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This program is training girls to be leaders, and trying to bridge the racial divide in the process

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The next generation of female leaders are learning through their business ventures

Kristen St. Louis was 15 years old when she launched her first business.

The idea was born when she realized that her required school reading didn't have characters she could relate to.

"Being born and raised in the Bronx, I have never really been instructed to read about characters or storylines that looked like me, sounded like me, walked like me, walked through the world like me," said St. Louis, now 17 and a high-school senior.

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So she created a platform called Mirror Me Diversity, which connects readers with books that have diverse authors, characters and storylines. There are also guides on how to introduce diversity to school curriculum and reading lists, as well as links to buy the books from bookstores "owned by marginalized individuals," the website states.

"I thought that was really important, not only as a kid growing up learning how to read but as a teenager, to keep your interest in reading ... to continue your literacy skills throughout college and throughout your greater education and beyond," St. Louis said.

Girls With Impact CEO Jennifer Openshaw with Kristen St. Louis, who graduated from the program.
Girls With Impact

Her business acumen was honed when she attended the online entrepreneurship program Girls With Impact, where she created and launched Mirror Me Diversity. The platform is technically a "passion project" that St. Louis said she'll turn into an official nonprofit organization when she turns 18 in March.

When she first applied for the Girls With Impact, she knew nothing about business. She applied, got accepted and received a scholarship.

"I would meet with a group of maybe 12 of their girls from around the country," said St. Louis, who attends a Connecticut-based boarding school on scholarship.

I’m definitely more community oriented and more able to say that in the future, if I’m not influencing my community for the better, then I don’t think I’m staying true to myself.
Kristen St. Louis
Girls With Impact graduate

They learned about entrepreneurship, workshopped ideas and met with mentors. In the process, they also gained financial literacy.

St. Louis said she learned how to structure her business, create a budget, solicit donations and create a website.

Training tomorrow's leaders

The idea behind Girls With Impact is to teach young women, grades 7 through 12, how to "lead from the top," its founder and CEO Jennifer Openshaw said.

The nine-week live, online "mini-MBA" program costs $495 but the organization offers scholarships to those in need. There are also workshops that run about $15 to $20.

"There's a lot of statistics about confidence, even women in the workplace feeling that they're not leaders," Openshaw said.

Girls With Impact graduates
Girls With Impact

For instance, there is a 30% confidence drop in girls between the ages of 8 and 14, and 6 in 10 working women don't see themselves as leaders, according to Girls With Impact.

"We're about retraining them and giving them the skills, the knowledge and the competence to really be tomorrow's innovators and leaders," Openshaw added.

There are currently 37 women leading Fortune 500 companies, just over 7%, a record high. Meanwhile, only 2% of all venture funding currently goes to women in business, according to the organization.

Bridging the racial divide

Diversity is a big part of Girls With Impact. The organization brings together girls in 40 states from different economic and racial backgrounds.

"Girls are learning about each other's racial and ethnic and socioeconomic background … through their skin color, but also through their ventures," Openshaw said.

Many of the participants are also focused on driving social change. About 70% of the students have developed ventures with a social inclination, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBTQ community.

"It all starts with that first question they ask you," St. Louis said. "It's 'what's your passion? What do you want to change in the world?'

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Michelle Obama's tips on what it takes for Black girls to become leaders

"Right now, it's not too hard to think about what you'd like to change in the world," she added.

The experience has also helped shape St. Louis' future plans.

As she focuses on going to college next year, she knows she wants the option of choosing a public or social policy field of study.

"I'm definitely more community oriented and more able to say that in the future, if I'm not influencing my community for the better, then I don't think I'm staying true to myself," St. Louis said.

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