A storyteller launches her COVID-adapted dream job: a platform for women Olympians and Paralympians.
May 24, 2022
Jamie Mittelman MPA 2022 was outside all the time as a kid growing up in Dover, Massachusetts. Sports and exercise were a big part of her childhood: Hiking and skiing with her family, running track and field at school, playing soccer—her dad was her first coach—all the way through college, where she was on the soccer team at Middlebury College.
“Sports was a form of joy and community for us,” she says. “It was about bringing people together and spending time with people you love, being a part of something greater than just yourself, and talking about whatever was on your mind.”
Mittelman’s second passion—working with international women and girls—was something she first explored in college as an international affairs and geography major and gender studies minor. Living in Chittagong, Bangladesh, Mittelman solidified her passion for working with this demographic. As an English grammar teacher and project manager, Mittelman immersed herself among women from 13 Asian countries—Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka to name a few—and helped them prepare for college. She saw them for the future leaders they were—strong, smart, and capable. “Working with these incredible women fueled my passion to champion women and girls, especially those from different contexts than my own.”
After several years in the nonprofit sector, soliciting grants and resources from external sources, Mittelman hungered for a less volatile revenue stream, which led her to seek a position with ownership of the resources she worked with. She transferred to the corporate world where she could deploy the resources of a massive corporation to support their philanthropic focus of elevating women and girls. She transferred to the media conglomerate of AOL, Yahoo, the Huffington Post, and many other brands (which has since also acquired and merged with Verizon) where she quickly rose up the ranks to become a senior marketing manager of corporate social responsibility, managing a $30 million media portfolio for charitable causes.
“I was at the nexus of supporting the causes that I thought were important but also having the resources to do so,” Mittelman says. The company’s philanthropic focus was on women and girls. During her tenure, Mittelman spearheaded countless collaborations such as her favorite, which was in collaboration with Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn campaign and the Peace Corps. Specifically, Mittelman created and executed a new track of an existing tech challenge at Tech Crunch Disrupt (one of the companies AOL owned at the time) to inspire U.S. high school girls to pitch and implement tech ideas empowering the #62MillionGirls globally without access to education.
She decided to go to business school to fill “a gaping hole” in her skill set. At an early age, many of the people she looked up to had an MBA, including her dad.
Just before she was set to enter Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business for her MBA, she lost her dad to glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. And then, incredibly, she nearly lost her mother to another serious medical condition—an aortic dissection. Both experiences pushed her forward to graduate school. “There was no way I wasn’t going to go. The best way to honor my Dad and be the person my Mom wants me to be, is to keep pushing myself, to keep growing, loving, living” she remembers.
While at Tuck, many of her classmates were getting concurrent degrees at HKS. She had never thought about going into government and public policy but loved the idea of public service.
“My Tuck-HKS classmates were the people who I call ‘servant leaders.’ People who prioritize and act on behalf of others,” Mittelman says. “This was one of the cornerstone values my parents taught my siblings and me: make the world better: wherever you are, however you can...and it’s not about you.” She decided not to do the concurrent program. “I really wanted to be present for both degrees.”
During her first semesters at HKS, Mittelman spent six months working her way to pitch a position to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Her dream summer internship: a communications position in Tokyo elevating the efforts of women in the games—a job that didn't exist, but she thought should, as part of the committee’s recent investment in women and, more broadly, diversity and equity.
“I’ve always been pretty obsessed with the Olympics,” she says. “I think they’re incredible, a time of great hope. Before COVID, I was still really struggling after what happened to my parents and I wanted to do something that brought me great joy," she says. "And that was in my skill wheelhouse—communications, marketing, and women and girls. I said, ‘hey, the Olympics are super cool, let’s see if we can swing this.’”
When COVID-19 hit and the games were postponed, Mittelman finished out her first year of HKS online, and with Harvard support, launched her COVID-adaptation of her dream job: Flame Bearers, the first and only global storytelling platform for women Olympians and Paralympians. Flame Bearers is a podcast, website, and social media platform, bringing these athletes’ experiences to life, giving them a platform of celebration and an opportunity to share their learnings. Mittelman uses sport as a vehicle for issues such as pay equity, disability bias, or racial justice.
“I think I’ve become a lot stronger than I ever would have had to become,” she says. “And I have definitely pushed myself and done things I never would have done. The idea of having a podcast was so scary to me. But after losing my dad and almost losing my mom, I realized that I had nothing I held more important, so I might as well go for exactly what I wanted.”
In May 2020 she applied for the Summer Internship Fund and received a grant from the Women and Public Policy Program. “I worked with Kessely Hong and Janina Matuszeski, who were my advisors,” she says. “They were wonderful. So supportive, so knowledgeable, so accessible. They listen to podcasts, but they’re not podcast producers themselves. So, we were all going on this journey together, which I liked.”
What she did know was what she wanted the podcast to represent. Only 3.2% of sports media in the United States covers women athletes. Mittelman gave the example of a disabled Chilean table tennis player, Tamara Leonelli, explaining that the press doesn’t give her the time of day, let alone portray her in a way that doesn’t paint her with the pity brush. “I wanted to celebrate a diversity of region, ability, sport, fame, and then race, class, religion. And I wanted to portray them as whole people who do more than sports.” Mittelman says that lack of quality representation makes it near impossible for younger girls to see their future selves in someone who doesn’t ‘exist’ today.
She began in August 2020 with USA Women’s National Soccer Team captain, Becky Sauerbrunn, discussing soccer and the pay equity lawsuit, which just settled. From there she has launched over 40 episodes, featuring athletes from all competing continents including her latest episode featuring three elite Ukrainian athletes. “My goal is to produce the best media pieces on these people that have ever been done. We are exploring video as another storytelling medium, bringing visual elements to life on social media and via the Flame Bearers website.”
After graduation, Mittelman plans to continue working with Olympic and Paralympic athletes: “We’ll produce season three this fall, shedding light on what happens between the Games: when the athletes go home and the cameras go away. My goal is to see if this is something I can do long term. I want to work in this space, working with women and girls ideally around physical fitness and sports.”
While Mittelman sees Flame Bearers as a way to help build bridges in a hurting world—“Our world really needs some wins right now,” she says—her journey has a much deeper meaning.
“While this was not my intent when I began, one of the secondary benefits of this experience has been my personal healing. It has become my own rescue mission,” she says. “I’m so grateful for these women's trust in me to tell their stories. By being able to give voice to others who are hurting, and growing and pushing themselves has been a way for me to address some of my pain.”
Portraits by Lydia Carmichael Rosenberg