Ep. 25: Empowering Our Young Girls

Dianna Flett, a former military officer, started Girl Smarts to teach confidence to girls in 4th and 5th grades.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

A girl’s self-confidence peaks when she’s 9 years old. Ret. Lieutenant Colonal Dianna Flett is using her military training to run leadership workshops, dubbed Girl Smarts, for girls in 4th and 5th grades.

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SUE: (as music plays lightly in the background) You’re listening to Good on the Ground...

VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...

COLLEEN: ...You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange.

COLLEEN: I’m Colleen DeBaise.

SUE: And I’m Sue Williams.

COLLEEN: If you’re like us, you may want to give up listening to the news.

SUE: It’s sooo negative.

COLLEEN: It’s depressing.

SUE: Toxic.

COLLEEN: Fortunately, we’re here to help.

SUE: We’re here to share more stories...

COLLEEN: ...of female entrepreneurs who are using the power of business to make the world a better place.

SUE: Especially the one in today’s podcast!

COLLEEN: That’s right. We headed down to Virginia, the birthplace of our nation, the “mother” of presidents, the state right next to Washington DC...

SUE: ...to talk to a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. military.

DIANNA: My name is Dianna Flett, I am the founder and CEO of the Girl Smarts group here in Virginia.

COLLEEN: Dianna’s company is helping young girls build self-confidence, self-esteem and the skills to become leaders.

SUE: Which right now -- in light of all the sexual misconduct we're hearing about --

COLLEEN: -- and the #MeToo movement --

SUE: -- makes Dianna’s story more important than ever.

COLLEEN: We’ll talk to this decorated army veteran about what inspired her to start Girl Smarts…

SUE: ...and how she plans to spread her message of empowerment.

COLLEEN: Don’t go away.

*Musical Interlude*

DIANNA SOT: So you have really kind of gone through the whole process of developing a sense of being a confident, capable leader. How many of you want to be leaders?

COLLEEN: That’s Dianna Flett.

DIANNA SOT: Okay. So I’ll ask you. What do you think is more important, being liked or being a leader?

COLLEEN: She’s speaking to a classroom full of girls at Rockhill Elementary in Stafford, Virginia.

DIANNA SOT: Okay, you vote twice. You think both are pretty important?

DIANNA: Girl Smarts is a series of workshops that works to empower fourth and fifth grade girls with strategies and skills so when they go into more stressful situations in middle schools, they have tools in their toolkit that they can reach into to navigate those challenges.

COLLEEN: Something to point out, before we get too far into this podcast, is that Dianna is the mom of four boys.

SUE: Four. Boys.

COLLEEN: She also spent 20 years in military intelligence, but somehow four sons sounds far more challenging.

SUE: It was actually one of the sons who prompted Dianna to start Girl Smarts.

DIANNA: When my boys were in middle school, my number two son, Sam, came home and he was really disturbed by the crash in confidence that he saw his female friends experiencing. That’s when he said to me flat out, “Mom, you need to do something.”

COLLEEN: That was back in 2009. At the time, Dianna had retired from active duty, and was teaching leadership training at...

SUE: ...The Federal Bureau of Investigation.

COLLEEN: That’s right, the FBI.

SUE: She listened to what Sam -- then just 11 -- had to say about his friends who were girls.

DIANNA: He thought that they were making bad decisions. He didn’t like the idea that some of them are experimenting in alcohol and drug use.

COLLEEN: And some of the girls -- at such a young age -- were putting themselves in risky sexual situations.

DIANNA: And these were girls that I knew that they were brilliant, beautiful, world at their feet kind of girls.

SUE: She started investigating why this was happening.

DIANNA: As I went through my research of what was happening with the girls emotionally I found statistics that said that a girl’s self-confidence peaks when she's nine years old. So I wanted to get into that decision cycle.

SUE: Just nine years old. I mean, that’s so young!

COLLEEN: Yeah. Dianna felt that much of the core-leadership training that she was teaching at the FBI could be applied to young girls.

DIANNA: You know, the Army takes building leaders pretty seriously -- how to communicate effectively, how to delegate effectively, how to use their imagination.

