The following is a conversation between Judy Vredenburgh, President & CEO of Girls, Inc., and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in NYC.
Denver: When I hear the words “ inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold,” I know right away, we’re talking about Girls, Inc. And although a legacy institution, they have continuously changed and evolved to remain relevant to the girls of the current day. And we’re delighted to have with us the president and CEO of Girls, Inc., Judy Vredenburgh. Good evening, Judy, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Judy: Good evening.
Denver: Share with us, Judy, some of the history of Girls, Inc., an organization that was founded, My Goodness, when the Civil War was still going on!
Judy: Girls, Inc. is both an enduring part of American history and our culture, as well as being modern and cutting-edge. We’re proud of these two facets of who we are. We were founded in 1864, 154 years ago to serve girls and young women who were experiencing upheaval in the aftermath of the Civil War. Over time, we have adapted to meet the specific environmental challenges facing girls. I’m really proud of that– how we’ve been flexible. Of course, we stay true to our deeply held values and principles.
Denver: Where do you operate, Judy? And what is the relationship you have with your chapters?
Judy: We have 81 separate affiliates. They’re all separately governed, if you will. That makes us truly part of the community. We’re grassroots. We’re of and for the girls and their families in the neighborhoods in which they live.
Denver: How does this work for a girl? How do girls find you? How do you find girls? Who’s eligible for the program? And how long does it usually go on for?
Judy: We target girls who don’t have access to resources and opportunities. We deliberately, intentionally work in neighborhoods in partnerships with schools that are under-resourced. We target girls growing up in poverty. Through our 81 separate affiliates, we have centers and schools, and we’ve become really well-known in those communities. We don’t have a problem with the supply side, if you will–girls and their families coming to us, and we have capacity, opportunities to raise more funds in order to reach more girls. In general, we partner with schools. We serve girls in those schools, as well as bring girls from schools to our centers.
Unfortunately, we still have our culture that undermines too often… undermines girls’ potential. In fact, we believe that we systematically shut girls out of opportunities to grow, to achieve, to lead.
Denver: Judy, what’s it like to be a girl in America today? I realize that every girl in every circumstance is unique, but are there some common challenges and pressures that girls typically face?
Judy: Yes. Unfortunately, we still have our culture that undermines too often… undermines girls’ potential. In fact, we believe that we systematically shut girls out of opportunities to grow, to achieve, to lead. As Warren Buffett famously said when asked why he has done so well, he said, “I only had to compete against 50% of the population.” Unfortunately today, there is still a huge amount of bias, limitations, even objectification of girls that makes it possible for them not to achieve their full potential; especially this is true for girls living in poverty and girls of color. They experience even greater inequities. The consequences for them are magnified.
Denver: There are three elements that are critical for you to produce successful outcomes for these girls. And the first is people, specifically mentors. Tell us about those relationships.
Judy: Those relationships are central to the change that we try to create with and for the girls. We are deliberately hiring staff who we train who come from communities of the girls that we serve, but they have been able to move themselves out of poverty through education and development of life skills. So, those girls are phenomenally relatable to our girls. They look like them; they can understand and empathize from where they’re coming from, but they provide so much hope and the idea of possibilities… expand their minds about what could be because they themselves have undergraduate degrees, college degrees, often master’s degrees. So, they build these very reciprocal, long-lasting, high quality mentoring relationships. The mentors who are trained professionals are so excited to bring in volunteers who can also expand the girls’ ideas of what could be for them. So, we augment the mentoring relationships with the professional, and add volunteers who come out of different employment sectors, so that girls can see what could be for them.
The most important thing is the reciprocity of that relationship, that it’s two-way, that each party is benefiting from that relationship. Anybody who wants to be a successful mentor can’t come in with the idea that you’re going to impose your idea of the way that a younger person should be.
Denver: You know a thing or two about mentoring. You were the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and I read recently that I think the CEO of Lord and Taylor really has pointed to you as being her mentor and how much it meant to her career. What makes for a quality mentoring relationship?
Judy: The most important thing is the reciprocity of that relationship, that it’s two-way, that each party is benefiting from that relationship. Anybody who wants to be a successful mentor can’t come in with the idea that you’re going to impose your idea of the way that a younger person should be. You have to actually do a really good job of listening, valuing the whole person, helping her figure out her strengths, decide her own or his own goals, and then provide the kind of confidence and support and guidance that can enable that person to soar.
Denver: It sounds like you have to enter that with the belief that they have the answer inside themselves, and you are not going to be able to provide the answer for them.
