The Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College has established itself as a destination for women seeking an edge in the workplace. And the center’s directors, who host clinics and training sessions for female executives, had long wanted to give teenage women an early introduction to the skills they teach. So, given their entrepreneurial spirit, it’s hardly surprising that they saw the pandemic as an opportunity to do just that.
Soon after high schools started shutting down, “We kept hearing from parents asking, ‘What are my kids going to do?’” recalls Ashley Lucas, program director at the center. Seemingly overnight, their daughters' jobs, internships, and summer camps had all been canceled. “We’d been toying with the idea of doing something in person. And we realized, we have to do something virtual for these young women.”
In a matter of weeks, Lucas and her co-director, Kacie Connors, created a virtual learning program they named the Women’s Leadership Academy, and recruited 26 female high school students from Massachusetts, Texas, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina to take part. The university partnered with the youth empowerment programs SquashBusters and Uplift to identify candidates for scholarships, and they soon realized that one of the silver linings of the pandemic was an ability to bridge an equity gap, bringing students of diverse backgrounds together. All told, 45 percent of the attendees were women of color.
The program was a scaled-down version of the center’s executive education training, with a curriculum that gave the young women the opportunity to learn Babson’s methodology for “entrepreneurial thought and action.” The month-long program consisted of classes that met twice a week over Zoom for several hours, and included guest speakers by executives, workshops, and breakout sessions for the students led by college undergraduates. Each young woman entered the program with a goal in mind — sharpen her public speaking or relationship-building skills, perhaps, or learn to be a better listener — and also outlined a project she hoped to accomplish.
The classes provided the young women a framework for networking, making plans and executing them, Lucas says, by asking them: “Who do you know? Who are you and what are your leadership strengths? What are you willing to risk? And what is the one very small action step you can take today to get one step closer to that goal?”
These tools help teach self-efficacy, Lucas says, which is a huge indicator of whether someone who sets goals will accomplish them.
For the students, the sessions taught skills that they’d never encountered in their classrooms.
Arriam Abunu, a high school senior in Arlington, Texas, says that though she’d been in a leadership club in school, she was initially intimidated by the prospect of a college course. “I thought it was going to be super-serious and really scary,” the 17-year-old says. But she decided to take it on, with a goal of restarting a math club at her high school that had fizzled at the end of the spring semester.
Janie Carroll, a 16-year-old junior at Needham High School, had planned to get a summer job on the Cape, where she was staying in a quarantine bubble with family and friends. When the job fell through, she signed up for the program as a resume-booster, not sure exactly what to expect. She did hope it might give her the organizational tools she’d need to set up a summer camp for the young kids in her bubble.
Both women said they quickly realized that the Zoom sessions were unlike anything they’d encountered. For one thing, they provided them with a chance to interact with young women from diverse backgrounds from across the country.
But the classes also helped the young women quickly home in on their inherent leadership qualities. One formative exercise, which Carroll dubbed “finding your superpower,” had each of the participants reach out to friends, family, and other important people in their lives with a question: Can you share a moment when I was at my best? “We were trying to figure out our strengths,” Carroll says.
It was a powerful — and surprising — experience. “We had family members and people we work with at school all send a story about the leadership quality they saw in us,” says Abunu, who learned that she was more adaptable and goal-focused than she had realized. She also learned that she was a nicer leader than she believed. “I thought I was upfront and rude to people, but they say I do it in a nice and understanding way. Some of the [notes] made me tear up, they were so sweet. I never thought about myself that way.”
After the exercise, each young woman took the lessons she learned from the notes and began thinking about how she could use those specific leadership strengths to work toward her goals. “It was not only for us to discover our unique qualities and to take pride in the things we discovered, it was a boost in confidence to reflect on the kind of energy you put into your relationships,” says Isla Chasin, a 16-year-old junior at Brookline High School whose goal was to enhance her public speaking skills.
The exercise helped Chasin identify that she was great at sharing her own vision for a project when she was in a group setting. And so she focused on being more thoughtful about encouraging her teammates to offer their opinions and “giving people a true space” to share how they feel when working together.
Chasin said the course gave her a newfound respect for the leaders she’d already encountered. “I am afforded leadership opportunities within my school and grade, and I run a volunteer music tutoring program that pairs high school with middle school musicians,” she says. She also has a stronger appreciation for the way the people running those programs had given her opportunities to use her strengths. “This course helped me see how what they did was successful and why it was successful,” she says.
Carroll, who was taking the Zoom classes from the Cape, used the sessions to help map out a plan for a summer camp for the young children in her bubble. (A win-win, she thought it would be an opportunity for her to work and a chance for the young kids to attend camp since theirs had been canceled.) “I got to plan out this whole camp and all the activities we would do, recruit my sister and friend for counselors,” she says. And while the camp didn’t really take off — in part because of the need for some families to take COVID tests and quarantine — the planning was in itself a reward, she says. It proved to her that she could design and execute an ambitious idea.
Abunu also left with the self-efficacy skills that Lucas, the program’s director, said was a key takeaway of the course. She’s already revived her school’s math club, but she’s also thinking bigger picture. She says the course taught her to think about, “what is needed in the world, in your community, and by the people around you, and to think, how can you cater to that?”
Abunu and her friends are now launching a nonprofit to help educate young women about their menstrual health. They’re calling it Fullstop, and are in the midst of launching a website, printing brochures, and developing other materials to help young women understand their changing bodies. They’re also creating care packages for young homeless women.
While Abunu was nervous about the course, she plans to use the skills in future leadership positions. “I plan to take them with me to college and further business ventures that I plan to pursue,” she says.
For Lucas, the program was a testing ground, one they hope to replicate again in the future, be it in person, over Zoom, or both. “We’ve seen that these types of affinity groups coming together and learning together can be really transformational,” she says. And she hopes that creating a place where the students could encounter and learn from female executives will only expedite the leadership pipeline.
“We want young women to look and say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it, too.’”