Before she attended a summer leadership event sponsored by Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., Allie, a sixteen-year-old from Pasadena, California, says she had heard both of these words: social and entrepreneur. "But," she adds, "I had never put them together before." Now, after taking part in the Girl Scouts Challenge and Change program, she feels inspired to become a social entrepreneur herself.
So, what inspires some girls to become leaders, and what keeps others on the sidelines? Challenge and Change teaches teen girls how to identify and solve community problems with lasting, innovative solutions. At a time when women leaders and glass ceilings are topics of national debate, this program encourages girls such as Allie to think hard about what it means to be in charge and what makes good leaders effective.
They also learn to think like social entrepreneurs -- visionaries who borrow strategies from the business world to tackle poverty, illiteracy, or environmental woes. Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of microlending, is a prime example. So is Juliette Gordon Low, the tireless champion who started the Girl Scouts movement nearly a century ago. "Their stories taught me that one person really can make a difference," Allie says. Before the five-day program was over, she was already moving ahead with her own project idea.
"These girls are incredibly capable and hopeful," says Amy Pearl, an instructor at the summer leadership retreat, which attracted thirty girls from across the country. "They were able to apply what they learned immediately and move forward to address their concerns."
There's no doubt that Challenge and Change is a demanding program. It requires girls to push their thinking and to tackle concepts that would be new to many adults. (How many strategies for sustainability can you name offhand? Do you know where to find the untapped assets in your community?) And though the retreat took place during summer vacation at a gorgeous conference facility in New York, Pearl notes, "the girls never asked for time off. To them, this was fun. That was exciting to see."
As they were busily figuring out how to save the world -- or at least improve something in their own communities -- many in this self-selected group wondered why more of their peers aren't stepping up to take on similar challenges. "A big theme among the girls was their frustration over the apathy they see in their peers," Pearl states. "They sense that there's potential being lost."
Pearl is also executive director of Springboard Innovation, a nonprofit organization that teaches "ordinary folks" how to become extraordinary leaders of change. Springboard developed Challenge and Change for Girl Scouts, and the program has reached girls in twenty-five states over the past three years. I had the privilege of helping write the curriculum through my involvement with Springboard, and I have met some exceptional young women leaders who are coming through the Challenge and Change pipeline. As simple as it sounds, many of them rise to the challenge once a supportive adult, such as Pearl, tells them, "You can do this." Once they hear and believe that message, the sky's the limit.
Talking with girls such as Allie, you can't help but be inspired by their energy, ideas, and optimism. Allie has now teamed up with Jenny, a fellow Californian, to produce a series of public-service videos. Calling their idea Youth Voice TV (YVTV), they plan to air their videos on YouTube to raise youth awareness about serious global issues. "Awareness is the first step toward doing anything," Allie points out. Although smaller in scale than the We Campaign, created by Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection, the girls' project shares a similar strategy: Combine video technology with viral marketing to make a difference in the world.
YVTV makes the most of both girls' talents and interests. Allie is a video-production hotshot who interns at a local television station. She got interested in video a couple years back through another Girl Scouts program. "All the other girls wanted to be in front of the camera. I wound up producing, directing, casting, and filming. I love it all!" Her partner, Jenny, has a similar passion for politics. As a high school student, she has lobbied for state legislation to incorporate Africa and Latin America into the modern world-history curriculum in California. "With my skills and Jenny's connections," says Allie, "we can be real advocates for those who are less fortunate."
World-changing passion isn't something you hear every day, especially not from teen girls, Allie admits. That's another benefit of programs such as Challenge and Change. "It was comforting, in a way, to meet other girls who share a similar mind-set. A lot of girls at my school want to talk about what they're doing on the weekend or what kind of car they want to drive," she says. "This gave me a chance to meet other girls who want to make the world a better place."
I can't wait to see what they do next.
Do you teach leadership at your school? Do girls pursue opportunities to lead as often as boys do? What have you noticed? Please share your insights.