Like most 30-year-olds, Alexis Jones is just trying to figure it all out. But unlike her Generation Y peers, she’s doing it on stages, in front of cameras and now, in the pages of her first book. In the course of following her own ever-evolving dreams, Jones has made a career of helping other people figure out theirs.
By Jennifer Hill Robenalt, Photos by Eric Doggett
Usually, in the world of motivational speaking and self-help, a guru emerges like a mythical hero walking the inspired path of what Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey.” You start with an ordinary person. They experience turmoil and hardship and are thrown in to the dark forest of fear. They find a guide or a mentor who help them slay the proverbial dragon and eventually develop a personal philosophy and system of being borne out of the innate wisdom that adversity brings. Ultimately, the hero completes a complex circle of understanding and growth, which they can now share with others, followed, of course, by speaking engagements and a book tour.
Then there’s Jones. In 2008, she co-founded the girls’ empowerment nonprofit I Am That Girl with her best friend, Emily Greener, who now serves as the executive director. While Jones readily calls herself a media personality, social entrepreneur, activist, author and speaker, the labels don’t seem to quite capture her completely. This is what makes her unique. She’s on a journey, but the starting line begins with who she is more than what she does or has accomplished. It’s this personal prime directive of authenticity that has catapulted her beyond the typical hero storyline. In other words, she refuses to play by the rules.
In Jones’ story, she comes from a loving family, which includes four brothers she calls her heroes. Being the lone girl made her spirited, scrappy and resourceful. Though her parents were divorced, they were the perfect complement to one another as parents and role models.
“My mom is definitely the firecracker. She was the one who, in spite of not growing up with a lot of money, always found a way to make things possible. She was always, always a ‘yes’ woman, which is wonderful and perfectly complemented by my father, who’s a total realist and an engineer,” Jones explains. “I knew that if I had a great idea or a dream, if I could get past my dad with it, then it was viable. It was the perfect combination of ground and sky. My dad was my reality check. My mom was my endless fan, my best friend and the sole inspiration for I Am That Girl because my mom believed I was capable of doing it.”
Jones grew up in Austin and attended Westlake High School. She wasn’t the richest girl in her group of friends. But that was OK with her. Her work ethic was fierce and she always had big plans for her future. Plus, it didn’t hurt that, while she was smart and hardworking, she also happened to be tall and beautiful. It all seemed like a winning combination. She got modeling jobs and had dreams of reporting from the sidelines of Monday Night Football. When those very opportunities began to grow, she realized that her true passions were a little more complex.
“I always felt like I was a wolf in sheep’s skin, that I could dance in the world of media but that I always had underlying motives, and how could I leverage that to inspire change? Modeling and hosting were always a means to an end but it wasn’t what I was passionate about. I wanted to pursue something that lit me up from inside. And I knew that I was a purebred activist and had to pursue that,” Jones says. “I think I’ve always been passionate about inspiring people to pursue their dreams. It was always about how I could be a catalyst to spark or ignite that bonfire in someone else’s soul.”
Jones has spoken to more than 250,000 kids and adults throughout the country, and more than a million people online. Girls respect her straight-talk style, and to that impressionable audience, she emphasizes that beauty itself is not the key to success.
“I’ve been in situations where people chalk me up to another pretty face, especially in media. If anything, I probably had a chip on my shoulder about it. I was always overcompensating by promising that there was so much more to me. I always wanted credit for my work ethic, my determination, my creativity. The way that I got out of that was remembering what my dad always said, which was, ‘Let the scoreboard stand for itself.’ Look at the things that I’ve done and try to tell me that I’m just another pretty face,” she says.
Jones earned both an undergraduate degree in international relations and a master’s in communication management from the University of Southern California, all by the time she was 22. It was during those formative years in Los Angeles when she had the opportunity to perform in The Vagina Monologues, a progressive women’s play written by Eve Ensler.
“That experience was life-changing,” she says. “Having a platform to talk about things that mattered was the activation of a new skill.”
Her desire to empower girls and women began to take root. Following her stage debut, Jones hosted a TV show on the red carpet, and worked at Fox Sports and ESPN. But the idea for starting an organization to help girls “8 to 108” cultivate self-confidence and self-acceptance never left her mind.
