by Anne Lasseigne Tiedt, APR an accredited public relations and strategic marketing leader who helps businesses solve their communications challenges and achieve measurable results within changing, complex environments.
In fall 2020 we invited Julia Cuba Lewis, Executive Director and CEO of Girls Empowerment Network and adjunct professor at The University of Texas at Austin to join us for our popular Leader Lunch series. We gathered online to meet Julia and hear how this 25-year-old organization teaches girls to be unstoppable and the ways Girls Empowerment Network continued to innovate, especially during the pandemic.
One of the attendees said that the session felt like our own personal TED Talk. In the post-event survey, another attendee shared, “(This was the) best program with the most connectivity since we started virtual programming. Well done!!”
Although there were many from which to choose, here are four key takeaways from our amazing, insightful conversation with Julia Cuba Lewis.
Find Your North Star
After introductions, Julia shared an amazing picture of the North Star with us. The North Star was shining brightly in the middle of the photo and we could see stars and star trails swirling all around it. The North Star stays relatively still while the Northern sky and the stars around it rotate. This was a long, long, long photography exposure that captured this moment.
Julia then shared her true life story about getting lost on a New Year’s Eve hike years ago. “I got lost in the Chinati Mountains which are just outside of Marfa, Texas. I went there for New Year’s Eve and I was in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and a friend and I were going for a hike at 4:45 in the afternoon. We had a dog with us and we set out into the mountains for about an hour-long hike before we were going to come back and make dinner. And 11 hours later, we made our way back. We had no water. We had no compass, we had no cell service. The mountains aren’t really big mountains, but they’re kind of foot mountains. And so if you want to see what direction you’re facing, you have to climb up one and then look around and then you have to walk back down into the valley to start moving the direction you want to go.”
She didn’t know about the North Star and the way it could’ve helped her that day. She then read a quote from Prasad Kaipa she first saw in Harvard Business Review.
Prasad Kaipa wrote, “Smart leaders make New Year resolutions and set quarterly milestones, charting progress against ambitious plans and goals. Wise leaders, however, take a different approach: they root themselves in a noble purpose, align it with a compelling vision, and then take action — not just for that year, but for the rest of their lives. That noble purpose becomes a North Star, giving direction when the path ahead is hazy, humility when arrogance announces false victory, and inspiration when the outlook seems bleak.”
Allow Your North Star To Always Lead You
The Girls Empowerment Network was focused on redefining its purpose, when it found its North Star. “I didn’t know that we had one, even when we were doing the work to find it. I didn’t realize that it was just sitting there waiting for us to uncover it,” said Julia.
Girls Empowerment Network takes programming into schools and the organization works with girls in grades 3-12. They also host the statewide We Are Girls conference in Austin, Dallas and Houston. “At the time, I would’ve told you that we did self-esteem programming and confidence programming and empowerment programming for girls. One day a woman stuck her head in my office, and asked if she could interrupt my day. I was feeling very frustrated and overwhelmed by not knowing how we could increase our number of school contracts and the investment made by each school in our services.”
This nice woman, former WCA Board Member Nickie Froiland said, “Tell me about the biggest challenges that you’re facing today.” And Julia thought, “Why would I stop everything that I’m doing and talk to this person that I’ve never met before? But I was feeling kind of raw and sort of frustrated and vulnerable.” So Julia told Nickie she was frustrated because her organization didn’t have quality school contracts that really showed the value—the financial value—of their services.
And Nickie said, “That is so weird because that is what I do for a living. I teach organizations and businesses how to grow the value of their contracts. Would you be interested in spending some time with me? I came here today to figure out how I can volunteer for you. And I think it’s funny that I noticed your name on your door, and I popped in to ask you this question and it turns out your need is exactly what I know how to do.”
Julia went on to share with us that she learned a long time ago that she’s actually really bad at asking for help. But someone was telling her they’ve got an offer. And she needed it. So she said YES, pulled together her senior team, and met with Nickie for about 15 hours, over a couple of months.
And throughout that period of time, Julia and her team ironed out their WHY, following the Simon Sinek Golden Circle process. Leading with their WHY turned out to be life changing. The work led them to understand the need to communicate that their programs center on self-efficacy: a girl’s belief in her ability to succeed.
Julia shared, “We’re able to define values for our organization. [Now] we’re much more aligned with the purpose of our organization and much more reflective and authentic about who we are as a group of people—what we believe in. Our regular daily language became our values, and that has been transformative. We know how to attract and repel who is a good fit for our organization, whether they’re a volunteer, an employee, a CEO, a board member, or a girl.”
