Find the courage to play big — In the nonprofit world, small asks get small investments. If we want to get substantial investments, we need to make substantial asks. To make a substantial ask, we need a big vision, and the numbers and proof of concept to back it up. I think as girls we are too often taught to play small, so nobody can say, “Who does she think she is?” We get punished in girlhood for being too confident, or too ambitious. We need to find the courage to overcome that and play big anyway, otherwise nobody will invest big.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Simone Marean.
Simone Marean is the CEO and Co-Founder of Girls Leadership, a national educational nonprofit that equips girls with the skills to exercise the power of their voice. In Girls Leadership’s ten years as a nonprofit it has impacted over 200,000 girls and is on track to reach one million girls by 2023. She began her career teaching in New York at Brearley and the Young Women’s Leadership School and she taught at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa. Simone now presents the latest research and work on girls around the country; including at Google, Facebook, Morgan Stanley, PwC, UBS, as well as on the Today Show and KQED’s Forum. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College and later earned a master’s degree in Education from NYU. She now lives with her family in Berkeley, California.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Honestly, I didn’t identify as a leader early in my career. I was living in New York, performing, and I saw myself as an artist and an educator. When I observed a leadership workshop taught by our co-founder, Rachel Simmons, I was very uncomfortable with all the skills she addressed: Expressing emotions? I didn’t want those. Acknowledging mistakes? I didn’t make them. When it came time to learn about asking for what you need, I thought, “who would want to be a needy woman?’ I innately dismissed this content, but in my day-to-day, kept facing the regular challenges of life.
There was a time when it came down to me asking for the payment I deserved and had been promised for the work I did. It was not a graceful process. I was sweating, my face flushed, my heart raced, but to my surprise, it worked out! That was when I realized that the way I had been taught to work in the world, was not the way the world worked.
From that point on, I became focused on how gender expectations separate us from our voice, our leadership, and ultimately, our power. In the last five years, my focus has expanded to include understanding how racial, ethnic, and cultural factors influence gender expectations, and how bias and institutional racism support or interrupt girls’ leadership development.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
One of the toughest moments for our organization was the summer of 2018. We had been focused on addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion issues for several years, but weren’t making enough progress. As we were about to kick off the biggest program of the year, a two-month overnight summer program, I was asked to drive five hours to join the program in person because a significant portion of the staff were getting ready to quit. When I arrived at the program, the staff was upset about a number of ways that bias and systemic racism were showing up in our curriculum, training, schedule, management, and ultimately in our culture. One long-time staff member said to me that night, “You need to stop putting Band-aids on this problem when it needs open heart surgery.”
That is the work that we’ve been doing ever since. For two years we’ve been rebuilding our curriculum, our team, our board, our funding, and so on.
Many of our colleagues that summer advised me and the team to close that program — that what we were trying to achieve was too complex, and the risk was too great. We listened to one high school girl, who was impacted by our struggle, when she told us that we had to keep going, that if racial struggles led us to pause a program, then racism wins. We held her words close to our heart as we took on the systemic racism in our organization, and in our field. Our greatest challenge is becoming our greatest strength.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we first started, we were only a staff of two. I took on our accounting needs and created my own system, with my own logic for coding accounts. It worked great for us until our first audit. This is when I learned that there are accounting rules and laws that need to be followed in order for everything to check out. When a bookkeeper took over, there was a manageable mess to tidy up. I learned the relief of taking off one of the far too many hats that we wear in small companies, and the power of having the right people do the right job.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes Girls Leadership stand out is the leadership content at our core. The skills we teach the girls are everywhere; in our staff meetings, our weekly check-ins, our social media, our website, and even our events. We structure leadership skills on three levels: interpersonal skills, intrapersonal skills, and social change skills. Because these skills include emotional intelligence, personal responsibility for mistakes, and conflict as an opportunity for productive change, it’s really hard not to bring your full self to work, or hide behind the expectations of “professionalism.”