She approached her professor, Christopher Smith, a clinical associate professor in the School of Communication at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and brought up a casting call for Survivor, which she was convinced would be the perfect opportunity to promote what would become I Am That Girl. Smith thought it was a little far-fetched at first. But Jones’ confidence won him over and he encouraged her to go for it. She went straight to Mark Burnett’s office and, with her uniquely “Alexian” way of getting past security and receptionists, managed to get in. She was cast immediately.
“I remember when one of the casting directors looked at me, she was shocked. She said my profile read like a Navy Seal. She didn’t expect me at all,” Jones remembers.
Jones lasted 33 days on Survivor season 16. It didn’t matter that she didn’t win the million-dollar prize. The payoff came in the form of 67 media interviews, of which more than 20 were with international outlets. It was in that post-Survivor media blitz that Jones finally had the chance to get her I Am That Girl message to the world. And in the past five years, she has drawn the endorsements of celebrities including Kate Bosworth, Kristen Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, Elizabeth Gore and many others. Her persistence is paying off.
“I’ve always been hungry. My faith plays a huge role in that. I believe I’ve been given so much. I had access to education. I had a roof over my head. I had loving parents. But I also had this reckoning inside me that said, ‘What are you going to do with that? You don’t get to be born with all of this and just sit around,’ ” she explains. “I just give a damn about everything: about the people I encounter, the issues that I come across, the companies that I start. I really care. I have strong opinions about the situations in my life. If there was one bit of medicine I could spend a lifetime creating, it would be the cure for apathy. Sometimes I see glazed-over eyes and I ask, ‘How do you not believe that your life matters? How do you not believe that you can impact people in a profound way?’ ”
Jones is proud of all she’s accomplished so far, but she adamant in explaining that her efforts don’t necessarily define her.
“We’re a generation driven by external validation. And it’s a scary place. I think we’re one of the most productive generations that ever existed, but also suffering from not being as content and joyful as other generations because there’s an insatiable void that almost can never be filled,” Jones says. “I feel like there’s this kind of urgency and anxiousness of my generation. Because we have less time being still and less time being confident in who we are as individuals, we’re so distracted. I challenge people to be still, even for five minutes, so they can listen to that voice within.”
In every endeavor—writing, speaking or planning her next professional move—Jones is determined to help people of every age to ask the big questions that can lead to a more authentic life. Jones believes that authenticity breeds a sort of compassion and clarity, which can have a ripple effect in society and help change the world for the better. But there’s a lot of work to do.
“I don’t know if many people have an authentic confidence. I think we have a Facebook confidence. We have an accolade-driven confidence. What I struggle with is having confidence that is purely based on being enough—without the glitz and the glam, without the modeling, without the motivational speaking, without hosting a Ted event. It’s something that most of my peers struggle with: just being OK with who they are, because we’re not,” she says. “There’s such a huge discrepancy in who you are and what you do. We’ve become such a product of tap dancing on stage for everyone to see that we forget that the little girl or the little boy in us is not on stage, but is just as wonderful.”
Jones is honest, direct and even confrontational when it comes to getting honest about building an authentic life.
“There are so many people walking around who legitimately are not happy with their lives and life choices because they’ve been living out somebody else’s script,” she says. “The role I get to play for them is that I sit down with people and I look them in the eye and ask, ‘Are you happy?’ I tell them, ‘Throw out the script for your life and just ask yourself what you really want.’ ”
Jones’ last big event role was as co-organizer and host of the sold-out TedxAustin Women conference on Dec. 5. The theme was “Brave Starts Here.” She worked closely with Executive Producer Sara Bordo, a native Texan who has held senior marketing positions at Paramount Pictures, MGM Studios, SocialVibe, and was the CEO and co-founder of NowLive (acquired by Live Media Group in 2013), where she executive produced live events including The Hunger Games premiere, Macy’s Fashion Night Out and the Academy Awards Red Carpet. Jones and Bordo will be bravely starting new projects together in 2014. Also on Jones’ impressive to-do list for the new year is co-writing a financial literacy book for girls with Tom Meredith, co-founder and general partner of Mertiage, and the chief executive officer of MFI.
But first thing’s first. She’ll introduce her new book, I Am That Girl, at a Jan. 8 book launch in Austin, followed by book signings in Los Angeles and New York. But through all commitments, her joy is connecting with people.
“We don’t live in a world where we’re taught to be authentic and candid,” she says. “All I’m saying is ask the hard questions. Figure out what you want, speak your truth and see what comes out. I think it would surprise people, and would be a quick journey to what we’re all after: love and happiness.”