Judy: That is perfectly said, Denver. In fact, we come from the point of view that every single human being has strengths inside of him or herself. Too often they get messages that are the opposite of that. So, we have to intentionally counter those messages and say, “Yes! You are worthy. You have strengths. You have to discover them and develop them and let them rip and go with your strengths.” Too often, we think of our weaknesses and work hard to try to fix ourselves. We can in incremental, tiny, marginal ways, but if we really understand our strengths and let them go, we can achieve our goals.
Denver: The second thing is you pay a lot of attention to and are very conscious of the environment. What kind of environment do you try to create for these girls?
Judy: We know that the individual mentoring relationships is key. But girls are growing up in environments that send oftentimes limiting, negative, objectifying, and even sexualizing messages. So, we have to counter that intentionally. We create messages of affirmation, of positivity, of high expectations for the girls, mutual respect, treating girls with dignity and believing that anything is possible that they set out to achieve.
Those messages on the walls in our centers, or in the classrooms where we come together as a community, we are always reinforcing those positive messages. That’s really, really important. It is about expectations that you have for yourselves that others communicate about you that makes you start to think, “Oh, I guess I can do something. I guess I am important. This person doesn’t have to say those things. They’re not my parents. There’s no obligation here. But in fact, they really truly believe in me and see.” That’s mirrored back in how the person feels about herself. It’s about changing your identity and building your confidence and your sense of self-efficacy, I guess I would say.
Denver: Who you can be, and who you are becoming. And these are all girls’ environments, right?
Judy: Yes, at Girls, Inc., we only create all-girls, pro-girls environments in order to deliberately edit out any messages that say you would define yourself strictly as the appeal you have to the opposite sex. In fact, we want girls to start to believe in their whole selves and, as I say, discover their strengths.
Denver: And they sound like very safe environments.
Judy: Physically safe for sure. Today, unfortunately we have to start with our physical safety. But for us, it’s also really important to create that psychological and emotional safe place for girls.
Denver: The final piece is research-based programming. What does that consist of?
Judy: We are well-known for the depth to which we go to understand how to create specific programming that is based on research so that we can help girls develop the skills and knowledge that they need to navigate the world. For example, if we’re doing economic and/or financial literacy programming –which we’re well-known for because we want to counter the stereotypes that girls can’t be good in managing their economic futures– we would build that curriculum and make it age-appropriate, and make it based on research data that helps us understand how to teach the content. The research is based on financial literacy content, but also girl development content. We spend a lot of time developing our curriculum and test it, learn also from the girls. It’s not just the research based on the academic world, but also listening hard to girls because: how do we create the change? The research has to be related to how we create the change. So, as I say, it’s based in the content of the subject matter, but also the content of how the girls can learn and absorb the subject.
Denver: Speaking of that change, you also measure and evaluate the outcomes of this program.
Judy: Yes, we do. At Girls, Inc., we know the experiences that create the change for girls is that combination of that mentoring relationships, the safe, pro-girl, high-aspirations environment, and our research-based programming.
Denver: The three-legged stool.
Judy: The three-legged stool. They all come together to create a strong, smart, and bold girl. We measure in these three domain areas how well our girls are doing in living healthy lives. It starts with our health– physical, and mental health. Then, how well are girls doing in academic achievement and academic attitudes? Lastly, the bold part of our mission, which is probably what we’re best known for, is the life skills instruction. We measure how resilient our girls are. How are they working in teams? How do they bounce back? How resilient are they in the face of adversity?
We do these surveys for girls. We see that Girls, Inc. girls are doing really, really well in terms of how they feel about their bodies. Are they happy with their bodies? How do they feel about the idea of going to college and completing college? And we are seeing that Girls, Inc. girls are doing really, really well in general, but we do see areas for improvement, and that’s the idea of measuring the outcomes. What are we doing well? Do we continue to do that? Reinforce that learning? What areas can we improve?
We’ve learned that there’s a drop off in physical activity, physical exercise, taking care of their bodies as girls are getting older. Girls, Inc. girls are not exercising as much as the CDC, and we all think is the norm. So, we’re working with our girls, with our chapters, our local affiliates to make sure middle school and high school girls are exercising more. The idea of measurement is to assure that we’re achieving the outcomes that we want to achieve, that we say we are going to achieve for and with our girls.
Denver: Girls, Inc. has a Girls’ Bill of Rights. What are some of them?
Judy: Girls, Inc. developed the Girls’ Bill of Rights early on. We started that in 1945 when the locals got together and created the network-wide organization, the national organization. One of the first things they did was to identify a Girls Bill of Rights. It’s really fundamental beliefs in girls. We have evolved our Bill of Rights over the years, but not too often. As we know, values are fundamental. We don’t change those, and I am proud to share with you the Girls, Inc. Girl’s Bill of Rights.
