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Empowering girls: If You Can See It, You Can Be It — Katlyn Grasso

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life Stew spoke with Katlyn Grasso, a senior at Wharton pursuing a B.S. in Economics with concentrations in finance and strategic globalization. In addition to the many leadership roles Katlyn holds at Wharton, she is also a Community Leader for the United Nation’s Girl Up initiative and C-E-O and Founder of GenHERation, a female empowerment network for high school girls.  Katlyn and GenHERation have been featured in numerous national media outlets, including Forbes, The Huffington Post Live, and Seventeen Magazine where Katlyn was included on their list of “Real Girls Doing Amazing Things. She just won the University of Pennsylvania President’s Engagement Prize, and she’ll be using the funds to host conferences nationwide for 15,000 girls.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman:  Katlyn,  what is genHERation?

Katlyn GrassoKatlyn GrassoGreat question. Gen-HER-ation is a female empowerment network for high school girls.  We’re an online platform that connects girls with national corporations and nonprofits to launch advocacy campaigns on a monthly basis. For example, this month we are working with an international branding house, Brandberry; they are challenging the girls to create a socially conscious brand. The girls have the whole month to submit their ideas. At the end of the month we will put all the ideas into a poll and the girls vote on them.  The winner of this challenge will get to work on their product idea with Brandberry, the branding house for wild Disney and the Wiggles and they do really incredible work.

SF: What’s the Wiggles?

KG: You don’t know what the Wiggles are? I think they are an Australian singing group on the Disney channel.  They’re for the four to eight year old audience.  They’re big deal.  And we have also worked with other companies like ESPNW and The American Heart Association.   We have some other partnerships coming up with Roominate, which was just named by Time magazine Toy of the year for girls. Our website is also a comprehensive media outlet for girls.  Every day we have informative content including videos.  We do interviews in a question and an answer session on our website. We also give away scholarships for girls.

SF: What types of scholarships?

KG: We do scholarships for projects.  So, if a girl wants to launch her own advocacy campaign we can fund that.  But we also fund scholarships for colleges or camps girls want to pursue or online courses they may want to take.

SF: How did all this came to life?

KG: I have always been really passionate about empowering girls.  I drank the Kool-aid; I went to an all-girl school, was a girl scout and when I came to Wharton I thought someday I want to have a Katlyn Grasso Leadership Institute for girls which will be a high school.  Girls have to step up and become leaders if there are no boys that would be hogging the spotlight.  So when they need someone to lead the team or when they need someone to be the class president, then it has to be a girl. When I came to Penn I was sort of shocked that in my classes — and I take financial classes so they are pretty male-dominated — girls were afraid to raise their hands in class because raise their hands even if they don’t know the answers!

SF: I have never seen that happen. Just kidding!  So that’s still a thing, as you said, in your finance classes?

KG: Yeah. Girls they have to make sure they are 100%.

But I think even earlier in my career here, when I said I want to be an entrepreneur and I started googling who are female entrepreneurs and CEO’s, I found that there are very few.  I wanted to create role models, relatable models, for teenage girls 13 to 15 years old so that they could aspire to be like them. I always had the mantra that if you can see it, you can be it.  And it becomes harder when you are in those finance bio-tech, tech worlds so that you need someone out there encouraging you to get out there and get over those huddles that are in those fields.  That’s why I created genHERation.

SF: To provide role models and inspiration for girls to see and be able to say, “I see that, so that means I can be that.”

KG: Right.  I also think that the experiential learning platform is important. Every month, working with a different company, girls actually implement these projects. Last year when we did a campaign with the American Heart Association the winner went to a charter school in New Jersey.  The girl came up with an after school program for CPR training that was implemented in nine schools in the district and she put that together herself.

SF: Is that a high schooler?

KG: Yeah a 10th grader in Newark.

SF: Wow!

KG: We have had girls do financial leadership campaigns where they do financial lessons for girls in schools or communities and arrange advocacy campaigns where they learn so much about themselves.

SF: And about their capacity to lead.

KG: Yeah.  Because even with my experience as an entrepreneur, you really don’t know what you are capable of until you have set really high goals. Sometimes they seem impossible, and then when you achieve them and you say, “Wow! If I could do that I can do anything!”

SF: What was the goal for genHERation when you first started?

KG: I don’t know if I had a really clear cut goal.  I was listening to your earlier guest, Dr. Ned Haollowell, and he was talking about entrepreneurs having a race car mind. I definitely have a racecar mind. We are a year old; we launched our campaign on March 1st 2014 and we have reached 10,000 girls since then. I didn’t think we would be that big in our first year. I just said I want to provide quality content and experiences for these girls so that they feel motivated to go out and make changes in their communities. When we launched our pilot program I said I want to reach 250 girls.  Over the summer we held our first Summer Leadership Series and we visited five cities across the U.S. to hold workshops for high schools girls — and we had over 500 attendees.

