Blazing a Trail Toward Girls’ Empowerment

This summer, four Stanford students are packing their custom-kitted RV, hitting the road and plugging a new kind of destination into their GPS: girl power.

Equipped with a blazing passion for learning and an unstoppable drive to help cultivate the women leaders of tomorrow, Girls Driving For A Difference (GDD) co-founders Katie Kirsch and Jenna Leonardo, with friends Rachel H. Chung and Natalya Thakur, are stopping off in 40 socially and economically diverse communities across the United States to introduce middle school girls to design thinking, a creativity-based problem-solving approach that encourages risk-taking, experimentation and celebrating failure in order to achieve success through learning, in the hopes of igniting a broader social impact in communities nationwide.

The wheels started turning last October when Kirsch and Leonardo, both engineering and design students, attended a workshop at their university’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or, a groundbreaking program that advocates and applies design thinking as a strategy for tackling real world challenges and making those techniques accessible across academic disciplines. Inspired by “educational-build mobile” pioneers (and fellow Stanford creatives) SparkTruck, Kirsch and Leonardo crafted a traveling 2-hour workshop of collaborative, hands-on activities for groups of 30 during which participants “identify their strengths, discover their leadership style and abilities and craft their very own mission statement for creating social change in their community”—all using design thinking. But with a girl-positive twist.

“We took the design thinking methodology that we learned in the Stanford and flipped it around,” says Kirsch. “So instead of presenting it as a tool for creative problem-solving, we’re using it to catalyze moments of self-discovery for girls. Instead of asking them, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ we’re asking them, ‘What kind of change do you want to create in the world, and how can you begin to achieve that dream today?’

Given the hostility women face whenever they open their mouths, emboldening young women to speak their minds is a no-brainer. Studies show girls begin to internalize social messages surrounding women and silence starting as young as 9 years old, a phenomenon known as “losing voice,” resulting in a drastic decrease in self-esteem and participation in classroom discussions. This, according to Kirsch, “makes middle school a critical time period in girls’ development, encompassing some of their most transformative years for self-image and belief in their abilities to succeed and lead change.” Kirsch, who attended both all-girls middle and high schools, knows firsthand the benefits of a learning environment in which girls are actively encouraged to contribute. “For me, growing up in an academic environment that so strongly advocated for girls’ empowerment inspired me at an early age to step outside of my comfort zone and into more leadership positions both inside and outside of the classroom.”

Today, Girls Driving for a Difference is proof positive of what women and girls can accomplish when given an open road to test drive ideas. “Research consistently shows that systems, organizations, companies, and projects benefit immensely from female leadership, yet the gender gap still prevails in wage, employment, and authority in the workplace,” says Kirsch. “We believe that every girl has the potential to become a leader and change the world—she just needs the right tools and inspiration.”

Photos courtesy of Girls Driving for a Difference on Facebook.


Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and works at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She is also creator and host of Feminist Crush, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists. Follow her on Twitter!