Today we spoke with Kareem Rosser about his new memoir, Crossing the Line, where he details his experiences growing up in Philadelphia and the struggles he overcame to become the captain of the first all black polo team to win a major national championship. Kareem gives us an inside look at his story, what helped him overcome the challenges of succeeding in a predominately white sport, and how he hopes to inspire other African-Americans to reach for greatness outside of their comfort zone.
Kareem Rosser: [00:00:01] And myself and the other Work to Ride kids are the only few African-Americans in the sport, if not the only African-Americans in the sport…
Sam: [00:00:10] Often referred to as the sport of kings, polo has long been associated with a particular slice of society associated with wealth and privilege. Kareem Rosser is a 28 year old collegiate polo player from Colorado State University. He was born in Philadelphia and he learned to ride horses at eight years old at Lezlie Hiner’s Work to Ride Stable, a local nonprofit that helps Inner-City Youth learn to play polo in exchange for working at the stable. Kareem, welcome to ideamix radio.
Kareem Rosser: [00:01:03] Thank you. I’m excited to be here today and appreciate you having me.
Sam: [00:01:07] Kareem, tell us about your upcoming book, Crossing the Line, which, by the way, I am absolutely loving.
Kareem: [00:01:13] So my book, Crossing a Line, it’s a memoir about my life growing up in Philadelphia, in a neighborhood that I reference, called The Bottom. As well as my journey at the Work to Ride program and my journey in life and the struggles that my family and myself went through to be able to get to where I am today. And I wanted to take the opportunity to share the stories because I thought it was important to me, but also wanted to inspire a generation of people. You know, many people hear about my story. My story has been covered for a number of years throughout the media. I think we’ve been on the likes of ESPN, 60 Minutes, Sports Illustrated, a number of national media outlets. But, you know, each time they’ve only been able to cover or highlight just bits and pieces of the story. And I wanted to take the opportunity to kind of tell the story in detail. You know, all the things that have been left out over the years that people have no idea about. You know, I talk about my my mother’s addiction, her battle with addiction, just the struggles that we dealt with in our neighborhoods growing up as kids, the struggles at the Work to Ride program and just, you know, some of my own personal battles. And I just really wanted to take the opportunity to share my story with people, because I think, you know, it has the ability to to to touch on a number of people from all different backgrounds.
Sam: [00:02:48] I couldn’t agree more Kareem, I think it’s such an inspirational story, I think your life experience, the challenges that you went through, dealt with and really have overcome, as well as the sort of entrepreneurial career that you crafted springing off of polo and college but the number of things you’ve gone on to do since then, including write this book, is really amazing. And the book is such a great read – it was really delightful.
Kareem Rosser: [00:03:19] Thank you.
Sam: [00:03:20] The world of polo, Kareem, is dominated by mostly white players. You grew up, as you said in The Bottom, a community that’s been devastated by poverty and violence at various times. What’s it like being one of the few African-American players and in fact, captain of the first all black squad to win the US National Interscholastic Polo Championship?
Kareem Rosser: [00:03:45] Yeah, I mean, it’s an incredible feeling, but as you mentioned, the sport of polo is definitely dominated by wealthy and predominantly white people and myself and the other Work to Ride kids are the only few African-Americans in the sport, if not the only African-Americans in the sport. You know, growing up, we were certainly well aware of the fact that we didn’t look like most people participating in the sport, but we didn’t allow that to stop us from being participants and going on and achieving great things. You know, it’s something that we don’t we certainly don’t take for granted but we’re hoping that it opens doors for other African-Americans. You know, there’s this perception of polo that it’s wealthy and it’s exclusive and that you need a lot of money to participate. That’s not necessarily true. Yeah, don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly an expensive sport. But, you know, it’s not all about the high hills and the big hats and the champagne. You know, there are a number of clubs throughout the country here in the U.S. that welcomes, you know, just your average American family. And then there are other programs. I mean, there are programs out there where, you know, people can participate in the sport on a much smaller scale and more and I guess in a more affordable way. You know, Work to Ride has obviously opened doors for myself and a number of kids at the program. And without that program we would honestly have had no idea even about the sport itself. And, you know, I had no idea what polo was before joining Work to Ride. So I guess and to answer your question, you know, being one of the few African-Americans in the space, it’s a privilege but we’re hoping to— myself and the others who are participating – are hoping that it inspires other people of color and particularly African-Americans to get involved.
Sam: [00:05:46] Absolutely. Kareem, you first started playing polo after your mother enrolled you in Work to Ride, which is given, as you said, you, but equally, lots of other kids the chance to play polo in exchange for helping with the horses. I want to take you back to that eight year old version of you who was about to take the plunge into Lezlie Hiner’s world.
Kareem Rosser: [00:06:11] Mm hmm.
Sam: [00:06:11] How did you feel?
