A year ago, I officially became a Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteer mentor to a sometimes shy but always sparkly 11-year-old girl named Makhia. We get together a couple of times a month and talk about her dreams, aspirations and apprehensions, explore new places and activities, and have a lot of fun. The experience has been incredibly rewarding for both of us.
According to a national report on promoting leadership in girls, it “is primarily a matter of fostering their self-confidence and providing supportive environments in which to acquire leadership experience.” While mentors have the opportunity to provide the one-on-one support and guidance to help kids become engaged young adults who play active, contributing roles in their communities, it is only part of what emerging leaders need. Girls also benefit greatly from formal leadership programs.
Many girls like Makhia express interest in more structured leadership training, but the reality is that safe environments where they can learn and practice new leadership skills are few and far between. Empower Leadership Academy for Girls was launched in 2014 to meet that critical need. A nonprofit founded by Pam Borton, senior executive coach and former leader of the Minnesota Gophers women’s basketball program, Empower’s mission is to inspire, develop and empower the next generation of leaders.
It came as no surprise that Makhia jumped at the opportunity to attend a two-day Empower academy for girls her age. “She was really excited about it,” Makhia’s mom said. And for a very specific reason: Makhia wanted to work on her self-confidence. Attendees of the academies have the opportunity to do just that, along with a variety of activities that encourage girls and help them to build leadership characteristics and skills.
I had the privilege of spending time with Makhia after the event, and we talked for nearly an hour about her experience. Here are three powerful leadership lessons she learned that weekend:
1. Courage comes in many forms.
Makhia can be shy, and like many girls her age she is more comfortable being around people she knows. As academy weekend approached, she had to psych herself up for meeting new people. “When I am going to be with kids I don’t know, I always tell myself I will just go up to them and start talking,” she explained. “But it’s much harder in real life.”
As Makhia reflected on her Empower experience, she realized there was a lot more to being courageous than starting conversations with new people. She recognized it took a lot of courage to make the decision to attend an event where she didn’t know anyone. And throughout the weekend she continued to show courage by being open to learning and trying new things, sharing her thoughts and ideas with the group, teaming up with other girls, and just getting out of her comfort zone in general.
2. Kindness is contagious.
An optional activity during the event included writing something kind about another girl on a sticky note to share with the group. Makhia admitted it required some effort because the girls were just getting to know one another. Some girls opted out, but she was eager to participate. “Sometimes we focus on things we don’t like about ourselves,” Makhia explained. “But when someone shows us what they like about us, it can change how we see ourselves.”
That weekend, Makhia observed that practicing simple acts of kindness brought out the best in everyone—the girls who received compliments and the girls who gave them. She also discovered how contagious kindness could be. As the girls began to share compliments on sticky notes, more girls were inspired to share, even those who originally opted out.
3. Girls can make the world a better place.
Makhia’s favorite part of the two-day academy was a guest speaker on the second day who talked about his personal contributions to the community, his volunteer work helping the homeless, and the potential impact that each person can have in their neighborhood, state or country.
When the speaker invited the girls to join him in making sandwiches that he would deliver to the homeless later, Makhia was all in. “I kept thinking about what it would be like not to eat anything all day,” she said. “I wanted to make as many sandwiches as I could, to feed as many people as possible.” She and the other girls learned a powerful lesson that day about the importance of social change, taking action, and their ability to have an impact and make the world a better place.
For more information about programs offered at Empower Leadership Academy for Girls, visit EmpowerGirlsAcademy.org.
About the author: A strategic storyteller and an inspired graphic designer, Chris Olsen has devoted her career to connecting individuals and organizations using the power of words, images and experiences.