Girls have the right to express themselves with originality and enthusiasm. Girls have the right to take risks, strive freely, and to take pride in their success. Girls have the right to accept and appreciate their bodies. Girls have the right to have confidence in themselves and to be safe in the world. Girls have the right to prepare for interesting work and economic independence.
A Girls, Inc. girl has so much poise and confidence. She develops her voice…
Denver: One thing about Girls, Inc. girls is you know one when you see them. They certainly can speak up and assert themselves, can’t they?
Judy: Indeed. A Girls, Inc. girl has so much poise and confidence. She develops her voice. She lets you know what she thinks. She does that in a very respectful and considerate way. But it’s true, we are measuring the outcomes. But when you meet a Girls, Inc. girl, you know that’s a Girls, Inc. girl.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about body image. I think the stats show that about 78% of girls don’t have a good image of their own body, and a lot of that probably is caused by advertising. You have been a real advocate for truth-in-advertising, and this crystalized at least for me with this effort you had with the MTA and some of the ads they have on subways and on buses. Tell us a little bit of the story behind that.
Judy: We were asked to talk about that by people who are really proactive in helping to transform advertising to deliver positive messages that would reflect well on girls. So, we were really pleased to be engaged. This is media literacy. It’s a subject that we have deep and long knowledge about. So, we were really happy to come out and say that we have to work to assure that the messages in advertising value the full range of human bodies and human beauty, if you will.
We are thrilled to have a partnership with CVS Corporation, and they are moved to not doctor advertising, and that’s the same messages around the MTA advertising. In fact, we are really thrilled that an organization like the MTA and like CVS are saying, “We’re not going to airbrush, but in fact show real people in the range of the human beauty, and not have it defined in a very narrow, limiting way that is actually destructive for girls and women.
Denver: Speaking of CVS, tell us more about your corporate partners and the revenue model of Girls, Inc.
Judy: The revenue model of Girls, Inc.: let me first start with our corporate partners. We are just thrilled by the depth and longevity and range of corporate partners. One of our wonderful corporate partners is Benefit Cosmetics. They have come out with a campaign called Bold is Beautiful which is exactly in keeping with our philosophy that beauty is defined by each individual. Each individual is beautiful in her own or his own right. I think Benefit Cosmetics says, “We use cosmetics to make who you are enhanced.” So we love their campaign, Bold is Beautiful. Other organizations, causes besides Girls, Inc., benefit but we’re a very significant beneficiary of their campaign which is done in May. When you get an eyebrow waxing, 100% of the revenue goes to the Bold is Beautiful campaign. So look out for it next May. It will benefit Girls, Inc.
Another example, a very different example, is our long-term partnership with Lockheed Martin. Now, Lockheed Martin has a CEO that’s a woman, Marillyn Hewson– who is amazing– and just really oriented towards giving back and helping build the pipeline and bust the myths that girls cannot be rocket scientists. In fact, Girls, Inc. girls always go through operation smart programming, which is STEM programming (science, math, and applied relevant technology). Given our strength in STEM programming for girls, given Lockheed Martin volunteers helping girls break their own myths that you can’t wear a pretty necklace and be a rocket scientist… because you can if you want to.
We love our relationship with Lockheed Martin, which is that wonderful combination of time, talent, and treasure. They give it to us at the national level. They give it to us at the local level. We have board leaders. We have amazing financial resources and wonderful volunteer role models for girls. I could go on. We have many fantastic corporate partnerships, and corporate partnerships are a huge part of our revenue model both locally and nationally.
But the largest growth strategy has to do with individual donors. We call them “champions for girls.” We have champions for girls who give annual support to Girls, Inc. locally and nationally at a minimum of $1,000 a year, which many people can figure out how to do, and we have opportunities to do that through monthly credit card transactions. But we also have many five, six, and even seven-figure annual donors who are amazing champions for girls. So, we’re so appreciative of that as part of our growth strategy at Girls, Inc. We are very fortunate, we have also family foundations, large philanthropic foundations who invest in Girls, Inc. We have a board of directors at the national level, at local levels, who are extremely generous philanthropists. That combination of individuals, corporations, cause marketing partners, as well as classic corporate foundations, philanthropic foundations, and we do get a tiny amount of government money.
Denver: Sounds like the kind of mix you have to have! You’re very intentional and thoughtful, Judy, about the corporate culture of Girls, Inc. What are the things you do to make it a very special place to work?
Judy: Thank you for asking that question. I have a tremendous pride in how we work together at Girls, Inc. We have some values that we spell out. As a matter of fact, over here at our New York offices, we have them on the wall. One of them is collaboration. We feel very, very strongly that we want a collaborative, cross-functional, cross-hierarchical culture that regardless of your position, you can benefit from giving and receiving from your colleagues. I think that is a really essential part of our culture– that we walk the talk, believing that each individual has strengths, ways to contribute, and that’s how we think about girls. So we want to create places where people can bring their whole selves, their best selves to Girls, Inc. and do that in a sense of cooperation, but even more deeply than a cooperative spirit is truly collaborative spirit.
