Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways.
Dianna Flett spent 21 years in military intelligence. As a lieutenant during the Cold War, she worked in Munich, Germany, in Adolf Hitler’s former headquarters. She ran counterintelligence in Belgium. She was deployed when Desert Storm began.
Today, though, she is tackling what may be her toughest assignment yet: Instilling confidence in young girls.
“How many of you want to be leaders?” she asks a roomful of girls at Rockhill Elementary in Stafford, Va., watching a show of hands. “What do you think is more important, being liked or being a leader?”
Flett, who retired from active duty as a lieutenant colonel in 2001, runs a program called Girl Smarts. It’s a series of workshops aimed at empowering 4th- and 5th-grade girls, training them in skills they can use to navigate stressful situations in middle school. She currently works with about 700 to 800 girls a year, primarily through an after-school program at 20 schools in Virginia.
“A girl’s self-confidence peaks when she’s nine years old,” Flett says, just before the tween years when her self-possession will begin to be tested. “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.”
‘Mom, You Need to Do Something’
Flett, a mother of four boys, was inspired to start the program in 2009 after her second-oldest son, Sam, expressed concern about his female schoolmates. “He was really disturbed by the crash in confidence that he saw his female friends experiencing in middle school,” she says. Then just 11, Sam relayed that girls were experimenting with alcohol and drugs, and putting themselves in risky sexual situations. “That’s when he said to me flat out, ‘Mom, you need to do something,'” Flett says.
At the time, Flett was using her years of military experience to run leadership training courses for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She felt that much of what she was teaching could be applied to young girls. “The Army takes building leaders pretty seriously … how to communicate effectively, how to delegate effectively, how to use their imagination,” she says. Those same skills, she realized, could be taught to girls at an early age.
Flett spoke with a counselor at her sons’ elementary school about presenting a series of confidence-building workshops, dubbed Girl Smarts, for girls in 4th and 5th grades. “She was all for the idea,” Flett says. “She was on the ground seeing what girls were going through.” As soon as Flett began running the workshops, which combine straight talk and fun activities, other schools in Virginia expressed interest. After the second year, “I was already in four schools, just by word of mouth,” Flett says. Volunteers enlisted their services. She began designing a curriculum.
“At that point, I had to come to the realization that I was either going to devote myself to this opportunity,” Flett says, “or I was going to have to start to pursue the financial realities of having four children that needed to go through college.” With the support of her husband, Steve, she decided to build Girl Smarts.
Figuring Out the Business Model
Flett calls herself a “reluctant entrepreneur.” She has a tough-as-nails persona, thanks to two decades in the military, during which, she says, she experienced threats to her personal safety, as well as sexual harassment. But figuring out a realistic business model for an organization like Girls Smart has been a challenge.
Flett, who has a military pension, self-financed Girl Smarts. The program itself is tuition-based, although it’s reasonably priced and parents generally pay less than $100 for a 5-part workshop series (at some schools, the Parent-Teacher Association helps pay for the program). Last year, after paying two part-time instructors and covering the cost of supplies, Girl Smarts cleared $5,000, Flett says. “Honestly the business side of this is not the driver for me personally, nor do I think it is for my facilitators,” she says, one of whom has a doctorate degree.
At the same time, “I do see incredible growth potential for Girl Smarts,” Flett says. A few years ago, she looked into a franchise model, but scrapped the idea after deciding she didn’t have enough variety of workshops for a national program. She might consider developing products, like school journals, that the organization could sell. “I haven’t figured it out yet,” Flett says.
Girl Smarts is currently a for-profit S corporation, and Flett says she isn’t interested in turning it into a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, which similar educational organizations tend to be. “I don’t love the idea of being an empowerment program that has to ask for money,” she says.
Back at Rockland Elementary, Flett finishes her workshop, teaching a group of 5th-grade girls about how to set and achieve goals, how to make values-based decisions, and how to act like a leader. “Keep that strong handshake when you go up to meet somebody,” she tells them. “Show them that you’re there, and that you mean business.” The girls give her a hug before they leave the room. “Let’s go get ’em, girls,” she says.