Kareem Rosser: [00:06:13] Yeah, I mean, just to give you a little more context. And kind of before I even joined the program, you know, Philadelphia has this rich, I guess, culture. There is a big urban cowboy presence in Philadelphia and particularly black cowboys. And as a kid, you know, I would see these men and women of color riding horses throughout Philadelphia and many people have no idea that there’s this large cowboy presence in Philadelphia but there is. You know, so I grew up seeing that. And then my brothers who were out on an afternoon bike ride and found Lezlie in the stables, which in itself was a blessing. You know, they met Lezlie and, at the time, Lezlie was enrolling kids in the program. And so my two older brothers enrolled. And then after that, myself and my other siblings joined them. And when we first showed up to the stables, we were all just kind of big eyed, wide mouthed kids who were excited just to be able to touch a horse. And, you know, we met Lezlie, who is this incredible woman who, you know, opened doors for many people. I was just I was excited, you know, I felt like I was finally at a place where I felt free. I could be a kid. And I had no worries about my surroundings. And so, you know, it was a life changing experience for myself and my siblings.
Sam: [00:07:52] Amazing. Kareem, tell us what made you decide to write this book.
Kareem Rosser: [00:08:00] Yeah, you know, I think I mentioned earlier, but it was important for me to, again, to talk about just my family’s struggles and us being the first all African-American polo team to win a major championship in the US was a big deal, but not many people realize what it took for us to get there. We had very limited resources. You know, we were riding ex-race horses, horses that were on their way to slaughter. We were practicing in a cow pasture – that was where we learned to play polo. During the winter months we were playing on the frozen ground. We didn’t have an indoor riding facility. There were many, many years where we thought we were going to run out of funding and the program was going to shut down, so I guess there’s so many untold stories that I wanted to share with people. But again, as I said, I also wanted to take an opportunity to inspire people. Many people will walk away from an opportunity that was given to us just because they don’t think they belong there. And I wanted to be an example for those people who may feel that way myself, along with my siblings and the other participants Work to Ride.
Sam: [00:09:28] There’s a level of honesty, I think, in how you share your experience in the book, which is very unique because it’s a constant reminder, as one is reading, about the highs and lows, about all the different things that tested you and that tested your family over that time, it’s such an important story, I think, for people to realize that life does come with those highs and lows, but they can be overcome.
Kareem Rosser: [00:09:58] Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, we are a resilient group of people. And, as you said, those highs and lows come. And,we’ve had many highs and we certainly have had many lows. And those lows often stop people from moving forward and it was important for me to talk about those lows and the struggles because, I think I talk about me dealing with anxiety and then my struggles academically and my struggles dealing with the neighborhood that I grew up with and then also dealing with my mother’s addiction. There are so many examples in the book that would prevent one from just pursuing their dreams. And I was hoping by talking about those things and showing people that I am vulnerable and I am human – I face many struggles that many other successful people face as well. And so, I think some people forget those things and I wanted to talk about that.
Sam: [00:11:08] I’m really glad that you did. Your polo career has taken you all over the world, to places like Tianjin and China and Kaduna, Nigeria, but eventually you came back to Philadelphia to pursue a career in finance. Tell us about that decision.
Kareem Rosser: [00:11:24] Yeah, that was honestly a very tough decision that I was contemplating my final year in college when I was at Colorado State University. I was deciding on if I should come back to Philly or would Philly be a big distraction for me? You know, and despite Philly being home and where I grew up, at the same time, you know, a lot of my family members are still in the community that I grew up in. And there’s often a lot of distractions. And at the same time, it’s easy for me to get pulled back into that life. So I had to make the tough decision on coming back, but also being able to set boundaries that allowed me to stay focused and to continue to pursue my career outside of polo in the stables and at home. And so, you know, I ultimately decided to come back and one of the reasons, one, I wanted to be close to my family and then at the same time that I wanted to be able to give back to Work to Ride. And these last several years, or I guess just the last few years, I have been leading a fundraising efforts and putting together a capital campaign that will allow us to expand the program here in Philadelphia, refurbish our current facility, and then also build a new indoor riding facility that allows us to operate year round. And then lastly, seed an endowment that will help sustain the program moving forward. And so I thought about all those things and also just my network here in Philadelphia and just the opportunity to to work on some of the things that means a lot to me personally. And I didn’t want to give that up. And fortunately, I’ve been able to you know, be near my family without dealing with all the distractions. And so I’m here and back in Philadelphia now. I’m working in finance at an asset management firm here. And it’s been an incredible few years. I certainly don’t regret my decision of moving back.
Sam: [00:13:33] I could imagine making the decision was quite difficult because of all the things you just articulated, the push and pull of family, coming back to a place in which you had so much history, but also a fair amount of trauma and being engaged with that community and being a part of it. But while still carving out your own life and career so that you felt you had space for yourself is, it’s not easy.
Kareem Rosser: [00:14:04] No, certainly not. But, you know, I’m happy and fortunately, I have a very incredible support system here. And, I’m just excited that I can just wake up every day and still be near my family.
Sam: [00:14:19] Amazing. We’ll be right back. Kareem, playing polo and working in finance don’t have that much in common, but they both involve working with a team in some capacity. Writing, on the other hand, is a more solitary and unstructured task. How did you manage to make that shift?
