Back in 2011, the founders of Girls Gearing Up were attending the Women’s International Networking Conference in Rome. Seeing and hearing so many inspiring female role models openly talk about their journeys, wins, and failures, Courtney Adams, Tina Limbird and Chi Ugbor wondered: How would our lives have changed if we had been here ten or twenty years ago? The idea of Girls Gearing Up, an international leadership program for teenage girls, was born. In our interview, Courtney talks about how Girls Gearing Up helps girls grow confidence, gives them inspiration, and equips them with tools to become the next generation of leaders.
Courtney, why did you decide to found Girls Gearing Up?
Before founding Girls Gearing Up, all three of us co-founders worked in youth empowerment. Through our work and lives we recognized that girls receive narrow messages about who they can be and what they can do. In addition, we saw a serious lack of diverse role models for girls to look up to.
In 2011, after attending the WIN Conference in Rome, we realized a similar program was needed for girls. The Girls Gearing Up concept was born: bringing girls from around the world together to connect, learn new skills, and be inspired by female leaders.
What do Girls Gearing Up’s programs look like?
The core of Girls Gearing Up is our one-week leadership academy that we host every summer. Girls from India join girls from Germany, Ghana, England, France, Kuwait, and Syria. Girls growing up in a safe environment join girls that have just arrived in Berlin to seek refuge. It’s a diverse group whose life experiences have been vastly different until this point. Their shared aim to grow and learn unites them within a matter of hours.
Every day at the academy we meet power mentors - successful female athletes, artists, scientists, engineers, business founders, activists, etc. We adventure through Germany’s rising startups (i.e. Outfittery) or biggest employers (i.e. Deutsche Bahn). Through each activity we focus on equipping the girls with the tools they need to succeed - such as public speaking, project management, or building a website.
Why do you think Girls Gearing Up is important?
We know the numbers: women hold 15% of board seats and 20% of tech leadership positions globally. At the same time, we hear general managers (such as Alexander Schwarz from Airbnb) who aim to increase the female share of senior positions to 50% (currently at Airbnb it’s an above average 30%), but they have a hard time finding female applicants for more traditionally male-held positions, such as Supply Chain Manager.
Programs like Girls Gearing Up open up the world of possibilities for girls by showing them female engineers, entrepreneurs, programmers, business owners, or rocket scientists. As we say, “you have to see it to be it.”
"We help girls grow confidence, equip them with the growth mindset that’s so necessary in today’s world!"
At the same time, we help girls grow confidence, equip them with the growth mindset that’s so necessary in today’s world, and build a strong network of high-achievers. Through our WhatsApp group the girls stay in touch during the year, come to each other for advice, offer support, and celebrate each other’s successes.
What are some examples of how Girls Gearing Up has impacted participants’ lives?
One of our 2016 participants, 15-year old Batoul, had recently arrived in Berlin seeking refuge from Syria. Batoul always dreamed of making a difference and has already written three novels - one of which she lost on her journey to Germany. After attending a Girls Gearing Up Empowerment Workshop with Kimberly Marteau Emerson, member of the board of directors of Human Rights Watch, Batoul felt “anything is possible as a women”. This fall, Batoul launched her own YouTube channel. At our February Hackathon, she created the landing page of her website where girls will be able to share their stories. Currently, she is working on her fourth novel.
One of our 2016 participants, 15-year old Batoul, had recently arrived in Berlin seeking refuge from Syria. After attending a Girls Gearing Up Empowerment Workshop, Batoul felt “anything is possible as a women”!
Another of our participants, who joined us for the last three years, was rather shy when we first met. Besides being incredibly bright, inquisitive, funny and insightful, she had a really tough time speaking in front of a group. In her first year joining the Girls Gearing Up camp, she came with the goal to push herself outside of her comfort zone. Living up to it, she gave us a last-minute performance at our "Anything Goes" variety show - and sang us PI to the 67th decimal place. Since then, she confidently moderated a Girls Gearing Up interview with engineer Núria Tous from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in 2016, and this year she gave a TEDx talk about gay rights at her school.
Every girl who comes to GGU has her own unique challenges and goals. Each one of these girls is bringing a positive wave of change to the world around her, and we are truly in awe of their accomplishments.
What is your biggest wish for 2017?
We’re not sustainable yet. Originally we planned to take a pause in 2017 to rethink our business model and decide how to scale. When we started Girls Gearing Up, we were simply thinking of how to create a program we wish we could have attended in our teens. And we have achieved this goal - the feedback is remarkable. Our best testimonials are the girls. They’re driving change in their communities, landing internships at DB Mobility and Airbnb, leading confidently. Parents are calling to thank us for empowering their daughters.
But up until now, we’re running Girls Gearing Up beside our full-time jobs. The first couple of years we were operating a bit ‘undercover’ - not reaching out to sponsors, just focusing on the programme itself. Since we never want to turn away a highly qualified, motivated girl because she can’t pay for the academy, we paid the majority of scholarships ourselves.
"In order to make 2017 our first sustainable year, we need more people to get behind our mission of equipping, inspiring and empowering teenage girls to be our future female leaders."
After we saw the winds changing in global politics and the rise of intolerance, we decided the 2017 academy had to happen. Due to this strategic change, we got off to a late start with fundraising for the 2017 cycle. We are so thankful for the incredible lineup of 2017 power mentors, including Marion Lieser (CEO of Oxfam Germany), Andrea Rosen (CIO at CUBE), Claire Tixeire (Human Rights Lawyer at ECCHRBerlin), Ria Voorhaar (European Climate Foundation), Amrita Cheema (TV Anchor and Journalist, Deutsche Welle), Miriam auf dem Berge, Carla Pepe, and Juliane Thiele from Rolls-Royce Deutschland, and Daryna Kubar from Startupbootcamp, Anna Juliana Kletzmayr from Target Global, and Andrea Felder from Vandenberg Berlin) - not to mention the ongoing support from Airbnb and WATTx, where we learned prototyping this year.
Yet, in order to become sustainable and to continue in 2018 with our mission of equipping the next generation of female leaders, we need funding. Something that we learned this year from our power mentor Andrea Rosen is: "You have to ask for what you need, and then usually you’ll get it.“
In total, we need 150k by January 2018 to open up our Leadership Camp again in 2018 and ensure ongoing programming for the coming years. And as always, make it accessible for any girl - no matter her financial background - who has the heart, mind, and determination to become one of our world’s change makers.
Where can people find you and how can they support you?
Anyone who is interested in supporting our mission as power mentors, sponsors, or volunteers can reach out to me at email@example.com. To keep in touch, follow us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.