In high school I did not have the will to lead, and not because I was lazy. I was the hardest working, straight-A student you’d ever met. But I hated speaking up in class, so the toughest part was always earning my participation points. When I graduated ten years ago, it was no surprise I won the title of “Most Shy” in my yearbook.
When I went to college I decided it was time to change, so I dared myself to run for class secretary. I had to walk up to strangers to ask for votes and give a speech – basically, my high school nightmare. I gave it my all, and even though I lost the election, I found my voice.
After graduating, I began assisting the Director of Content for Hearst Magazines Digital Media. I was supposed to take notes on his meetings, but he often invited me to contribute ideas. I never held back and was quickly promoted to become the youngest web editor at the company.
In my free time, I developed an interest in advancing girls’ access to education in developing world countries. When I was 22, I created a YouTube video called, “She’s the First,” with a group of my peers. The message was simple: Using our social media networks, we can sponsor a girl’s education and change her life; our small contributions count.
Eighteen months later, the concept of the “She’s the First” video skyrocketed into a 501c3 organization of the same name, with passionate campus chapters across the U.S. I saw firsthand how the actions students took to fund girls’ education were improving their own lives too. Instead of helplessly leaning back when they learned only 33% of girls enroll in secondary school in developing countries, they were leaning in to be part of the solution.
As She’s the First grew in 2011, I worked as the Social Media Editor of Seventeen. It was a blockbuster year and I attracted industry attention for making Seventeen’s social presence among the fastest growing of all magazines. Meanwhile, She’s the First was rapidly expanding to campuses and our girl sponsorships were doubling.
By 2012 my volunteer job and my “real” job had both become so powerful, they couldn’t coexist in my life; I had to lean into one. I never doubted She’s the First needed me more.
More than 66 million girls are out of school in the world with little chance of turning their dreams into a reality. But, when you give a girl the chance to learn, she’s unstoppable. Ana Teresa, a 14-year-old we sponsor in Guatemala, trudged her way up a mountain with a broken leg so she could get to school. When tornadoes and regional conflict in South Sedan closed down her local school, 17-year-old Annah rounded up girls in her village and traveled to the nearest city to make sure each was temporarily enrolled in school there.
These girls have the courage I wish I did when I was 17. They are the reason I lean in to every opportunity and am not afraid to ask for anything.