Kareem Rosser: [00:14:39] You know, it was easy for me because writing this was very important to me. And working in the finance world requires a lot of attention. And also working with a team and buttaking the moment and to actually sit down and just talk about my life and the process, what it really took for me to get to this place where I’m able to work in the finance world and then also perform well on the polo field. I was just excited to be able to take that time and just think about my journey. I think one of the hardest parts for me writing the book was trying to remember everything that has happened over the last several years of my life and I’m only 28. So it’s not like I have 50 years to write about. But it allowed me to appreciate being able to work in a team and the opportunities that I received because of polo and as well as now my new career in finance. Writing this allowed me to put that into perspective. But I was able to really appreciate just all the opportunities and the incredible people that I have in my life.
Sam: [00:16:15] So true. We’re big believers in mentorship and the power of mentorship here at ideamix. Mentors, Kareem, have clearly played a huge role in your life. Who are the one or two people you would highlight as mentors?
Kareem Rosser: [00:16:29] Well, I mean, it’s funny. You know, I guess the other day I was chatting to a mentor of mine and I mentioned to him that there were many people who had touched me along the way or had some sort of impact on my life. But, you know, if I had to name a couple, you know, one is certainly Lezlie Hiner, the founder of Work to Ride. Just to watch to watch her sort of develop this organization, but develop the kids and the sacrifice that she’s made to save hundreds, if not thousands of lives. The impact that she has on Philadelphia as a city. It’s just incredible. But also her ability to connect with people who come from a completely different world is something I admire as well. You know, she doesn’t come from wealth herself, but she also did not come from any of the impoverished and dangerous communities that we grew up in. But she’s able to connect with everyone. She’s that bridge to this wealthy elite, the polo world that we talked about and also to the world that some of these kids have grown up in where they struggle each day. Her ability to connect it to is incredible, but also her tenacity. She’s a woman who goes after what she wants and she’s accomplished some great things. So I’m very, very grateful that she’s in my life. And another person mentioned is my boss, Joe Manheim – he has taken me under his wing…taken a fragile boy from West Philly and immersed me into this world of finance. And now I’m doing very well with his mentorship, just learning how to be an entrepreneur and all those intangible things that one can only get from a really good mentor. So those are the two that come to mind. But there are a number of people that I didn’t name that I’m very grateful for, they were involved in my life or are still involved and it touched me. And, you know, it’s exposed me to a world that I had no idea existed outside of West Philadelphia.
Sam: [00:19:06] Two such important people in your life, from whom you’ve learned so much and I think the book, but equally, your engagement with Work to Ride is sort of your now providing mentorship to the next generation and you are helping the organization to become financially sustainable and help an entirely new generation of kids. So it’s amazing.
Kareem Rosser: [00:19:34] Yes and I’m incredibly excited about the future. And I think there’s a lot to be excited about. I’m hoping that this program and myself can continue to help the thousands of kids in Philadelphia, but also kids across the country.
Sam: [00:19:55] Kareem, what keeps you up at night right now?
Kareem Rosser: [00:19:58] Oh gosh, what keeps me up at night? I would say knowing that there are still struggling kids in Philadelphia, you know, my family in particular. We’ve come a long way, but we’re certainly not at a place where we’re comfortable. So I think continuing to just work hard to be able to provide for my family and give others opportunities. I would say that’s something that certainly keeps me up at night.
Sam: [00:20:28] Yeah, real concerns. Last question, Kareem. What are your goals for yourself three years from now?
Kareem Rosser: [00:20:36] There are a couple of things that come to mind. One, as I mentioned, is to build up the Work to Ride program so that it is sustainable in the future and accomplishes those three goals I think I mentioned of building a new dirt riding facility, seeding an endowment. But also what sort of impact can I have on the community that I grew up in? I want to continue to mentor kids and put programs in place that will give people opportunities and expose them to worlds outside of the community that we grew up in. You know, I’ve fallen in love with philanthropy just because I’ve seen the impact that it has had on my life. So to be able to open doors for other people is something that I want to do. I think there are a number of other things that at some point that I would like to pursue, that ultimately have an impact on other people, a good impact.
Sam: [00:21:58] Awesome. Well, everyone should go out and buy this book. It’s was a fantastic read. I know you’ll all enjoy it, for our listeners. Here’s something else you should know, despite a tough year, print sales for books were up almost 8% by the end of 2020, thanks to The New York Times for the data used in today’s episode. So thankfully, a lot of reading and a lot of book buying has happened this year. So it couldn’t be a better time, Kareem, for the book to come out.
Kareem Rosser: [00:22:25] That’s incredible. And I also want to mention that I’m giving 50% of the proceeds back to the charity, from the book sales. And that’s important to me. And I can encourage people to buy the books, to increase their sales numbers. But I think it will touch a lot of people.
Sam: [00:22:44] One hundred percent, make a real impact on children’s lives. So another great reason to buy the book. Kareem, we’re very inspired by your story and can’t wait for others to hear it. Crossing the Line comes out in February and you can get a copy wherever you buy books. Thanks for being with us on ideamix radio today.
Kareem Rosser: [00:23:04] Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
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