Coach Khali Joins Roundtable Discussion with Northwestern High Students

Khali Sweeney, our founder and CEO of the Downtown Boxing Gym, took part in a recent roundtable discussion with high school students attending Detroit College Preparatory Academy at Northwestern. He was among several business and nonprofit leaders invited to share insights.

“There’s no corporate ladder in community service,” Sweeney told the students. “You’re not climbing the corporate ladder. You’re either doing the work or you’re not.”

Khali described a typical day at the Downtown Boxing Gym, which often starts at 6 a.m. and ends around 9:30 p.m. In between, he takes care of the building and facilities, leads staff meetings, and participates in tours and discussions with visitors from across the community and around the world – not to mention coaching and mentoring 150 students daily during the free after-school academic and athletic program he founded in 2007.

The roundtable event, with small groups of Northwestern freshmen, was organized as part of the school’s focus on “linked learning” to prepare students for both college and careers. The school, with help from the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, is following a College and Career Pathways program in which all students during their sophomore years must choose one of two paths — a business, entrepreneurship and community leadership track, or a STEM route focusing on career pathways that rely on science, technology, engineering and math. They also do job shadowing, unpaid internships, community service and, hopefully, paid jobs before graduating.

During the discussion, students asked Sweeney what inspired him to start the boxing gym. He recounted his life story of being passed from grade to grade (all the way to 11th grade) without ever learning to read or write. He told them how he later came to the life-changing realization that all of his friends from the street were either dead or in jail. And he shared how taught himself to read and write and worked hard as a security guard, saving the money he needed to open the free after-school academic and athletic program that teaches books before boxing.

“I don’t buy fancy clothes,” he said. “I don’t buy rims or anything like that. I just work, work, work. When the time was right, I just made my move.”

Khali also emphasized that support from corporate and individual donors has helped the boxing gym grow along with the dedication of staff and volunteers. He answered a host questions and advised the teens to surround themselves with people doing positive things and to pull teachers aside and ask for help when they need it.

“I wouldn’t change a thing about my life,” Sweeney said. “Everything that’s happened has led to where I am today.”