By Stacey Gualandi/January 9, 2013
As a college student, I studied journalism and took every opportunity to learn all I could about broadcasting. During one summer, I interned for a local television station; I always remember this particular internship, but not for the reason you may think. My female boss took me aside one afternoon and said that I was just “too eager.”
Well, that constructive criticism hurt…but was it constructive? (What part of free labor didn’t she understand?) I always look back and wonder why this woman, who was in such an influential position, didn’t take me under her wing, mentor me or teach me the tools I needed…from one gal to another?
That was almost 30 years ago! If only I could have had a female role model, or some “thing” that could have helped me along the way. Cut to 2012…I learned there is such a “thing” with plenty of women who want to help.
My friend Kristi Blicharski invited me to attend “Stepping Up in the City,” the 15th anniversary party for Step Up Women’s Network, an event that took place simultaneously in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. I joined hundreds of women in downtown LA at the popular nightclub Exchange LA, and once I stepped in, I wanted to step up!
Back in 1998, talent agent Kaye Popofsky Kramer invited two dozen friends into her living room following her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis, to find a way for women to take a proactive role in their community. The idea was for them to lend each other support, to help advance one another and to give back. Now, the non-profit Step Up she founded is 50,000 strong, and successfully bridging the gap between professional women and underserved girls.
“It’s really an amazing accomplishment for the women who have been a part of this organization from the beginning,” says Jenni Luke, who was front-and-center at the LA party. Jenni began as a volunteer; now she is the organization’s CEO.
“Step Up was all volunteer. There was no full-time staff involved until 2006. It was all grassroots, just women who were motivated by the mission: to connect you to the professional women you need and the young girls who need you through mentorship, networking and career advancement,” she says.
That initial intent of Step Up is still very much intact. “Ultimately,” according to Jenni, “it was about women leveraging their resources to solve problems on behalf of the community. Now, it’s an incredible network of professional women from all different industries, senior and junior level executives, coming together to solve the high school dropout crisis, especially in underserved communities in LA, New York and Chicago.”
The appeal of the organization has also attracted a network of famous faces as well who are excited to lend their time and name…celebrities like Jessica Alba, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kelly Preston, Aimee Garcia and Julie Bowen of “Modern Family”.
Step Up’s Teen Empowerment program began in 2006, and so far 100 percent of the high school seniors involved have all graduated confident, college-bound and career-ready.
“It’s really not only about the hundreds of girls who have been through our program, it’s also about them being role models for their siblings and their communities,” Jenni says.
At the anniversary event I attended, there were so many amazingly friendly women to meet, chat with and learn from. Not only did I network with ladies from all lines of work and bump into a friend who I didn’t even know was a long-time member, I even got to meet some of the teens currently in the program.
Beverly, 14, is a high school freshman who joined Step Up a few months ago. She says she has great expectations working with them. “I’m hoping it will help me get an internship because I would like to study the culinary arts. I love to cook…it’s really helped me mentally. One successful woman told me never to give up. I’m really grateful for this opportunity.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by 10th grader Christine. She is working on improving her grades in school with Step Up’s help. “It shows me how to follow and pursue my goals, get into the college of my choice, help others and be that person I want to be.”
My friend Kristi is a public relations/marketing genius and recently started Creating Your Bliss, her motivational and wellness site. She joined the Step Up network over 10 years ago and is now a “luminary circle” member, which means her yearly donation helps one young girl go through the program.
Kristi says, “I’ve heard a number of girls speak about their lives and personal experience. Many had a rough time growing up; they come from gang neighborhoods; and they are struggling with their direction in life. Many say they are the first girls in their family to go to college, thanks to Step Up. Their faces light up with how proud they are and how proud their family must be.”
And Kristi says there is nothing better than the networking events. She has received great business advice, several referrals, and has been able to use her own marketing expertise to help others.
“It’s not just about what you get out of it, but what you can give back. And Step Up gives so many opportunities to give back that even somebody with a busy schedule can find time to participate,” she adds.
I have to thank Kristi because what really touched me about the Step Up experience is how the young girls I met were gaining much-needed confidence, and that the “older” members in different stages of their careers were also getting inspired from all the female support. I could have used that back in college…but it’s never too late!! And it’s fun to think my years of experience could actually make a difference in someone else’s life.
As we celebrated the last 15 years, Step Up has several plans for the next 15. Jenni says they are already working with a thousand young girls in after school programs and are hoping to strategically expand to other cities across the country. What motivates her–and so many others who have stepped up–is simple.
“These girls get the opportunity to meet with hundreds of women. And that’s what we hear from our girls is that they are shocked that there are so many women in the world who care about them.”