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How camping (really) taught me how to empower our girls

Young girl in cap

Me camping? No way! Camping is anathema to me. This girl is not a camper! The thought of roughing it for two nights in the woods was comparable to a scene from Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.”

But then along comes Mary. It was a rainy day in April when I received an email titled “Change a Girl’s Life at Camp CEO.” The subject was intriguing, but it did not matter what the subject was, because it was a request from Mary Barneby, CEO of Girls Scouts of Connecticut. Mary is an indomitable spirit, whose friendship and mentoring has opened countless doors for me. From board service to community activism, Mary not only leans in, she lifts up.

Camp CEO

I met Mary when we were colleagues at UBS and she was head of our Private Wealth Management Office in Stamford, Connecticut. Mary possessed that ability to bring people of all backgrounds together and elevate opportunities for women. So it came as no surprise when she left a successful 38-year career in financial services and made the pivot to nonprofit. Not just any nonprofit, but the Girl Scouts. Mary understands that to have women leaders at the top, we have to start when they are young, building skills and championing their confidence. This is her sweet spot, the place where pivot and passion meet and magic happens.

The hook, “Come connect, inform and inspire future leaders at Girl Scouts of Connecticut’s Camp CEO program!” I had to do it. As the mother of two teenage girls, I jump at opportunities to help mentor young women. But camp? Seriously?

However, this is my year of saying, “Yes.” So without hesitation I replied, “Count me in!” I remembered being a girl scout in 1967, when it was my refuge from the bigotry, cliques and aloneness I experienced as the first and only black girl in my elementary school. My troop was a place where I was equal and the magic of being a girl was all that mattered.

The passion

That magical feeling returned as I drove three hours to the campsite and arrived filled with anticipation. What would the girls want to know, do and share? We were 23 high school girls and 13 executive women excited to make this a memorable experience. Facing each other, we asked intimate questions about our fears, successes and challenges. Following each story, we rubbed elbows. That’s right, eye-to-eye, we reached across and rubbed elbows as a way of sealing the conversation with trust. It made us feel equal in many ways. Maybe I will use that in my next meeting, it was better than a handshake.

The connections deepened when Mary introduced us to what it means to be a G.I.R.L. — Go-getter, Innovator, Risk-taker, Leader™. You could feel the pride as each girl described herself using these terms. The weekend provided hands-on leadership development and mentoring through a structured product development launch designing T-shirts. We taught business plans, marketing communications and design skills. But the girls showed us a few things, too. Their passion, teamwork and camaraderie reminded us that being a girl is a wonder and wonderful. And it is hard. The girls shared their challenges with trust, family, academics and depression.

Affirmation needed now

Our girls need affirmation now more than ever. The National Institute for Mental Health reports one in four girls suffers from a clinical diagnosis of depression, eating or other emotional health disorders. When you factor in race, the impact of adultification is even more damaging. Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality study titled, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, found adultification in black girls begins as early as five years old.

Those surveyed perceive black girls as less innocent and requiring less nurturing, protection and support than white girls. The implications of these stereotypes are far reaching. We must fight like hell to close this gap, erase the impact it has on black girls’ confidence and restore the magic of childhood. This is very necessary to see more black girls thriving in life and as leaders in their communities, CEOs, sitting on boards and having impact. Whether you have girls of your own, or mother someone else’s, we can each play a part in reversing this trend.

At camp, when we came together to make s’mores and huddle around the fire, we sang the Magic campfire song. I silently shed a tear at the end of the song as I recalled the magic of being a girl.

“Now my childhood is far behind, I’ve learned to my surprise,
That magic did not fade away it wears a new disguise.
A child, a friend, a smile, a song, the courage to stand tall
And love’s the greatest magic of them all.
I do believe in magic. I believe.”

The magic

The magic of CEO Camp continues. I have 12 new incredible women to call upon and share my passions and dreams. I went home, made popcorn the old fashioned way, pulled my daughters close and watched old movies and created magic. Yes camp was magical, but don’t think it turned me into the Queen of REI. No, this Wonder Woman still prefers my Duxiana inspired bed!

I thank Mary Barneby for dragging me out of my comfort zone. The girl whose life you changed was mine. Your pivot helped remind me about the magic of being a girl. And I will pay it forward.

Cecilia Carter, The Strategy Chick, offers executive and transition coaching. During her 35-year corporate career, she served in senior leadership at PepsiCo Inc., Starbucks, UBS and General Electric.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.