Founded in 2014, LiveGirl, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that aims to empower and equip the next generation of female leaders by building self-esteem, social emotional intelligence and by fostering diversity. LiveGirl provides year-round leadership development and mentoring for girls in grades 5 – 12. In 2018, LiveGirl enrolled over 1,200 young women in its free of charge programs in Bridgeport, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Ridgefield, Stamford, Waterbury, Westport, and Wilton.

The organization is also in process of expanding its middle school program statewide and launching new partnerships to provide leadership development and career readiness, with the aim of closing the female leadership gap in Fairfield County.

Sheri West is the Founder, CEO & Chairperson of LiveGirl. We did an interview to find out more about the program and how it’s become so instrumental in shaping the lives of young girls in our area.

Tell us how you got the idea to start LiveGirl in 2014.
My background is in corporate finance and leadership development. I spent 17 years as a finance executive at a global multinational where I was actively involved in their Women’s Network and learned the importance of role models and mentoring. Five years ago, I created LiveGirl to “pay it forward” to the next generation of female leaders and advance gender equality. Women are underrepresented in leadership positions – in government, in business, in the tech sector, in positions of power. We are part of the movement working to close the female leadership gap by teaching girls at a young age how to be leaders.

Why did you feel there was a need for an organization like this at that time?
During my corporate career, I saw first hand the many barriers and obstacles that women face. I bumped up against the glass ceiling myself as I struggled to balance my career with raising three children. Then, as a parent (of two sons and one daughter), I experienced some startling things, like how boys were encouraged more in school to pursue STEM and competitive sports; and how they had more access to role models and support systems to network and gain entry into the corporate world through internships and mentorships. I also started paying more attention to the research outlining the confidence and mental health crisis amongst teen girls today. I was compelled to be part of the solution.

LiveGirl begins by working with girls in middle school, why is this an important age to begin building self-esteem?
In girls, confidence plummets during puberty. (This is not the case for boys.) Research shows that 7 in 10 girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way. At the same time, teens replace their parents with peers as key influencers and only 4% of teen girls will talk to a parent, teacher, or counselor when feeling sad, anxious, or depressed. So, it is essential that girls have access to safe spaces where they can connect with positive role models and mentors.

How do the young women’s roles change within the organization as they move from middle school to high school?
Our middle school programs equip girls to “lead themselves” while our high school programs teach young women to “lead others”. What does this mean? You must first build up a base of self-esteem and social emotional intelligence and truly love yourself. Once this foundation is built, you are in a position to lead others. Our ultimate goal is to help these young women discover the power of their voices and to equip them with the leadership skills to thrive and make a positive impact in their local communities.

Tell us about the changes you see in these young women as they move through the organization?
The growth and development is nothing short of miraculous. First of all, there is a lot of research that supports the power of girls-only spaces. Especially during adolescence, girls need the time and space to reflect on who they truly are and aspire to be. We foster a positive #GirlsSupportingGirls culture, where girls literally clap and cheer loudly when someone shares out or does something brave. In this way, the girls learn the power of sisterhood and unity in a diverse community. We are bringing girls together from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, but they quickly learn that we are more alike than different. They learn that we are stronger together. These girls will be braver, more inclusive and collaborative leaders as a result of their LiveGirl experience.

What have you seen is the biggest factor impacting young women’s self-esteem?
We see young women being negatively impacted by today’s super girl “perfection” and toxic stress culture. These pressures are magnified by social media. Since the beginning of time, adolescents have had to navigate unhealthy relationships and “mean girls”. Today, however, these adolescent pressures are magnified online. Our girls are literally being torn apart by tangible peer pressure (# of likes) and cyber-bullying. The cyber-bullying can be subtle (e.g., I see the evidence of being excluded) but adds up to an overwhelming, negative feeling. Research shows that social media is directly impacting our mental health, causing increased levels of depressive symptoms and loneliness.

How do you work with young women to combat this?
We teach girls that you build confidence by doing, by trying. Taking risks and making mistakes is a necessary part of the process. And it all begins and ends by loving yourself. We do a simple exercise where we ask girls to identify 5 things they love about themselves. So many have a hard time completing this exercise, but we teach them that it is essential to be able to identify and celebrate your strengths, as this is the basis for one’s self-worth and self-esteem. We also work with girls and parents on social media wellness, and direct them on ways to cultivate a positive, empowering experience. Simple tips include limiting social media usage and focusing on using social media for social good.

What can parents do to help build their adolescent and teen girls’ self-esteem?
First and foremost, parents must examine how/what they are role modeling for their daughter(s). Ask yourself, what words or actions are you demonstrating about how you look and your body image? Do you become distracted and pull your phone out to respond to the ping! In the middle of family time? Do you demonstrate self-compassion and celebrate your strengths?

Ask yourself, “What if we stop chasing perfect and embrace good enough? What if we create the time and space to celebrate our strengths and appreciate our true selves?”

Try this activity at your next family meal. Go around the table and have each person state three things that they love about themselves. It may seem awkward or funny at first, but I assure you that it will feel good.

How do your community workshops encourage families to get involved?
We need our parents to be aware and reinforce our leadership values at home. Therefore, we seek to host parent workshops and roundtables on topics of interest. In the past several months, we have hosted discussions on “What to do when anxiety strikes”, “#MeToo: what parents need to know about sexual assault awareness”, and “Social Media: cultivating a positive, empowering experience”. We have a long list of workshops available to bring to your local school, youth organization, or Girl Scout troop. We also provide daily resources for raising a confident girl on our Facebook Page.

To join, connect with or learn more about LiveGirl’s programming, head to their website, Instagram or Facebook Page.

Sheri West, Founder, CEO & Chairperson, LiveGirl
Ms. West has over 25 years of corporate and leadership development experience. Her education includes a BA Finance and Masters of Human Resources and Leadership Development from Michigan State University. Prior to LiveGirl, Ms. West spent 16 years as a finance executive at General Electric Co., a multinational company, where she was instrumental in its Women’s Network. She has taught leadership development courses at the GE Management Development Institute and the University of Miami-Ohio. Five years ago, she founded LiveGirl to “pay it forward” and prepare the next generation of female leaders. She was honored in 2017 as a Community Champion by the Boys and Girls Clubs, in 2018 as one of “Connecticut’s Most Philanthropic Women” by Serendipity Magazine, in 2019 as a “Woman Of Inspiration” by the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund and as a “Woman Empowering Women” by the Rowan Center. She is married with three children (ages 18, 15, and 12) and lives in New Canaan, Connecticut where she also serves as an elected official on the New Canaan Public Schools Board of Education.

(Photos c/o LiveGirl)

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