One of the skills we try to practice in our day-to-day interactions is how to directly ask for what you need. This can be tough for many of us, myself included, who were raised not to have needs, but instead to take care of the needs of others. When we teach this in our curriculum, we use the analogy of ordering food at a restaurant. You wouldn’t say, “I want food,” to your waiter. When you know what you want in a restaurant, you ask for just that, eggs over medium with buttered toast and hot sauce on the side.
We tell the girls that while our friends and family aren’t waiters, our best chance of getting our needs met is to ask for them as directly as possible. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say “How do you want those eggs?” at Girls Leadership when someone makes a vague request.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
A couple of weeks ago, we launched a groundbreaking new research report, Ready to Lead, sponsored in part by the Vodafone Americas Foundation, as well as Morgan Stanley and other companies. This research is aimed to fill the gap in data in the girl serving field, which historically centered around the experiences of white middle class and affluent girls. Over half of girls in the U.S. today are girls of color, and we needed to understand their leadership journey. Our results tell a powerful story for Black and Latinx girls, and there is more work to be done to understand the diverse experiences for girls who identify as Asian. We found Black and Latinx girls had the highest levels of leadership identity, skill set, and ambition for the future. We also found correlations between the responses from their parents and caregivers, and these strong leadership assets. For example, Black and Latinx parents were the most likely to identify as leaders themselves, they thought leadership was important, and Black and Latinx girls were the most likely to be able to identify leaders they admire who look like them. The challenge is the over 600 teachers we surveyed in this study didn’t see these assets. Teachers tended to assume that home culture, low income, and lack of role models were barriers to leadership for girls of color. Our focus is now on the teachers, and how we can support them to be aware of their own bias, and to interrupt it to support the leadership development of our most marginalized girls.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
No, we are far from satisfied with the status quo for women in STEM. The dial isn’t budging. I listened to a panel of women in STEM leadership last year, and they were all asked to reflect on the barriers around leadership in STEM. While listening to the panelists, I noticed there was not one mention of coding or technical skills. These women had technical skills that got them in the door, but the skills that held them back from leading were interpersonal skills, like being willing to fail, take risks, and not catastrophize criticism or struggle; or interpersonal skills, like speaking up for themselves and others, giving critical feedback to others, and navigating conflict as a normal part of work. We need to interrupt the loss of confidence and voice that starts for girls at the end of elementary school and explicitly teach concrete and measurable leadership skills starting in elementary school and continuing all through college and the workplace. The other part of this is to train those in power to be aware of their own inevitable gender and racial bias so they can interrupt it and support the intersectional needs of the team as they move through the leadership pipeline. Leaders are not born, they develop over time and with practice, just like the technical skills in STEM.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I recently asked a group of parents to share their thoughts on how a girl was supposed to look and act. The number one response? Likeable. I would love to see what the response would have been for boys. It’s really hard to be great at what you do, in STEM or any sector, when you’re trapped by likeability. You can’t ask for help, assert your opinion (especially if it is a minority opinion), give constructive feedback, or navigate everyday conflicts as part of the process. Doing your job and being likeable is an exhausting and futile parallel process. To address this we need to acknowledge this demand, talk about it, and practice skills to address it. To practice what Kim Scott calls “Radical Candor” is so freeing. I’ve learned to debate, have productive conflict, and be direct and clear in communication, but it’s been a journey. You shouldn’t have to be selected for a leadership track to learn this, it should be part of education, or at the very least, part of professional onboarding.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t wait to give feedback — Early on in my career, if something upset me, I would hold onto it to not rock the boat. My negative thoughts and feelings would snowball, so that by the time I finally spoke about it, the relationship was at a breaking point. Now I try to express what is bothering me as close as is appropriately possible to the moment that the event occurred.
- The solo entrepreneur hero isn’t always ideal — In design thinking there is a mantra that all of us are smarter than any of us. While that sounds exciting in theory, in practice, in the tech field, we worship individuals. The entrepreneur is a solo figure, and the hierarchy typically roles up to one person. At Girls Leadership, we thrive in debate. We want different perspectives and power dynamics that can get in the way of an authentic and vulnerable conversation. This is why we decided to use the Co-CEO model, to have shared power and value at the top, across differences.