SUE: Those skills, she realized, could be taught to girls at an early age.

COLLEEN: Dianna spoke with a counselor at her sons’ elementary school about presenting a series of confidence-building workshops to girls in 4th and 5th grades.

DIANNA: She was all for the idea. She was on the ground seeing what girls were going through.

COLLEEN: So Dianna began designing a curriculum...

SUE: ...combining straight talk and fun activities.

DIANNA SOT: All right, so, in your group I want you to identify the primary leader that’s going to come up and talk to me.

DIANNA: We only had four workshops when we first started. We had 24 girls, it was only open to fifth graders at that point. And then the idea just took off. And then as more and more schools started to hear about it, more and more schools wanted the program to come into their school.

SUE: After the second year...

DIANNA: I was in already four schools, just by word of mouth.

COLLEEN: She knew she was on to something.

DIANNA: And at that point, I had to kind of come to the realization that I was either going to devote myself to this opportunity or I was going to have to start to pursue the financial realities of having four children that needed to go through college.

COLLEEN: With the support of her husband, Steve, she decided to build Girl Smarts. More on that in just a bit.

*Musical Interlude*

SUE: The Story Exchange is a nonprofit media company dedicated to women who mean business. Check out our videos -- including a profile of the entrepreneur you’re listening to -- at www.thestoryexchange.org.

COLLEEN: So let’s get back to Dianna Flett.

SUE: We really should talk more about her time in the military.

COLLEEN: Definitely -- it’s really an important piece of this story. Dianna is a combat
veteran who has won many awards, including a Bronze Star for her service during the Gulf War.

SUE: She comes from a bit of a military family.

DIANNA: My uncle was in the Army, my father had served in World War II and I was comfortable with the concept of actually entering service to the country.

COLLEEN: She’s also the first in her family to go to college.

SUE: Which was a decision that her parents weren’t particularly involved in.

DIANNA: It was really outside of their comfort zone and I knew we didn’t have the money to actually put me through college, so I went through the process of applying for a four-year ROTC scholarship.

SUE: That’s the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

COLLEEN: Dianna went to Rutgers University in New Jersey.

DIANNA: I went to the summer camp at Fort Knox. Then I was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina to train on tactical intelligence opportunities.

SUE: She was 19.

DIANNA: I was drawn toward military intelligence, especially with a political science background.

COLLEEN: She graduated in 1981 as a second lieutenant.

SUE: The next year she began active duty in Europe.

DIANNA: The reality in the 1980s was that women were coming into a lot of different roles that they hadn’t experienced before. We were all pushing to stand up for ourselves and we were really the experimental group of women coming in to actively train side by side with the men and to pursue military roles from an equality perspective.

COLLEEN: Sue, you interviewed Dianna on-camera for our video profile. I know you asked her specifically about harassment.

SUE: I did. Let’s listen to our exchange.

SUE SOT: So think that being a woman in the military has something to do with what you do now --
DIANNA SOT: Right.
SUE SOT: -- those experiences, so I do want to touch on a few of them.
DIANNA SOT: Sure. There were definitely people that wanted to challenge you. And I had one non-commissioned officer, the first time I met him, told me that his goal while I was his supervisor was to make me cry. And every chance he had, he would push my buttons to see if he could break me and it was a good learning lesson for me to kind of learn to keep my composure, to not back down when I knew something was right and to really pursue standing up for myself. And so he actually supported me and made me stronger and never made me cry.
SUE SOT: Does he know that?
DIANNA SOT: Nope.

COLLEEN: Maybe it’s her military training -- but she’s so amazingly straightforward about that experience.

SUE: Yeah. When you meet Dianna in person, you get the sense right away that she was a formidable lieutenant colonel. And yet there’s clearly a warmth, and a softness to her. It makes for a very good combination, especially for her work with young girls. I really saw it when she remembered how her son prompted her to start the workshops.

DIANNA SOT: Okay. Give me a second to get myself together.
SUE SOT: So that’s the path to Girl Smarts, right?
DIANNA SOT: It is. It is, and these girls are so incredible. So. I got to get through this or else I’m going to be a wuss the rest of the --
SUE SOT: Don’t worry about being a wuss. Do you have Kleenex down here?
DIANNA SOT: Yeah, toilet paper maybe, in the bathroom. You better not put this on there (laughs), it’ll blow my whole Army thing.

