By Grace Austin

Bianca Bailey grew up poverty-stricken and homeless in Dallas, Texas. Through a family friend, her single father was introduced to Girls Inc. when Bailey was in the fourth grade. At Girls Inc., Bailey’s self-esteem grew and her love of science and math was nurtured. Bailey received a scholarship from the organization and currently is a senior at Howard University. She hopes to improve clean water systems in rural Africa and has already traveled to Kenya and Brazil, met First Lady Michelle Obama, and is in the midst of applying for a Fulbright Scholarship, no small feat for a young woman of 21. Although Bailey’s story is inspiring, it is just one of thousands who have benefited from Girls Inc.

Girls Inc. is a non-profit group comprised of many local organizations designed at helping the development of girls. What began as a response to the migration of young women to New England textile mills in the mid-nineteenth century has become one of the most successful non-profits in the United States.

Girls Inc. provides many programs for girls 6-18, including math and science education, pregnancy and drug abuse prevention, media and financial literacy, health, violence prevention, and access to recreational sports. Programs are constantly being updated as a way to better aid girls in changing times.

“We have accomplished women come into the classroom and teach part of our curriculum to the girls, and they get to know the girls and build relationships to them.” – Judy Vrendenburgh, President/CEO

“We have both the consistency and constancy as well as the orientation to change. With times changing, whether [through] changes in media, technology, employment opportunities or the economic environment, it means that we have to take our root values and make them constant. But the specifics of how we address the needs of the girls in that particular time need to change,” said President and CEO Judy Vredenburgh.

A major aspect of the organization that separates it from other girl-centric or minority-aiding programs is its focus on research. Research in recent years has extended to the use of social media, including Twitter and Facebook, as a ways to connect to girls and understand the issues that are facing them on a daily basis. The majority of research and evaluation, though, is conducted by the NRC, or National Resource Center, which also provides the foundation for Girls Inc. programs. For example, the “Economic Literacy” program challenges a traditional lack of female role models and stereotypes of female money management by providing tools to manage, save, and invest money.

Indeed, the previously-mentioned lack of role models is addressed in many programs, providing girls, especially girls of color, with role models in traditionally male-dominated fields, like finance and STEM.

Vredenburgh further explains the use of role models in the programs.

“We have accomplished women in particular fields come into the classroom and teach part of our curriculum to the girls, and they get to know the girls and build relationships to them. They open up doors of possibilities in the girls’ minds. They think ‘this woman looks like me; I could be in the lab or be an accountant, too.’ We think that having a long-term, sustained role with the professionals is important,” said Vredenburgh.

Serving Diverse Populations

Seventy percent of girls served by the organization belong to a minority. In an effort to further reach out to minority girls, the organization has designed a national program specifically targeting Hispanic and Latino girls and communities.

“There is a huge need for girls from this background to have the chance to think they can become educated and achieve economic independence, and yet we weren’t serving this population that much. We made it a priority, and it’s been a huge growth strategy for us. And now, today, 19% of girls we served last year were from Hispanic/Latino background,” related Vredenburgh.

Abigail Figueroa, a Latino entrepreneur who owns her own upholstery business, says without Girls Inc. her life would be tremendously different.

“I started in a program called “Eureka!” in seventh grade. From there on forward, “Eureka!” was a big blessing in disguise. I learned a lot that was essential for me to go onto university. I didn’t realize at the time, but when I started getting more involved in the program and the mentors and internships, that’s when I started to see big differences in my life. [I saw] the decisions I probably would have made if I wasn’t in Girls Inc.,” said Figueroa.

Since serving diverse young women is a major aspect of the organization, Girls Inc. has tried to mirror this through its staff and hiring opportunities. In an effort to understand its demographics, many Girls, Inc. employees are bilingual and keep themselves up-to-date and knowledgeable about issues in the communities they serve. Diverse board representation is another fundamental part of Girls Inc.’s makeup.

“As an African-American woman working in corporate America for the last 25 years, and growing up in a community where there weren’t a lot of role models engaged in corporate America, I believe it’s very important for me to give that to the young women that are engaged in Girls Inc. so that they don’t have the same sort of lacking in their lives and their experiences. If I can enable them to have the skills that I believe are necessary to be successful in a role like mine, that is a huge opportunity for them,” said Bridgette Heller, EVP and President of Consumer Care at Merck and a Girls Inc. Board Chair.

Donors, Partnerships, and Future Growth Strategies

Girls Inc. has felt a few challenges due to the poor economy, but has had unwavering support amongst its donors and partners, which include Dove, Eileen Fisher, and Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club.

“We have a great partnership with many companies. We also have a lot of individual donors that really believe in giving girls what they need to have a chance. Women as donors and companies that have an affinity for women are tremendous supporters of Girls Inc.,” said Vredenburgh.

Partnerships are essential to Girls Inc.’s mission, and expose girls to companies and ideas they may not have had the opportunity to explore without the help of the organization. One such partnership is with the ING Foundation; in 2009, the “Investment Challenge” was launched to teach high school girls about investing. Each girl is given $50,000 to invest over the course of three years, with two-thirds of gains given back to the girls towards their educations, and one-third to the local Girls Inc. organization.

Over the past few years, the organization has expanded and grown. New programs like the “Investment Challenge” and “Girls Inc. Mind + Body,” which focuses on health and well-being with an emphasis on stress management, body image, and nutrition, have partnered with organizations and are gradually expanding all over the country.

In the future, Girls Inc. hopes to mirror the experiences of Bailey and Figueroa, serving more girls in the future by offering them a path towards education and economic independence. The organization hopes to grow by 30% by 2015.
“With so many girls that could really benefit from Girls Inc, we really must grow. Our research-based programs and pro-girl way that’s built on caring relationships really makes a lasting difference,” said Vredenburgh. “We are determined to grow.”