For Ethan Zohn, winning CBS’s Survivor: Africa was the springboard to an exceptional young life of entrepreneurship, social purpose, and advocacy. It was also the prelude to an incredible personal story—one of perseverance, accomplishment, and enduring spirit in the face of once- unthinkable challenges—through which he continues to inspire countless others around the globe. His message, for young people, the business community and academia alike, emphasizes character, leadership, resiliency, service, and seeing challenges as strengths as keys to a happy, healthy society.
A fit, active thirty-something and professional soccer player who had traveled the world on behalf of the international health community and Grassroot Soccer, the NGO he founded just years earlier, Ethan, at 35, became the unlikely face of cancer. Diagnosed not once, but twice, with the rare CD 20+ Hodgkins Lymphoma in the span of several years, Ethan endured combined years of aggressive treatment—including two stem-cell transplants—while confronting life decisions that relatively few in his peer set ever face. Never losing optimism, spirit, or humor, despite the extraordinary rigors and setbacks, Ethan used his journey, and considerable platform, to connect with others—young adults in particular—and offer inspiration, advice, and comfort, even chronicling the chapters of his experience for People. While undergoing treatment, he ran, and finished, the New York City and Boston marathons—as a fundraiser for Grassroot Soccer.
Ethan’s predisposition toward advocacy, social enterprise, global health, and self-empowerment truly took shape in 2002, when he, with a portion of his winnings from Survivor: Africa, co-founded Grassroot Soccer, a first-of-its-kind NGO using the sport to teach young people self-reliance and critical life skills, such as HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, for the betterment of at-risk communities. It was the realization of an idea that first came to light while playing soccer professionally in Zimbabwe, where he first came face- to-face with the toll and scale of the AIDS epidemic in Southern Africa. Since inception, the international organization has scaled up to 50 countries in Africa and worldwide, impacted over 2 million lives, and worked with scores of public- and private-sector partners. Ever the tireless and creative promoter, Ethan in 2008 did nothing short of dribble a soccer ball 600 miles on his own — Boston to Washington, DC — as a campaign to drum up visibility, awareness, and support.