Although women comprise more than half the population in the United States, they only hold 18 percent of the seats in Congress, 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 23 percent of college presidencies. The only way we can close this leadership gap is by helping girls recognize at a young age that they have the potential to change the world. They must be told that they can navigate the tumultuous path to success before they fall victim to their own self-doubt. Thanks to the generous support of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and the Wharton Innovation Fund, I undertook one of the most fulfilling projects of my life as a young entrepreneur, passionate about empowering girls.
I studied leadership development in high school girls and women across different industries, ages and cultures. Sitting in her office on the 25th floor of Trump Tower, I had the opportunity to ask my role model, Ivanka M. Trump, W’04, how she would define leadership.
“Leadership is modeling behavior by setting the example,” she said.
I asked this question to more than 700 high school girls, 40 female executives and 30 educators from all 50 states, nine countries and four continents. My research confirmed my belief that every girl has the ability to be a leader. Not every girl will become class president or softball team captain, but that does not mean she cannot set an example for her peers by raising her hand first in a class of shy students or stopping a bully from teasing a classmate.
After talking with hundreds of girls, I was inspired to create the Leadership Camp for Girls 2013, a free development program for high school girls in Western New York. I believed that organizing a camp was the best way to observe how girls approach leadership situations and inspire them to challenge themselves. When I first began advertising for the camp in June, I was hoping to get 10 girls to attend our Monday night sessions in July. More than 30 girls registered.
The camp’s four fundamental principles were confidence, public speaking, social impact and innovation. Every week, I brought in a different expert to speak about one of these core values and conduct skill-building activities. The speakers ranged from Dr. Gloria Zemer, the founder of BlackDog Strategy & Brand, to Dr. Donna Fernandes, the president/CEO of the Buffalo Zoo. In addition to the classes, I designed an interactive website that allowed the girls to reflect on the speakers’ presentations and learn about current female leaders.
I learned more from running my own camp than I could have in any traditional internship this summer. Every Monday night, I could not wait to go to the camp and live my passion. It was incredible to see the progress the girls made; every week, they became more confident, ambitious and determined.
The most important lesson I learned this summer is that one person can truly make a difference in her community. It all starts with one goal, one camp and one girl. Currently, I am developing a female empowerment startup to expand upon the success of my camp and reach even more high school girls.
Katlyn Grasso is a Wharton junior from Buffalo, NY, concentrating in finance and strategic globalization. She is the managing practice leader at the Wharton Small Business Development Center and plans to pursue a career as a social entrepreneur.
Editor’s note: Katlyn is interested in talking with more alumnae about their leadership experiences. If you would like to share your story with her, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.