Joel Lunenfeld, BA ’99, was the vice president of global brand strategy at Twitter. Then, at the age of 40, he left it all to operate a gym for underserved kids in his community. Here’s why.
From 2011 until 2017, I was the vice president of global brand strategy at Twitter, successful in my career beyond any level I could have imagined. I was traveling around the world meeting with celebrities, C-level executives and government officials. I was inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Achievement. Then, at the age of 40, I left it all to operate a gym for underserved kids in my community.
This is why.
My six years at Twitter taught me how much momentum one idea can create. I learned that 140 characters can change the world. A community can spark a movement. Influence and power don’t always go hand in hand. And sometimes a fight is the most noble cause.
A fight I believe in deeply is the one for our youth. My father was an at-home teacher for school-age kids in New York City who had health issues and couldn’t attend school. I was hugely influenced by his model, and as a teen I began working in after-school programs at my local YMHA Community Center in Brooklyn. Then came college and career, marriage and a house. In other words: Life. The unexpected passing of my father 10 years ago and the birth of my two daughters, Fiona and Lexington, woke up a part of me I had forgotten—the part that was most fulfilled giving back to the community. I quit my high-profile job so I could have more time to do just that.
While the population in low-income neighborhoods has grown by more than 10 percent in the last decade, the budgets for after-school programs have remained stagnant. This, despite the proven benefits of after-school programs, from higher grades, better health and increased graduation rates to lower crime and drop-out rates. Not to mention the numerous less measurable impacts of a safe, accepting environment and mentor relationships on a young person’s sense of well-being and self-esteem.
In 2013 Ben Kovacs, a former Twitter employee, and I bonded over two things: a love of martial arts and a desire to make a difference. Together we co-founded The Guardian Project, a nonprofit boxing, kickboxing and jiujitsu academy in Oakland, Calif., for at-risk youth. The academy offers free training to local kids between the ages of 10 and 18. It also gives them space to do homework, healthy meals donated from local restaurants, and, for our older students, the chance to network with adults for job and internship opportunities.
Since opening our doors in January of 2016, we have enrolled more than 250 kids from all over the city, creating a shared sense of purpose around a common passion. Our adult memberships along with individual donations help to subsidize the cost. Every day we see firsthand the change that confidence and a positive environment can make. Now we are actively raising money for a new headquarters in downtown Oakland.
My time at Twitter was an incredibly fulfilling journey, and leaving was a tough decision, but sometimes you have to listen to that voice in your head. My voice was telling me to spend more time fighting for our youth. I haven’t looked back once.