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Sarah Labowitz: Driving team goals in soccer and life

Former Grinnell soccer player competes for human rights on the world stage

Biography

Sarah Labowitz
Co-director and research scholar at New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights

Hometown: Alexandria, Virginia

Current city: New York

School: Bachelor of Arts in history, Grinnell College, 2004; master’s degree in international relations, Tufts University

Sport: Women’s soccer, women’s track and field

Fun fact: Labowitz made Forbes Magazine’s “30 under 30” list for law and policy in 2012 and received the Superior Honor Award from the U.S. Department of State.

Sarah Labowitz carved a career out of fighting for the rights of those who can’t fight for themselves.

Born in Alexandria, Virginia, Labowitz was raised by a father who was a lawyer and a mother who worked as an urban planner and later ran a small business. Sports were a constant for Labowitz and her brother and sister.

“I played soccer, field hockey and ran track in high school,” she said. “As a kid, I also played softball and basketball, though with much less success.”

Growing up, Labowitz realized an interest in history and social justice.

“In the 1980s, my dad’s law practice was focused on fighting discrimination against people with AIDS,” she said. “Both of my grandfathers were diplomats for the U.S. government in Europe and Asia. I’ve ended up working at the intersection of human rights, foreign policy and international business, which feels like joining the family enterprise on some level.”

Labowitz attended Grinnell College in Iowa, where her parents graduated in 1971 and her uncle played soccer in 1982. Labowitz found herself on the soccer pitch, as well, participating in Division III athletics while earning her bachelor’s degree in history in 2004.

“I ran track my first year, but soccer was my real passion,” she recalled. “I grew up at a moment when the national women’s soccer team was rising in prominence and stars like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Michelle Akers were accessible role models.”

College sports offered Labowitz the opportunity to represent her school and the Midwest Conference by serving on the Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee – roughly two dozen college athletes who provide a student-athlete voice within the NCAA Division III structure.

Labowitz learned a lot from her collegiate athletics experience. “We all love to win, but losing also has important lessons,” she said.

“Grinnell hosted the Midwest Conference championship tournament my senior year. We lost in a heartbreaking game; I still remember our defensive sequence of mistakes that gave Lake Forest the title. While I’d still really like to have those moments back, that lesson of trying for something big, working hard with other people and having to recover when we didn’t succeed has turned out to be really valuable.”

Labowitz also points out that after graduation, there’s no such thing as one final shot. “You always get to try again.”

After college, Labowitz wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She waited tables at a German restaurant, moved to Australia with her best friend and worked at Carnival Cruise Line entering data before returning to the United States. And it was in Washington, D.C., where she began to find her niche as an executive assistant at the Fair Labor Association, a consortium of socially responsible organizations dedicated to protecting workers’ rights around the world.

“The Clinton administration helped start the FLA in the 1990s, in part to respond to the anti-sweatshop movement on college campuses,” she noted.

Soccer, like social justice, continued to factor into Labowitz’s life.

“When I lived in Washington, D.C., I played for an adult coed recreational team called Mayhem, which described itself as the ‘best second-division soccer team in the league,’” she said. “It started as a team of people who’d worked for the Obama campaign in Michigan in 2008, and expanded to include a bunch of us who worked in the Obama administration. We were colleagues, friends and teammates.”

A graduate degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University was next on Labowitz’s agenda, followed by stints in the human rights bureau of the U.S. Department of State, where she led international efforts to keep the internet open in closed societies and worked in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues.

In 2013, Labowitz co-founded the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, the first facility of its kind at any business school.

“The center recognizes that business has enormous potential to generate social benefits, but that there’s a need for rules of the road on human rights to ensure that the rights of workers and communities are respected, especially in places where the local government doesn’t do its job in enforcing rights protections,” she explained.

She is also a team member on the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

Labowitz’s philosophy of living a life of service to others dovetails perfectly into the career path she’s chosen, and human rights work has taken her all over the world – Papua New Guinea, Bahrain, Egypt, Lithuania, Haiti, Bangladesh, Hong Kong and Stockholm.

“My work has tended to focus on highly contested, unresolved, sensitive issues,” she said. “In this context, I've found that it’s important to combine an ambitious vision for what’s possible with a deep sense of practicality, and to be honest about how much you don’t know.”

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