Long Island native Warren G. Lichtenstein, 56, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his degree in economics. Lichtenstein started his career as an analyst at a couple of investment firms. Then, at just 24, he founded Steel Partners, a diversified global holding company with operations in industrial products, energy, defense, supply chain management and logistics, banking and youth sports.
That last category on the list might not seem like it fits in with the rest of Lichtenstein’s portfolio, which includes manufacturers of steel tubing, construction tools and electric motors, to name a few. But youth sports is actually one of Lichtenstein’s greatest areas of interest, and a driving force in his philanthropy.
One of the companies, operating under the umbrella of Steel Partners, is Steel Sports, a youth sports and coaching program inspired by the philosophy of Tommy Lasorda. His philanthropy runs through two foundations—Steel Partners Foundation and Steel Sports Foundation, both of which focus on participation in sports and coaching and its powerful impact on youth, along with other related causes.
Launched in 2001, Steel Partners Foundation focuses on causes related to children, education and sports. And Steel Sports Foundation particularly focuses on sports-related character education and competition. Through his charities, Lichtenstein has supported places like Aspen Art Museum, Aspen Junior Hockey, Tulane University, and Character Lab, a nonprofit organization that connects researchers with educators to create greater knowledge about the conditions that lead to social, emotional, academic and physical well-being for young people. He’s also donated to work on childhood ADD and ADHD.
But how did the financier settle on these causes in his giving? And what other organizations does he support? I recently connected with Lichtenstein over Zoom to find out.
Taking the field
Lichtenstein’s enthusiasm for sports comes across immediately. Before I even asked my first question, he posed one to me. “Do you remember any of the coaches you had as a kid?” A father of two children, he told me what a positive experience playing sports has been for his son. The family moved from Aspen to Los Angeles, where his then seven-year-old son became involved with AYSO soccer and Little League.
Lichtenstein himself had no experience with coaching, but told the coaches that he would be at every practice and game, happy to help out in any way. Around the same time, he met someone at a board meeting who was initially introduced as “Uncle Tommy.” Lichtenstein soon discovered that the speaker was Tommy Lasorda, the late great MLB pitcher and manager for the Dodgers, who played with stars like Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider. The financier formed a quick connection with Lasorda, and Lichtenstein, who attended Lasorda’s memorial service in January, considered him a best friend, or even a second father.
Lichtenstein invited Lasorda to his son’s Little League game. There was another kid on the team who hadn’t hit the ball all season. Lasorda walked to the plate, got down eye to eye with the batter, and spoke to him. Then he winked at Lichtenstein as he walked back to the dugout.
A few moments later, the kid hit the ball for the first time.
Finding his mission
Lichtenstein started giving through a formal charitable vehicle in his 30s. He started early, but describes some of this initial giving as “haphazard.” He would be approached to support a range of issues. But soon, he narrowed and focused his mission.
“And so I started thinking about it, and I started learning that the dropout rate in organized sports by the time kids are 12 is like 70 or 80%, which I thought was a mind-blowing number. And in a world where it is very difficult to instill core values and teach life lessons and build character… there were teachable moments here,” Lichtenstein says.
He started having longer conversations with Lasorda, absorbing everything that the baseball legend learned throughout his years in baseball, and putting it into a coaching system. This resulted in Steel Sports, launched in 2011, which is part of Lichtenstein’s larger holding company Steel Partners. Steel Sports describes itself as a social impact organization “committed to creating a new standard in youth sports and coaching while forging the next generation of leaders.” It reports that it impacts 100,000 athletes and their families each year.
Steel Sports taps world-renowned psychologists and the head of character development of West Point. A bedrock of the system are its coaches, who go through a rigorous development program and are provided with mentoring both on the field and off. Steel Sports has also established an elaborate baseball park on Long Island in Lasorda’s name. And Lichtenstein made a $2 million gift to University of Pennsylvania in 2020 to upgrade and relaunch the school’s baseball field as Tommy Lasorda Field.
“We believe our organization is very impactful on kids, where we’re teaching and helping to build character and teach life lessons on and off the field, so that these kids can thrive to become, you know, the best that they can be,” Lichtenstein explains.
The company’s nonprofit arm, Steel Sports Foundation, meanwhile, operates a Southern California soccer club, Steel United. The foundation also hosts youth sports camps focused on building character and improving player development. Another component here is making sure kids from a range of economic backgrounds can take part in youth sports, so the foundation supports needs-based assistance for players.
Supporting youth on multiple fronts
Lichtenstein’s other main philanthropy is Steel Partners Foundation, which supports similar work in youth sports, education and ADHD awareness, and has backed local projects in Aspen. The foundation has supported places like Aspen Jewish Community Center, the Positive Coaching Alliance’s New York and Los Angeles chapters, and Chadwick School, which his son attended.
Lichtenstein’s work on ADHD also includes co-founding Our Kids First Foundation, which has a mission to raise awareness and stimulate conversation about the issues and challenges of childhood, including ADD and ADHD. Lichtenstein is an executive producer of the 2014 film “Sister,” about children with ADHD.
So far, Lichtenstein has mostly steered this philanthropic ship without a large staff or board. He says he has been thinking about deepening his work. In the midst of the pandemic, Lichtenstein believes youth sports are especially important, and is considering ways to bring Steel Sports into school systems.
“The amount of anxiety and depression in these kids has gone through the roof… They weren’t able to go to a physical school, they weren’t able to socialize, they weren’t able to play sports. There’s very little free play in our society at all… and it’s crazy,” Lichtenstein says.