Community Partner Profile

An Interview With Steve Mesler

Steve Mesler is the co-founder, President, and CEO of “Classroom Champions,” an NGO that enables world-class athletes to mentor students through technology to improve student engagement, build growth mindsets, and inspire a positive classroom culture.

We spoke with the Olympic gold medalist virtually about the inspiration behind the organization that he co-founded with his sister and the firm’s role in supporting the organization’s vital partnerships. Our conversation follows.

You come from a family of teachers and yet felt ready to leave the “family business” in the classroom after a year. What inspired you and your sister to start Classroom Champions?

My sister and I grew up doing Junior Olympics in track and field. We went to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with our family and chased Olympians to get our picture taken with them. All of a sudden, going into my third Olympics, it dawned on me that I was one of those athletes that the 10-year-old in us would have thought it was amazing to know. We wanted to share that with kids.

You suffered many physical setbacks in your athletic career, and made the remarkable switch from track and field to bobsledding. How do you and other Olympians and Paralympians “teach” students about the importance of resilience, tenacity and a willingness to pivot, when necessary?

We do it through role modeling, by explaining what these things are. We wanted to find a way to make what’s implicit through sport participation — setting a goal, persevering, being a good teammate — explicit in the classroom because that’s where all kids are. It took us a decade to create an infrastructure for teachers and give schools what they need in terms of a curriculum, professional development, lessons plans, and content through the athletes’ voices and stories.

When you think of all that Classroom Champions has accomplished in classrooms and communities internationally, what are you most proud of?

I think I’m most proud of giving teachers a way to teach these leadership skills in ways that make sense to them and is enjoyable for them. We tell kids all the time to follow their dreams and we are literally putting people who are doing that in front of kids in classrooms on a regular basis. Their teachers get to be the key master for those relationships or those learning experiences.

When did Cassels first begin working with Classroom Champions and how did that relationship come about?

We started Classroom Champions in 2011 and expanded it to Canada in 2013. We got to know Cassels in 2013 through a US firm that we work with and that Cassels partners with on a lot of trademark work. A member of that US firm was on our Board and we’ve had a Cassels partner on our Canadian Board since our founding in Canada. Jay King has been an instrumental Board member and spearheads all of the firm’s pro bono work on behalf of the charity.

What kind of work does Cassels provide for Classroom Champions?

Cassels supports a wide range of needs across the charity. The firm does a lot of trademark work for us. As a growing organization working with major, global entitles like the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), NBC and CBC, we need that kind of backup and protection. They also help us navigate HR and contractual issues across the country.

Cassels helped us with our contracts with the COC to ensure Classroom Champions was protected, and with our agreements with school districts and sponsors, from contracts for gift agreements and sponsorship agreements to partnership agreements. Cassels also drafted the extensive services agreement between our Canadian and US entities which was massively impactful. Cassels does everything for us from a corporate services standpoint, with the exception of our charitable legal work.

Can you describe a couple of key initiatives for Classroom Champions that Cassels has been involved in?

One amazing project that comes to mind is our relationship with the COC, the Canadian Paralympic Committee, and Team Canada. It started going into the 2018 Olympics and continues to this day. We host an interactive curriculum site and operate country-wide live chats, working with Team Canada athletes who sit in the Team Canada House at the Olympics and talk to kids across Canada. Those kids get to meet and touch those athletes virtually over a Classroom Champions-style experience.

Cassels worked with us on the contract for the 2018 Olympics and successive programs that go into that. Much of that work had to be done over the Christmas and New Year’s break, and Cassels worked with us throughout that period and was incredible to work with. We could not have done that work, or remotely afforded to do that work, without them.

Another one that comes to mind is the partnership we did with the NHL and the Willie O’Ree Documentary Team around the “Willie” movie. Cassels helped us execute that as well. Last February, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on a virtual panel to launch that initiative, with Ron MacLean hosting and Willie O’Ree joining kids from classrooms across Canada. Cassels ensured that the project was successful and that Classroom Champions was protected.

What kind of impact has the firm’s involvement with Classroom Champions had on the organization?

First and foremost, Cassels has helped accelerate our work five-fold through their thought leadership. The folks from Cassels who have been on our Board have helped steer the organization to take it from 30 classrooms’ worth of kids to where we are today, with tens of thousands of kids on a weekly basis, plus millions more through our partnerships. Jay [King] has been a massive help in the professionalization of our Board and our committee work.
Team Canada came to us because they wanted to execute something they weren’t capable of doing. Because of the firm’s support, we made it possible for Team Canada athletes sitting in Korea, and post-Beijing, to meet with hundreds of thousands of kids. We did a very similar thing from Parliament Hill and from Rideau Hall after those Games, and we’re doing the same thing this spring. Cassels has helped us to do the work of a $20 million non-profit when we are a $4 million non-profit.

If someone were to ask you what it has been like to work with Cassels as Classroom Champions continues to grow and thrive, how would you describe that relationship?

Ultimately, I would describe our relationship as “easy.” When the organization needs something, Jay will quarterback, find the right person, and make it happen. Cassels has always prioritized our work and that really says something, considering they do tens of thousands of dollars of legal work for us on an annual basis.

A friend from Right to Play advised me early on to find a firm that you can trust and work with because the legal fees alone, as you’re trying to build something, will limit you. Cassels has been that kind of backbone and backstop for us. They have been awesome. They’ve spoiled us. I can’t imagine doing business at Classroom Champions without Cassels there.