At the end of the summer I said I want a 1000 members and then we started growing.  But the true impact that genHERation can have on a girl’s life is not quantifiable.  I go back to that girl in New Jersey who was in the charter school. One day she called me to talk about this project and she said, “Katlyn, thank you for taking a chance on me because no one ever has.”  When I get emails from girls and they thank me so much for helping them pursue their dream; that’s really what is all about for me.

SF: Who influenced you and helped you along the way?

KG: I think there are so many people. I have I great family, my mom, my dad and my sister I am going to be starting a campaign called Dad’s for Daughters soon. I think having strong male role models in your life is important.  When I came a Wharton I really just started talking to anyone and everyone who would listen to me about entrepreneurship and I have met a lot great professors here. I work at the Small Business Development center where I have met incredible entrepreneurs.  Just rounding yourself with positive, optimistic people; they are the ones who have really helped me achieve success.

SF: Let’s talk about Dad’s for Daughters; tell us more about that initiative, what is it about and where you would like it to go?

KG: It’s still in its very early stages but I am working on a really big project that I hope will take place around Father’s Day this year. Growing up I realized what a big role my dad played in my leadership development journey and I realized some dads are not taking this role in their daughters’ lives. I thought that if we really want to get dads who are in the highest positions of power — CEO’s of companies, athletes and professors — coming together and saying,  “We have daughters and we want to pay them as equals to their male counterparts. We want them to be promoted and we want them to work in the tech industry as well.”

We need to come together and raise public awareness about this. I had a conference in the fall here at the Penn Museum for about 200 girls. I put together ideas for my Dad’s for Daughters panel and my dad came down from Buffalo to speak.  It was a big deal.  We also had Michael Rinzler, a Wharton MBA and CEO of  Wicked Cool Toys who has a two-year old daughter. I met him because he is also on the board of a company called Women In Toys, an organization that I am a part of. I was like Michael?  Is it Michelle?  He was a guy.   And he said,  “I think it’s important for me as a man in this industry, and someone who has a wife and a daughter, to stick up for the rights of women and to encourage their advancements.”

SF: What are the keys for fathers?  There is are lot of fathers listening out there who might be thinking,  “I would like my daughter to grow up to be like Katlyn.” What do they need to do?

KG: I think it’s really about being optimistic. My dad always said, “What’s the worst thing that any one could say? No?”  I think that’s why he is a natural salesman. I grew up seeing that he would always do anything it took to close the deal; he would be persistent. That always stood out to me; you have to keep on knocking on doors, pounding on pavement, you have to go on. I think it’s really important to be there when your daughters are going to fall, or have a hard time, and when they are applying to college. You need to say, “You know what?  It’s going to get better from here.”

I also have a younger sister so it’s not like there was a boy in my family.  I always thought that I could do anything that a boy could do.  I never thought because I am a girl I might not be able to do this.

SF: Was there something that your father said or did or implied that made you feel that way?

KG: I think he was just always there for me when I started my first business, Tap for Tots, and I didn’t even know if that was going to work out.  I have tap danced for 18 years now and my first business was teaching kids how to tap dance. When I started I couldn’t drive yet and he drove me to all my appointments during the summer.  And I just said thanks dad for always believing in me. I think it was just for always being there.  It’s not anything I think that they can say or do in particular but it’s just being the number one fan in the audience.

SF: What has been the most challenging part of bringing genHERation to life?

KG: I think this is what the importance of dads for daughters. Being a female entrepreneur can sometimes be the biggest thing that gets in your way.

SF: How so?

KG: I was pitching for a competition here last year. I was the only female finalist out of 10 contestants. They were MBAs, not a junior, like me.  It was a practice pitch and there were two male judges there. One of the male judges just stopped me in the middle of what I was saying.  And I am like, “What did you say?”  And he said, “I just want to tell you right now that this is a good effort and everything, but you are a girl. I don’t know how far this is going to go.”  I am seeing your face right now, Stew, and that’s how I felt.

SF: My jaw is dropping.

KG: He said, “This is cute and everything, but I don’t know if it could be a full time venture.”

SF: I am so sorry to hear that.

KG: I left there and that was the day I started, right after I called my mum and said, “Can you believe that this even happened?”  And she said, “You know what, this is going to happen in the business world. People are going to try to bring you down. You have to keep going on.”  And when talked to my dad he said, “They are never going to understand unless they have daughters of their own.”  Hence the idea for Dads for Daughters was born. I think being a female entrepreneur, especially being a young female entrepreneur, sometimes people don’t take you seriously.  You always have to go in even more prepared, showing why you are just as worth it.

