need you because this is a complex issue, and it is going to take all of us if we're going to see any kind of change in treatment of women, which of course, the intersectionality of we can't talk about women without talking about Black Lives Matters, without talking about the treatment of the LGBTQ community, and immigration.
DHL | Which leads to your initiative called Be A Human.
AJ | Be A Good Human is kind of to me the next evolution. It's not about gender. It's not about sex. It's not about religion or ethnicity or nationality or age or the way you look. The idea of being a good human is how do we come back to the basics? What does it mean to be a good human? How do we inject more compassion and kindness where we see criticism and shame? And I think being able to have really thoughtful conversations about intentionally creating those kinds of ecosystems, from schools to organizations to company culture, I think that's the stuff that really excites me.
DHL | With all of the negativity in the world, how do you maintain your optimism?
AJ | Depending on the day there are moments where my humanity outweighs the divinity that exists inside of me and everyone else. And I think for any activist, for anyone who cares about anything, I think it is waking up, and it is one day at a time, right? I'm going to wake today, and I'm going to see what kind of micro-dent I can make. And then that self-care is a very real piece of it. And I think that's something I only recently kind of stepped into with my crazy around the world trip, was I just needed a break. I just hadn't traveled and I hadn't done anything for me. And I think I forgot along the way of carrying the torch and wanting to make the world better, and certainly starting with my own, that somewhere along the way I lost my joy, just for everything, for the little things. Joy for me is an internal thing. Nothing from the exterior can give it to me, and to me it's really tied to purpose. And in figuring how you waking up every day, and it's the distinction between who you are and what you do, and who you are of ... I can be the activist that I am. I can be the founder, the CEO, or how all the different labels, the author, but am I doing it with kindness and authenticity?
DHL | So sounds like another important epiphany was learning how to slow down and take care of yourself. Travel is so validating and motivating – it truly will change your life.
AJ | I've also just made space for in my life of hunting joy. I think that's a really important aspect of my life, whereas before I think I was all fight. I was battling all the time. And then I realized that the battle is important, but I also want to make time for joy.
DHL | How did you come to that realization and take the leap to step away?
AJ | I had been on the road, at that point, over 220 days a year on the road for 13 years. And last year, I was on the road 251 days. I was burned out and exhausted. One day I erased everything in my office off all my whiteboards, and I just started — like a maniac — just started writing out all the things that just bring me joy. I told my husband, "For the next 100 days this is the only thing I'm doing. This is my full-time job." I took a sabbatical, and all I did was literally cross off bucket lists that included Cuba, Antarctica, Japan, Bali, India, Cape Town, Rwanda, Ireland, and London. It feels counterintuitive for Americans to take a break, but the version you find on the other side is amazing. I didn't even know I could have so much juice.
DHL | So it was also important to have the support of Brad, your husband, and of others to make this journey. And you don't have to bat a thousand. It takes some of the pressure to always succeed off.
AJ | Support and people who care about you and genuinely wish you well — that's everything. Especially as an entrepreneur, because it is the definition of faith. Transcendent of religion, this is you believing in something that doesn't yet exist. You're asking people to have faith in you, in this idea, in this vision. There are no guarantees ever. It heightens every insecurity you've ever thought you had comes out. So having a community who loves you and supports you regardless of your success or failure means I can be okay with who I am, Alexis Whitney Jones, regardless of the praise or the criticism.
DHL | Last word. Would you mind sharing some life lessons for fellow travelers and entrepreneurs reading this?
AJ | I've recognized the power of slowing down and that in stillness is where I find my genius exists, and my greatest wisdom exists in stillness. Before, if I had a big decision to make, my instinct was, "I'm going to go do three shots of espresso, and I'm going to get my entire team together, and we're going to whiteboard," with all of that frenetic energy. A really interesting distinction is to have the confidence that I know how to make the right choice for myself, for my life, for my company, for my team.My choices aren’t always perfect or even right, but I own those too. Having the courage to say, "If these people are trusting me to guide the ship and to be their captain, then I can certainly take all their opinions. But inevitably I have to make a choice that's based off of my gut.""
DHL | Right. The buck stops here.
AJ | And then the other piece is this new revelation that if you don't have joy in your life, then what's the point? I cannot over-express that stepping back and finding joy is not a selfish thing to pursue. That's oxygen for our soul. I would say that the fight, the hustle, the grind — it's all important and necessary, but let us not forget the power of joy, and how much farther that takes us in life.
DHL | Well-said and amen.