Girls Leadership Institute

Girls Leadership Institute

Girls Leadership For All

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Last Update: August 20, 2014

Girls Leadership Institute is partnering with organizations, families, and schools to create a cultural shift. We teach leadership as a way of life available to all girls by helping our partners fully realize the power of play, emotional intelligence, and productive conflict negotiation.

Founded: 2009 Type: citizen sector

The Problem

Low-income girls of color are at the highest risk levels for violent victimization, school suspension, and school drop-out, leading to disproportionate economic challenges as adults. No demographic group is more under-represented in professional leadership as adults. Yet, when we propose teaching girls of color a leadership curriculum, we are often told that these skills are a luxury, not as essential as academics or “prevention programs.”

The Solution

We plan to follow-up on a successful pilot by partnering with community-based organizations in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. In these partnerships we will learn about the needs of the low-income girls and their families, their strengths and challenges. The partner organization will learn about girls’ development, as well as the power of girls’ relationships to serve as an extraordinary leadership classroom. We will collaborate with two partner organizations to innovate family-based, girl serving programs that respond to the culture and context of the community. By increasing the capacity of our partners to better meet the needs of girls in their programs, the impact of this partnership will last for decades.


Last year we worked with Breakthrough Collaborative to co-create a bi-lingual one-day Mother/Daughter workshop. We started with a focus group to listen to their needs. Our program brought mothers and daughters together on a Saturday to play, share emotions, communicate authentically as families, and build community, for the first time, amongst adults. It was an amazing day of physical and vocal play, as well as concrete learning, and authentic vulnerability. Mothers told us that just one day of programming changed how they communicate with their daughters, and daughters told us through their tears that they felt heard. By improving the communication skills within the family, the girls are now practicing skills that will serve them for life.


Evaluations show GL programs boldly impact how participants identify and navigate healthy and unhealthy relationships, our collaborative partnerships have unique outcomes. A mother told us “My relationship with my daughter completely opened up... We talk to each other now.” Another said, "The interesting part was the whole experience, from meeting people to connecting emotionally and just the magical step of getting in connection with our daughters like I didn't think would happen." In just one day we saw an increase in emotional intelligence in 80% of the participants, 89% of mothers left comfortable using role play, 100% felt comfortable having a difficult conversation, and 100% of girls showed an increase in communication skills. This suggests that an ongoing program could significantly improve the communication habits of these families, and therefor their health of their communities.

Full Impact Potential

We have two strategies to leverage impact from these programs: First, we are re-building our website to function as a girls’ leadership resource for girls and the communities that support them. Our site will have lesson plans, activities, and videos to distribute our effective programming. Everyone will have access to the learning from these partnerships. Secondly, over the three years that we work intensively with a partner organization, we will build their internal capacity to take ownership of the theory, tools, and programs, sustaining impact for decades beyond the actual partnership.

Budget: More than $1 million

Financial Sources

Individuals, Foundations, Businesses

Sustainability Plan

Program sustainability stems from the increased capacity of our organizational partners. Their educators will integrate increased understanding of girls’ social and emotional development into existing programs, and expand their current financial models to run girl-focused content. Yahoo! and PwC are ongoing program supporters. At GLI, eighty-five percent of our income is earned, so donated income is can be directly allocated to the program goal.


GLI is unique from other girl-serving organizations (Girl Scouts, Girls Inc) in five ways: 1) We place girls’ relationships at the heart of leadership development. It is in girls’ relationships that they learn to negotiate, compromise, self-advocate, and speak-up. 2) We put emotional intelligence at the foundation of all relationship education. 3) We engage girls’ main influencers, parents, teachers, coaches and caregivers to sustain our impact. 4) We hire experienced, trained, professional educators to facilitate our programs. 5) Our content will be online for open access.

Founding Story

In 2001 Rachel Simmons was hired to teach a traditional leadership program to girls. The girls responded to requests for strong eye contact and firm hand shakes with eye rolls. When she listened, she learned that underneath their lack of external leadership skills was an invisible internal discomfort with power and authority that stemmed from their deep investment in their relationships. Their fear of what other people might think kept them from being true to themselves. So we created a curriculum that would help girls build an ‘internal resume,’ an arsenal of inter-personal skills that any girl could use every day to build a foundation for a life of personal or professional leadership.

Team Explanation

Our team includes 11 full-time staff, 55 professional educators, and a national board of nine, including four professionals who live on the peninsula. Two years ago we hired a Director of Programs with 20 years of experience serving girls from low-income communities. This September she will be joined by our first Program Manager who was promoted after four years of teaching for GLI. All senior program staff have experience serving diverse youth.

Team Members


Building Vibrant Communities: Activating Empathy to Create Change

Supplemental Information

On which of the following California counties does your project focus its impact? (check all that apply):

San Mateo, Santa Clara.

How does your idea help cultivate empathy skills to strengthen communities and equip young people to become leaders of change?

Empathy is at the foundation of all Girls Leadership Institute (GLI) programming. A girls’ ability to know, accept, and communicate her emotions is essential to her agency. This is why we scaffold empathy into every program we run, from puppets and story books for young girls, to vulnerable conversations for high school girls. The most influential community that we transform each day is that of the family. When families are able to communicate with authentic primary emotions, they become healthier. We make families and schools places where girls can create change at every level, so that they will develop the skills and practices to create positive change in their broader community.



GLI needs help to build capacity in our community-based partner organizations.


We have successfully built the infrastructure and capacity to sustain significant earned revenue from our programs.

Tell us about your partnerships

Our partnerships include:
• A nine-year partnership with the Young Women’s Leadership Network in NYC, resulting in professional development for teachers at five public schools, three-week immersive experiences for 110 girls, and four spring-break Day Camps for middle schoolers.
• A two–year partnership with Breakthrough Collaborative Silicon Valley, to provide three spring-break Day Camps and two bilingual parent and daughter workshops.


Because our past revenue model depended on participant fees, we have struggled to reach low-income communities. Increasing philanthropic support and partnerships will allow us to customize our programs and increase our reach to meet the needs of girls and support-systems in low-income communities. Our current infrastructure and knowledge-base reflects our fee-for-service history, but is quickly evolving so that we can function as a more collaborative, inclusive and innovative organization.

Does your project use any of the following approaches to cultivate community members as empathetic and collaborative leaders?

creating a safe space, developing emotional competency, building leadership skills, group play, storytelling, immersion, collective problem-solving, identifying shared values and differences, instilling courage, enabling action.

Target Age Group(s)

6-12, 13-17.

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