For now, Flett says she is content to run Girl Smarts essentially as a continuation of her service. The students “are so thirsty for the kind of information they are being given,” she says. “This is the kind of business that needs to be driven by your heart.”
Dianna Flett, Founder + CEO - Girl Smarts – Stafford, VA, USA
SOT You have gone through the whole process of developing a sense of being a confident, capable leader. How many of you want to be leaders? Okay. What do you think is more important, being liked or being a leader?
Dianna In my career as a female Army officer, there were definitely people that wanted to challenge me. 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 so he actually made me stronger and never made me cry.
TEXT Dianna Flett – Founder + CEO - Girl Smarts Group – Stafford, Va.,
SOT On your marks, get set, go!
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. Every time you give a girl skill to step outside of her comfort zone, you've increased her comfort zone.
TEXT Dianna was born and raised in New Jersey.
TEXT Her father worked for a trucking company and ran his own asphalting business.
Dianna My dad was pretty typical of the men of his time. He had served in World War II. He also didn’t go past sixth grade growing up as far as his education. Still one of the smartest men I've ever met though.
TEXT Dianna was the first in her family to go to college.
Dianna I knew we didn't have the money to actually put me through college so my parents weren't involved in that at all, it was really outside of their comfort zone.
TEXT Dianna applied for a scholarship from the Reserve Officer Training Corps.
TEXT She attended Rutgers University and majored in political science.
Dianna When I signed on an ROTC cadet, then I had a certain obligation that I had to repay the military in order to get the scholarship dollars. I was drawn toward military intelligence, especially with my political science background, that’s what I wanted to pursue.
TEXT Dianna graduated in 1981 as a second lieutenant.
TEXT The next year she began active duty in Europe.
Dianna In the 1980s women were coming into a lot of different roles that they hadn't experienced before. We were all pushing to stand up for ourselves. 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.
TEXT Dianna spent most of her career working in military intelligence in Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
TEXT In 1988 she married another intelligence officer, Steve Flett.
Dianna In 2001 my husband was in the Pentagon, I was working in office in the Defense Intelligence Agency. It was obvious that once the towers came down and the Pentagon was hit that our world was going to change and that we were imminently going to be deployed. So I was pregnant with my fourth son at that time and we decided that I was going to leave active duty and retire and stay home and take care of the boys.
TEXT Dianna retired as a lieutenant colonel. But she found it hard not to work.
TEXT She soon accepted a job at the FBI doing leadership training.
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.”
TEXT Dianna crafted a series of confidence-building workshops for 4th- and 5th-grade girls.
Dianna As I went through my research 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.
TEXT In 2009 she launched Girl Smarts Group.
SOT And how many of you have been to every single workshop over the last
two years? Good.
Dianna Fourth graders sign up for the five workshops throughout the year that support the building of skills, everything from how to do a proper handshake to how to make values based decisions.
SOT In your group I want you to identify the primary leader that’s going to come up and talk to me.
Dianna If the girls are in fifth grade, then they would learn how to set goals and how to achieve their goals, how to communicate effectively, how to negotiate conflict with friends.
TEXT More than 3,000 girls have completed the Girl Smarts program in 20 schools across Virginia.
TEXT Dianna has hired two facilitators to help run the courses.
TEXT The business is now tuition-based and self-sustaining.
TEXT PTA scholarships help girls who cannot afford to pay.
TEXT After salary and expenses, Girl Smarts clears about $5,000 a year.
Dianna Honestly, the business side of this is not the driver for me personally. I'm very thankful that I have a pension, my husband has a very good job. This is the kind of business that needs to be driven by your heart.
SOT Okay, keep that strong handshake when you go up to meet somebody.
Show them that you’re there and that you mean business.
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 and not just be a reflection of who someone else is.
SOT All right, good. Let’s go get ’em, girls...Bye, guys. Bye. I loved having you. Bye, ladies. Oh! You guys are making me so happy.