- People like to join a winning team — I used to reach out for help in moments of need. While this approach occasionally worked, one time a colleague said, “Nobody is attracted to desperation. We want to join a winning team.” I’ve seen this ring true so many times. It doesn’t mean that I don’t reach out when we’re struggling, it means that I frame the need in terms of what is working, not the struggle.
- Invite critical feedback — I can be critical. I have high aspirations for everything we do, and want to give regular critical feedback. The key became asking for others to criticize me. When I can do this consistently, and always on the heels of a speech or event, it makes critical exchange part of our organizational culture.
- Find the courage to play big — In the nonprofit world, small asks get small investments. If we want to get substantial investments, we need to make substantial asks. To make a substantial ask, we need a big vision, and the numbers and proof of concept to back it up. I think as girls we are too often taught to play small, so nobody can say, “Who does she think she is?” We get punished in girlhood for being too confident, or too ambitious. We need to find the courage to overcome that and play big anyway, otherwise nobody will invest big.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Don’t try to lead alone. There is a myth, especially in white culture, that leadership is a solo activity, except for those that you delegate to. This myth becomes especially toxic if you try to parent and lead; it is always too much. It’s critical if you have a partner to keep explicitly negotiating that balance. It’s rarely equal in any given week, but it can be equal over time. If you are a new parent, don’t always pack the diaper bag. That isn’t the precedent you want to set. Then there are coaches. Every great leader I know has a coach teaching them how to do this. Then there are people who do the same role at other organizations, and friends, and family. We need to intentionally design and maintain our support systems.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
At a particularly challenging time in my career, I reached out to a trusted person for help and she recommended I connect with a career coach to set goals. When I first spoke with my future coach to tell her that I wanted to move forward with a plan, she told me that the woman who referred her had already paid for six sessions. This was about so much more than the money. This taught me that vulnerability mattered, that needing help was okay, and that the real pros had real support.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The better I am at leading Girls Leadership, the more families and classrooms are transformed. We are creating systems where the voice, leadership and power of all girls is recognized and cultivated through practice. Our approach is culturally responsive and healing centered to engage girls across differences of race, ethnicity, culture, income level, sexual orientation, ability, and other intersections of identity. We currently reach 150,000 girls per year and are on track to reach one million girls by 2023.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Everyday I work to address the inequality of gender and race in leadership and power in the U.S. Like many challenges, this is a problem that needs a top down and bottom up solution. While we put more women, especially women of color in leadership positions in every sector, I strongly believe we have an opportunity to address the leadership pipeline at the source, in childhood. Girls start to believe that men are smarter than women at age 5. We need to redesign schools to cultivate the voice and power of all our girls. Girls Leadership is making incredible progress on this front, but we are just getting started.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life.
The Audre Lorde quote really resonates for me and for the focus of my work over the last five years: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
In my adolescent years, I learned to see the impact of sexism and misogyny on my confidence, my sense of self worth, and slowly began to see the structures of patriarchy everywhere I looked. The problem with this perspective is that I didn’t learn to see my own power and privilege as a white woman. I didn’t see how systems that served me well, such as health and education, oppressed others. Over the past five years I’ve learned to see the interconnections of sexism and racism and now see how any work that doesn’t focus on the most marginalized, will, by design, continue to marginalize and oppress.
Very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I would love to have lunch with Meena Harris, Kamala Harris’ niece. I am so impressed with how she brings together women of all races, ages and backgrounds to build awareness and address policies that get at the heart of the systemic barriers for women, and especially women of color. In an age when sparking a national conversation about anything is so challenging, she successfully engaged the traditional media and social media to engage support for Christine Blasey Ford, Black Lives Matter, and recently to demand justice for Breanna Taylor. Our girls deserve a national movement centered on their needs, and Meena Harris is driving this agenda.