SF: D you see that happening in your generation in the same way it has in prior generations?  Or do you think the dynamics of men and women in the work place have changed so that it’s easier for men and women to play different roles than they might have played traditionally?  There are now more women in positions of power and authority in the public professional world and men having a more active role at home. Do you see change happening?

KG: I think that there is no saying that I can’t work in this bank because I am a woman. I think I have the same skills as my male counterparts but I think in the entrepreneurial world — I am in the venture initiation program here, the incubator program for student startups at Penn — and there are about 30 ventures in it between the Philly campus and the San Francisco campus.  I can name three women in that. Women aren’t prominent in entrepreneurship yet.  I am not saying it’s a bit of an old boys club.  I think it’s because women are less likely, they see it as a risk to be in entrepreneurship. Other than that time [in the contest] I have actually never been discouraged by people saying girls cannot be entrepreneurs.  But there are just so few of them that when I tell my friends you should be an entrepreneur they are like,  “I can’t do that; that’s too risky and I don’t have the skill for that.”

I say, “Why not?”  When I ask them that they don’t even have an answer. I think they just think that’s a career that’s sort of off limits for them.

SF: What do you think is causing that sense of inhibition where these young women are hesitant to take the initiative?

KG: I think entrepreneurship is seen as something that is unstable; one day you may have a job and one day you might not have a job. I always thought that there is a greater likelihood if I worked for bigger corporation that one day they just say we went bankrupt I could get fired just because I am the young analyst on the totem pole. If it’s my company, sure maybe we don’t have a big capital like the investment bank, but I have control over my finances, how much money I want to make, in my day to day life. I feel more in control of my life in that way.  But other people don’t really see it in that way.

SF: What do you see as you look as the next five or ten years how do you see the world unfolding in terms of opportunities for men and women and how men and women are going to be working together both at work and at home?

KG: I think Sheryl Sandberg is the exemplary female icon of this generation saying we need equal agendas at the table. I think we are going to move to parity.  But I think the big change will come in politics.  I think that there would need to be a female president because when you look around the world the United States is 75th on the list on women empowerment.  There are more women in government in Rwanda, Pakistan and Iraq.

I think wow, we don’t have enough women in legislative positions who are working on daycare at work for women, paternity or maternity leave. The legislators aren’t even considering these issues just because they are not women.

SF: Unless men take a greater role for domestic responsibility and child rearing as they are starting to.

KG: Right and I think they are starting to but not the majority.

I think having the example, not even a female president, but more female governors and more women in Congress.  I think that will be a big shift. I also think there is a lot to be done about how women are portrayed in the media. I did a social impact research experience — a program that we do here at Wharton where they give students grants to study over the summer. Last summer I studied how girls’ consumption of media influences leadership development.  I was fascinated to see how the websites and the television shows that girls consume affects their daily lives. I interviewed about 500 people and 92% of them said that they don’t think that the media they consume portrays women in an equal light.

We see this but we don’t take action.  There has been an emergence of shows that are putting women in positions of political power to show that women can achieve. This goes back to my concept of if you can see it, you can be it, and that means female journalists. When you look at female journalists delivering hard hitting news about middle eastern conflicts — its usually not women, its usually men. Men sort of get seen as the trusted sources on important issues and bring more people in because it’s just a subconscious bias, you don’t even think about that.

SF: If you think about the rest of life — and let’s just look at family life — we have been talking about community and changing the cultural values and the iconography of who has the voice of authority and who has institutional power. At home how do you see the roles of men and women evolving in your generation?

KG: I think they will be equal because I think men and women both want to have families and I don’t think women now are content to stay at home. Women are earning more advanced degrees and at higher rate than their male counterparts.  That’s a lot of time and money invested.  So obviously they want to put that to work. I think what we are going to see is that not only are people going to want to have an active role in the household but companies are going to need to adjust in order for there to be more life and work balance.

SF: What do you think is the most important thing for young women to be thinking about in terms of breaking what remains a glass ceiling in large companies especially of reaching positions of authority and power?

KG: I just think that they need to be persistent and not let anyone or anything upset their perception of themselves as leaders.  They can’t worry about what their male bosses or their female bosses might say. They just have to go on with their goals and say I am going to achieve this and make sure that they are surrounding themselves with the right mentors and sponsors to elevate themselves up to those leadership positions.

SF: What’s the best way to get started in developing a network of support?  I am sure that is something you must address on genHERation?

KG: Yes. My best advice is talk to everyone and anyone. I think you can learn as much from a taxi driver as you can learn from a CEO of a company. You never know what you can learn from someone or how that can influence how you think about something.

SF: You’re graduating from Wharton.  What happens next?

KG: We will be working on growing genHERation fulltime in the beginning of May.  We are going to have a big announcement about a summer program. Then I will just continue and growing the company.

To find out more about Katly Grasso and GenHeration visit their web site www.genheration.com and follow on Twitter @KatlynGrasso and @GenHeration

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

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