Denver: Collaborative for results.
Judy: I am personally a results-driven operator. I did that in my for-profit life, and I think I bring that to the nonprofit sector. I think that historically, it’s been a little bit ironic to me that organizations that are doing so much good don’t necessarily think about using scarce resources, especially talent, really well to drive results. Collaboration for results is the way we work at Girls, Inc. We’re really clear about our annual objectives. We’re really clear about how our annual objectives connect to our longer term objectives. We measure both qualitatively and quantitatively, and we are very transparent and accountable around what we’re achieving; but also it matters how you work together to achieve those results. I’ve become more appreciative of processes as I’ve gotten more experienced.
Denver: The best culture is really focused on the how, just not the what.
Let me ask you one more thing about culture. I’ve been to maybe over a hundred nonprofit organizations, talked to them about their culture, and the thing that people wrestle with more than anything else is diversity, equity, and inclusion. How does an organization get beyond the discussion of change and setting up committees and really begin to reinvent and reimagine itself to address this?
Judy: Diversity, inclusion, and equity is deep at Girls, Inc. Nearly 70% of the girls we serve identify themselves as girls of color. They come from low-income communities; about the same percent come from families that earn $30,000 or less. So, this is deep in the DNA of Girls, Inc. The appreciation of difference, the celebration of difference, whether it’s the range of gender identity…whatever the subject of difference is– that is a longtime value of Girls, Inc.
So, what is fortunate for me coming in almost nine years ago is that I inherited an organization that cared deeply about appreciating the strengths and celebrating the differences, if you will, among us, and how we can collaborate and be stronger together as a sisterhood of support… including men, of course. But how we all can work together to collaborate for results. I am on the board of BoardSource, and I am really proud that we have made a decision that diversity, inclusion and equity– both at Girls, Inc. and at BoardSource– is something we have to work on. Certainly as a society, we have a lot of work to do. At Girls, Inc., yes, we have it written into our values; we train on it, both at the managerial, supervisory level as well as within the organization. But I think in the end, it’s how you reward and acknowledge the behavior that you want to reinforce.
Culture does start at the top, and it matters how I behave in interacting with my colleagues and whether or not I’m going to be open to feedback about my own biases. We all have biases. So, figuring out how to continuously get feedback, become more aware of how we are being perceived unintentionally being perceived, by others within the organization is essential to continuously making a culture that is inclusive and equitable.
Denver: I’ve heard from so many CEOs that the most insignificant and small things that they do can truly reverberate through the organization– much larger than they ever imagined.
Let me close with this, Judy. You announced that you will be retiring this coming April, having been the president and CEO of Girls, Inc. for about nine years. What do you hope your legacy will have been?
Judy: I think that I have brought a performance orientation to Girls, Inc. that we as a culture now are measuring, evaluating, and continuously learning so that we can improve. And coupling that– the performance orientation with an external starting point, continuously understanding how we can be relevant to our girls, their families, to our donors, to our communities, to our partners, to our schools most importantly… means that we have to be starting outside in rather than inside out. I think those two changes in our culture, evolutions in our culture, keeping those strengths of believing in every girl’s potential, the strengths of diversity, inclusion and equity that I inherited; the strengths are powerful. What we’ve added I think is a real drive for measuring and for learning. We have always had strength actually in training and developing people, but using data to inform our decision making, to constantly improve is a legacy I know will continue because it’s now truly imbedded in the organization and the DNA… and also being externally oriented so we continually are relevant to the girls and the communities.
Denver: Those are great insights. The answers are always outside your walls, not inside of them. Judy Vredenburgh, the president and CEO of Girls, Inc., I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and how listeners can both support and become involved with your work.
Judy: Please go to girlsinc.org, and we have this exciting, new campaign– very, very important campaign. It’s called #GirlsToo: Respect Starts Young. In the context of the #MeToo movement and the huge issue facing girls and women of sexual harassment and even sexual abuse, sexual violence. Did you know that one in four girls before the age of 18 is sexually assaulted? In fact, 7 out of 10 girls don’t leave high school without having been sexually harassed. We have a huge, rampant epidemic that starts very, very young.
So we at Girls, Inc. have an obligation to be on the prevention side. We are starting a campaign that focuses on awareness first, and then what steps we can all take to improve the culture so that every person, every girl, every boy is treated with respect, is valued and dignified. Please go to our website and join the campaign.
Denver: An exciting and important note to close on. Thanks so much, Judy, for being here. It was a great pleasure to have you on the show. I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.