“We’ve been able to define everything and we couldn’t have done it without our WHY or without our North Star,” she added. “Our branding followed, we were able to develop a new logo and new language for how we talk about ourselves. And then most importantly, I think we actually took our programs and we looked for how we teach self-efficacy in our programs.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Girls Empowerment Network cancelled its We Are Girls Houston conference and moved into survival mode. Julia believes that asking questions first often gives you the path that you need. “It’s a really big life lesson for me that I’ve applied in so many different circumstances.”
The organization really wanted to know what their community of families and girls felt like right then and what they needed. So they gathered 50 people, made sure some were bilingual, developed a survey, and began calling phone numbers. Those 50 people spent one week calling hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of families. And the organization got some great results.
- “We learned that our families were experiencing the things that you’ve heard about like lost jobs, food insecurity, problems with technology, maybe not even having access to technology or Wi-Fi, a lot of fear.”
- “And then when we got into more of the emotional side of things, they shared with us, the isolation and depression that they were experiencing and family problems that were surfacing because they were stuck together. And that sometimes was hurting people in their families.”
- We learned about how the families and parents were worried about their girls over the summer. What are they going to do over the summer? How do we keep them busy? How do we engage them and keep them safe?”
“They wanted programming that was accessible financially. They wanted it to be something that could be available at any given time. They wanted something that promoted creativity for their children, because the word they use over and over and over again was that their child was bored. Their girl was bored. And oftentimes what came after bored was sad or lonely. So boredom was something that they wanted to address through creativity,” Julia concluded.
Girls Empowerment Network put all these puzzle pieces together and created Spark Kits. Each mailed or delivered box is hand-decorated by volunteers and is filled with all the supplies for 25 activities that she can do by herself or with someone else. Girls can also log on to a session with other girls and girl experts three different times a day to a virtual program.
Local and national press fueled the sale of the first three Spark Kit editions, which all sold out. The organization just launched its Unstoppable Activist Spark Kit for tween and teen girls. This Spark Kit helps girls identify and live out their values to make the world a better place.
“I’ll say that we had an incredible discovery that happened for our program because of the pandemic, which was that we are now leading this virtual experience for girls and self-efficacy is what we’re teaching through our Spark Kit curriculum.”
Measuring Authentic Success
Girls Empowerment Network was able to pull out the thread of self-efficacy in all of their curriculum and elevate that thread to then create programs that they could actually evaluate.
“We turned our programs into something that had a rubric for self-efficacy that we could actually measure so that we could scale our services. And the next thing I knew, in less than a year, we were starting to increase the value of our school contracts in a massive way. And before I knew it, I was able to articulate the North Star for our organization, which is that we are the self-efficacy organization for girls in the nation. That is our North star, that’s it! So every decision that we make at any given time is always based on that North star, whether we are experiencing lost funding or an opportunity for funding that doesn’t necessarily fit our mission, or if we hit a pandemic and suddenly everything that we do is no longer possible. And we have to figure out a new way. Our North star helps us make the decisions that are necessary for us to stay on track.”
What is your North Star?
We closed our Leader Lunch with Julia challenging us to think about our own personal North Stars. “I knew I was going to ask you to do this, and I realize that I have one that’s very, very crystal clear. I have never said it out loud, the way that I’m gonna say it today, but I’ve always said it in my mind and in my heart. And that is that I hope that when I leave this earth that I’ve contributed to making it a better place for women and girls. That is my North Star — I want to know that it was my contributions that made a difference. So that’s what I live for every day. It’s what gets me out of bed.”
She shared that the way she wrote that North Star was to imagine herself as her oldest self, and she imagined thinking back over her career and asking what she is proudest of? She challenged each of us to invest in a six-minute journal to have a really nice brain flow and write the first five words of what we think belongs in our North star, just five words. They can be in any order. Then think about those words and why they are written on the page. Your North Star will emerge from there.
We finished our virtual gathering with Julia leading us through a virtual hug exercise. It was powerful. “Feel that? It is a special gift you can give yourself of resilience and, and self compassion and love. I want to thank you all for having me here today. This was wonderful.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
For more than 20 years, Anne Lasseigne Tiedt‘s award-winning strategic communications campaigns have gained both local and national attention. Anne is a Past President of Women Communicators of Austin (2007-2008). In 2020-2021 she is serving her 11th year on the WCA Board of Directors as the VP of Programs.