*Musical Interlude*

DIANNA SOT: And how many of you have been to every single workshop over the last
two years? Good.

COLLEEN: So we haven’t really talked yet about how Dianna is building this company.

SUE: And it is a company. She has chosen to incorporate as a for-profit...

COLLEEN: Yeah, rather than a 501c3, which is your classic nonprofit.

DIANNA: I don’t love the idea of being an empowerment program that has to ask for money. You know, I want to have the opportunity to be empowered by having a product that’s so good that people want the product.

COLLEEN: And right now, that product is the Girl Smarts program.

DIANNA SOT: All right, good. Let’s go get ’em, girls.

SUE: Which Dianna believes is truly valuable.

DIANNA: I’m here to tell you there’s about 3,000 girls that have gone through that would agree with me and a bunch of parents that I suspect would tell you that this was a good thing for their girls to experience.

SUE: The program is tuition-based, although it’s reasonably priced and parents generally pay less than $100 for a 5-part workshop series.

DIANNA: Honestly, the business side of this is not the driver for me personally.

COLLEEN: And revenue is indeed on the low side.

DIANNA: So in 2016 after I paid all of the instructors and all the supplies and everything, the Girl Smarts group made about $5,000.

SUE: But what’s important to Dianna is that the program is self-sustaining.

COLLEEN: Unlike a lot of entrepreneurs we interview, Dianna is in a special financial situation, as a retired military officer.

DIANNA: I’m very thankful that I have a pension, my husband has a pension and he also has a very good job. Truly, this is the kind of business that needs to be driven by your heart.

SOT: I just made something on my own.
-Take credit for it, girl.
-Yeah.
-Good, all right. Give it up, give her props!

SUE: She and her husband self-financed Girl Smarts, to get the program off the ground.

DIANNA: My husband and I put the initial baseline money into it.

COLLEEN: And they’ve reinvested any profits.

DIANNA: The program is a pretty low cost program and I’ve kept it purposely low cost because I want to make sure that every girl can afford an opportunity to attend the program.

SUE: But there’s a lot of potential for scaling this program.

DIANNA: Yes, if I were to franchise the program, if you run summer workshops, if you run school workshops, if you run after hours workshops, I mean a public speaking Girl Smarts workshop for middle school girls would be phenomenal. So there’s lots of opportunities to that end.

DIANNA SOT: Keep that strong handshake when you go up to meet somebody. Show them that you’re there and that you mean business.

COLLEEN: I recently called Dianna to get an update. She just had another 500 girls go through the Girl Smarts program. She now has five paid instructors and more than 20 schools signed up. Plus, she’s launching summer camps.

DIANNA: I think that if the program is good and people see the value in it like I do that the program will be successful.

SUE: Dianna’s really a remarkable woman -- and she’s winning more awards.

COLLEEN: Yep, she sure is. Though this time not for military service, but for the work she’s doing with girls. She was a finalist in 2017 for a Clara de Hirsch Award for extraordinary women.

DIANNA: When you can teach a girl how to say “No” and stand up against something that she doesn’t want to experience, then you really have given them an opportunity to take control of who they are.

SUE: Woo! Go girl.

COLLEEN: You go girl. We thank Dianna for sharing her story with us.

SUE: You’ve been listening to “Good on the Ground” from The Story Exchange.

DIANNA SOT: So that’s why I consider this business to be a continuation of my selfless service -- 21 years in the Army and now -- doggonit.
SUE SOT: I’m just wondering how you survived 25 years in the military when you’re this emotional.
DIANNA SOT: It crashed after my first baby. Honestly, I went from standing up face to face, toe to toe with men and tearing into them to looking at an Ajax commercial and crying while I was watching the Ajax commercial because the floor was so pretty.

*Musical Interlude*

SUE: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange.

COLLEEN: If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.

 

Posted: May 1, 2018

Colleen DeBaiseEp. 25: Empowering Our Young Girls