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Katie Kirsch

Co-Founder, Girls Driving for a Difference, Inc.

San Francisco, CA

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this – we never lean in alone.

It was blank except for a short and simple prompt stated at the top of the page:

“Write a letter of gratitude to the people who have been part of your journey – those who have lifted you up, supported your work, and enabled you to grow alongside it.”

When I was in my third year as an undergrad at Stanford University, I co-founded Girls Driving for a Difference (GDD) – an organization of Stanford women using design thinking to empower girls across America to become leaders of social change. We spent our first year developing a design thinking and leadership curriculum geared towards middle-school girls, and then the following summer, we road-tripped across the US in an RV for 14 weeks, coaching workshops for over 1200 girls from diverse communities across 30 states.

That summer, our team of four worked and lived together 24/7, waking up every morning with the adrenaline rush of being in a new city intertwined with the comfort of each other’s friendship, kindness, and support. We laughed, we fought, we danced, and we cried sometimes in the RV, out of happiness, fear, and awe of the dedication we shared for the work we were doing.

When we came back to California, however, we found ourselves on four inevitably divergent paths. Natalya would start her career in finance, Rachel in marketing, and Jenna in UI/UX design, and I, being the youngest on the team, would return to Stanford for my senior year.

GDD was over… or so we thought. A few months later, tasked with designing and completing a capstone project to graduate, I saw an opportunity to give GDD a new life, even if it meant continuing largely on my own.

Senior year oscillated from being totally draining to incredulously inspirational. Through phone calls, Slack, and remote brainstorming sessions over Google Hangout, my team advised the project as much as they could from the “real world.” Meanwhile, I struggled for the first time to motivate and hold myself accountable for the work that I was doing, sometimes feeling lost, confused, and purposeless. I knew that something was keeping my energy and dedication alive, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to write this letter of gratitude. I stared at the blank page for several moments until it hit me. Names slowly began to meet the page. I began writing faster, felt myself smile. All this time, I had been so focused on being segregated from my “core team,” that I had forgotten the forces that had been lifting me up every step of the way.

There were professors, mentors, and colleagues who had challenged me to ask the right questions, family and friends who had encouraged me to dream bigger, organizers of girls’ leadership non-profits who had integrated my methods into their own, conference hosts who had given my co-founder and me the confidence to share our story on-stage in New York City, and educators whose perspective and feedback had shaped my approach.

It doesn’t matter whether we are in a team of forty, four, or even just one – underneath the surface, our network of support stretches boundlessly beyond us, like a vocational extended family. It’s easy for us to get lost in the narrow lens of our day-to-day work, but we should never let that hide the beautiful faces of those who fuel our fight to create change. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this – we stand together, from afar and within, and because of that, we never lean in alone.