Jennifer Openshaw is preparing “the CEOs of tomorrow,” today.
An internationally recognized finance expert and advocate for women in business, Openshaw has held high-powered jobs at large financial institutions like Bank of America and founded the Women’s Financial Network, a financial services company created by and for women.
But her newest venture is focused squarely on girls, and specifically on preparing them to take charge in a male-dominated business world when they get older. Girls With Impact is a nonprofit that offers online programs that teach high school girls how to start businesses. She was inspired to launch the program when she noticed ample resources for interesting girls in the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — but “nobody was in the space of helping girls become the [business] leaders of tomorrow.”
Since launching one year ago, nearly 100 girls have completed the 12-week course she calls “a super-mini-MBA,” which Girls With Impact offers several times throughout the year. The girls who have taken part so far hail from public and private high schools in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland and California, and the majority were girls of color.
Openshaw says every single participant has left the program feeling more ready to work — and lead. Participant surveys, she says, indicate significant improvements in confidence, knowledge of business terms and professional and personal skills, such as managing finances and handling rejection.
In addition to preparing girls for a more distant future in business and entrepreneurship, the course helps them shine during crucial college, internship and scholarship interviews now. “What we’re trying to do is give them a leg up.”
A New School for a New Generation
Openshaw has always been enterprising. That trait was born of necessity — she secured her first job as a motel maid when she was just 14 to help support her family while her mother worked two jobs. Ever the hard worker, she took on a variety of jobs during college to pay for her education.
After receiving an MBA from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1988, Openshaw launched a decades-long career in business and finance that started at the California State Treasurer’s Office and took her to the senior tiers of financial giants like JPMorgan Chase. In addition to launching the Women’s Financial Network, she served as executive director of the Financial Women’s Association. She is also a frequent TV commentator on CNN, Fox and CNBC.
The idea for Girls With Impact came when her work at Women Thrive, a research platform that is part of global consulting firm Mercer, took her to Davos for the 2016 World Economic Forum. There, “I saw CEOs focused on women in the workplace, talking about how to increase numbers of women. Many of them said, ‘We’re trying all things, but we’re still not moving the needle.’”
A light bulb went off. “If you’re really going to change the trajectory, you have to start with the next generation. We need to prepare them to be leaders, and to create the support and network that allows them to lead from the top,” she says.
Determined to act, she put together the start of a curriculum. Then, she reached into her network for help — first by contacting Linda Applegate from Harvard Business School, who helped tweak the idea, then bringing on experts like entrepreneur Ben Romans and college program developer Melina Diaconis as teachers.
She also sought out partners. Real estate firm Houlihan Lawrence and the Fairfield County Community Foundation in Norwalk, Conn., provided initial funding, and the YWCA, University of Connecticut and others helped promote the mission and cultivate student interest. She also began contacting high school guidance counselors near her Greenwich, Conn., homebase and elsewhere to recruit interested girls.
The Ins and Outs of the Program
Girls With Impact is affordable, but getting in isn’t easy. Prospective students must demonstrate passion and commitment in applications that enable Openshaw and her team to assess their business interests, scholastic achievements and social media presences. Each girl is also asked to submit an introductory video in which she outlines what she hopes to learn, and what she brings to the table. Tuition is on a sliding scale based on need and caps out at $495, and families can also get assistance with their tuition, if they need it.
Students who enroll take classes online and only meet in person twice — after 3 weeks to present elevator pitches, and at the end to show their finished business proposals to fellow students and parents. During the classes, girls are taught the ins and outs of entrepreneurship, and coached as they develop business plans for their startup ideas. Each girl walks away with a completed business plan that details her product, its target audience and its value — “things we didn’t even learn in college,” Openshaw says. “Maybe in the business world.”
The program’s first year generated a wide range of pitches. One participant conceived of a one-touch emergency helpline, and partnered with her software engineer father on the technological specifics. Another proposed a mentorship program for children with cancer that connects them with survivors, while a third envisioned a service that provides menstrual product kits to homeless women. There was also an advice site for families separated by deportation, sonar goggles for lifeguards to help them find drowning victims, and a clever hook for holding garments.
But while Openshaw was intrigued by the ideas themselves, she was even more encouraged by the girls’ growth in confidence and skills. She says parents also noticed changes in their daughters. Students “are going from an idea to how to bring this to life. No one can do that without the steps to get there — we provide them that.”
Securing Girls’ Entrepreneurial Futures
Openshaw doesn’t just want her students to be competitive in business — she wants them to soar. “There is a lot of talk about [the lack of] women at the top and study after study, but the numbers haven’t changed globally. There’s no excuse for not having women at the top, but it hasn’t happened.”
In time, she hopes to see thousands of girls complete the program. And beyond flying high in the real world, she hopes her students will help one another. She points out that white men often have stronger social networks to tap into that help them start and grow companies, compared to women and girls. Girls With Impact alums can become that kind of network for young women, she says — a culturally diverse network that spans multiple industries and creates a “tremendous foundation,” whether for finding a job or a business partner.
The full Girls With Impact experience, Openshaw promises, will arm students “with the know-how to be leaders.”