Cultivating a Next Generation of Leaders
by Alexis Glick, Leslie Lytle, and Wendy Slusser
Alexis Glick is CEO of GENYOUth. Leslie Lytle, PhD and Wendy Slusser, MD, MS serve on the Board of Directors of The Dannon Institute.
An urgent need to foster young female leadership
The empowerment of girls as leaders is an increasingly recognized imperative.
A recent article in Forbes (“Lead Like a Girl: How to Empower Women at Every Level”) pointed out that, while we like to think that we’ve made progress toward gender equality, women are still underrepresented in leadership roles, despite the fact that 52% of professional jobs are held by women. Only 14.6% of executive officers, 8.1% of top earners, and 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” website points out that one reason for this may be that “the confidence gap starts early,” and that “between elementary and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys’.” By middle school, girls are measurably less interested in leading than boys – a trend that continues into adulthood.
The United Nations Foundation recently cited several reasons why empowering girls’ matters, among them:
• It’s their right;
• Empowered girls mean healthier families;
• Empowered girls are a key to breaking the cycle of poverty for families; and
• Empowered girls strengthen economies.
As health and wellness professionals, we are believers in the urgency of supporting healthy, high-achieving girls — particularly among low-income populations. Developing their leadership skills is a crucial step in giving them the knowledge, experience, and confidence they need to succeed.
This mutual commitment brought our two organizations – GENYOUth and The Dannon Institute — together this year to create the Dannon Institute Girls 4 Tomorrow initiative, powered by GENYOUth’s social entrepreneurship program, AdVenture Capital. AdVenture Capital is a “pitch and invest” opportunity designed to inspire and then fund youth-driven initiatives to improve nutrition, physical activity and student achievement.
An innovative approach
Piloted in Fort Worth, TX and New York City, Girls 4 Tomorrow events brought 50+ local girls from high-needs schools together in a five-hour comprehensive workshop, during which they learned how to design and implement a project to improve in-school health and wellness — before pitching project ideas to a panel of Dannon Institute Board members and Dannon executives, with the aim of winning funding.
Between the two markets, ninety-five girls, grades 6 through 12, designed projects. They received world-class professional mentoring from alumni of The Dannon Institute’s Nutrition Leadership Institute and from Dannon company employees, who offered guidance and support throughout the design process, and helped the girls create sustainable projects for their schools. At the conclusion of both events, 24 student projects were awarded a total of $30,000 in grants to turn the concepts into reality.
Ingenious ideas — encouraged, enabled and executed
The results of the program, in terms of (1) the projects conceived and developed, and (2) the overall success of the events in girls’ eyes, were extremely positive. Particularly gratifying were the originality of the concepts the girls brought to the table, which range from “Sport Swap,” an app that allows schools and individuals to trade sports equipment, to “Green is the New Gray,” an initiative to build green spaces on otherwise concrete school campuses.
The events significantly raised girls’ levels of confidence around such elements as designing a project, connecting with other students who want to make a difference, speaking about ideas in front of a group, working together with adults and/or mentors, and leading.
What did we learn through Girls 4 Tomorrow that will inform our work going forward?
• There is such a thing as “the girl effect.” Girls can be one of the most powerful forces for positive change on the planet if we invest in them. But girls also face unique challenges in education, which hold them back from achieving their full potential. Events like Girls 4 Tomorrow, focused on support and empowerment, have the ability to grow girls’ networks, influence, and impact.
• “Change from within” is how this generation is making life better. In an era of less than successful efforts at education reform from the top down, it’s possible to empower young women to “change the system from within” – by rewarding their bottom-up efforts with funding and other resources.
• A little support goes a long way. The role of things such as self-confidence, self-reliance, idea cultivation, patient mentoring, and learning to collaborate and compete are essential in fostering female leadership.
• Young minds are creative. Often, the best solutions to school-wellness challenges don’t come from above – they’re grassroots concepts born of young minds that create change from the bottom up. This is a reminder that girls and boys alike often have the most effective solutions to their own problems, if we’ll listen, empower, and reward them accordingly.
We all should play a role
As a society, we can and should be doing a better job to empower girls as leaders. We must better motivate and support girls to be self-reliant advocates for themselves, their peers, their schools, and communities – with particular attention to the challenges around leadership that girls from underserved populations face.
The Girls 4 Tomorrow initiative demonstrates that mentoring, especially, plays a role in empowering girls around self-confidence and other key elements of personal success. Entrepreneurship, collaboration, competition, and advocacy skills are all part of the equation that adds up not just to “workplace readiness,” but to fulfilling, meaningful careers, in jobs that contribute to personal, family, and social stability, and yes, happiness.
We urge our colleagues in the business and education communities to join us in supporting all efforts to uplift girls. Our world needs them. And they need you.