How a Greenwich-Based Organization Is Preparing the Next Generation of Business Leaders

PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDREA CARSON

“Only 6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Only 2 percent of $80 billion in venture funding is awarded to female founders. Girls experience a 30 percent drop in confidence between the ages of 8 and 14 …”

These statistics on Girls With Impact’s website are depressing, but the organization’s founder, Greenwich resident and finance guru Jennifer Openshaw, is determined to change them—and small change isn’t really her thing.

Jennifer built her career when the outlook for women was even grimmer. In the year 2000, only two Fortune 500 CEOs were female; 498 were male. That year, Jennifer was named one of Internet World magazine’s Rising Stars for the path she blazed as founder and CEO of the Women’s Financial Network, which grew out of her gig as the “Money Expert” for KCBS-TV in L.A. She weathered the dot-com bust and sold her company to Wall Street legend Muriel Siebert. Senior roles at Bank of America, Wilshire Associates and JP Morgan Chase gave her plenty of insight into the old boys network. “I get it,” says Openshaw. “People want to do business with people they know.” But what she also gets is the tremendous untapped potential in young women, and she is determined to prepare these future leaders so effectively that it will be impossible to overlook them.

“I was at the World Economic Forum in Davos. I was in a corporate role at Mercer, the world’s largest HR consulting company. We were unveiling our report on a research platform they have called, ‘When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive.’ This issue of investing in women and how they are an undervalued asset went beyond our breakfast,” recounts Jennifer. “I thought, wouldn’t it be smarter if we started earlier and trained young women and girls to think like leaders?” It was a lightbulb moment. She picked up the phone and called a friend at Harvard Business School to bounce around her idea for an online business and leadership program for young women.

Jennifer officially launched her nonprofit, Girls With Impact, in 2018. Since then, 16,000 girls from low- to moderate-income communities have completed Girls With Impact’s “mini-MBA”—a free program in which students develop their own ventures. “We have served a girl in every state and in about 20 countries,” she says. “Seventy percent are of color.”

Jennifer with daughters Gianna, 14, and Elizabeth, 10, at home in Greenwich

While it may seem like Jennifer—advisor to Fortune 500 companies and author of books like The Millionaire Zone (on the social networking strategies of the wealthy)—has nothing in common with the young women she serves, she does. There is no silver spoon in her background, but instead, sheer determination.

“A lot of times I pinch myself. I’ve gone from having a single mom, who was working two jobs as a waitress while raising three kids, to living in Greenwich,” she says. “My mission today of giving girls and young women a chance is about paying it forward. I never forget that I’m incredibly lucky to be living in this amazing community.” But lucky is not quite the right word.

Jennifer was the oldest child in her splintered family in Southern California. “I was five when my parents divorced,” she recounts. “My mom had no formal education. I was caring for my younger brothers from the age of seven. She’d work her day job, then come home at three or four and we’d figure out dinner, and then she’d leave for her night waitressing job at four or five and come home at 11:00 or 12:00. There were times when we couldn’t pay the bills. It made a huge impression. At 12 or 13, I had an epiphany, a vision of doing something bigger.” By 14, Jennifer was working as a maid in a hotel. She zigzagged through three colleges, working three jobs to pay her own way, and ultimately graduated with a BA and MBA from UCLA. “I knew I had to figure it out and pull myself up by my bootstraps,” she says. “That’s not the way to go—by yourself.”

GWI graduate Kellie Taylor pitching her venture, Cleo, an app to find personal care service providers on the go

KNOW-HOW
Much of what students get out of Girls With Impact are the skills and knowledge Jennifer wishes she had had at their age. During GWI’s 10-week signature program, which is offered online after school and even during school in some districts, students bring their own business ideas to life. In the process they develop a business plan, pitch deck, résumé and interview skills, and an understanding of business fundamentals. “Their confidence soars,” says Jennifer, “and they come out with 25 improved work-readiness skills.”

GWI also offers a mentorship program, which helps young women land in college, internships, careers or their own businesses. “Ninety-eight percent of those who go to college say the program was instrumental,” notes Jennifer. “I think for most young people coming out of high school, it’s like walking off a cliff. They don’t have a clear picture of the way the world works or what colleges make sense.”

Even after earning an MBA, Jennifer didn’t feel she had the know-how she needed. “Selling my company during the dot-com bubble, that was an incredible experience and education. I was meeting people who live in Greenwich. I was meeting VC leaders. It was like a second business degree. But I wasn’t really prepared going into those meeting. There was no one around me who was a professional guiding me. That’s why what we do at GWI is so important. It puts these women and girls on a completely different trajectory. The students come out of the program saying, ‘I don’t want to be a physical therapist; I want to be a CEO.’ Now they have a foundation, skills and a mindset that is going to make a huge difference in their success and their employer’s. Their success also has a trickle-down effect on their families.”

The key to GWI’s success is harnessing its students’ passions. The business or nonprofit ideas participants pursue during the program are their ideas. Ventures run the gamut: personal finance, healthcare, animal cruelty, the environment … The instructors are business and MBA leaders.

“Business leaders consistently complain about young people lacking the professional soft skills they need. Our students are showing up ready to work,” says Jennifer. She emphasizes that there is no other business readiness program for young women like Girls With Impact: “We are it.”

GWI graduate Darlene Fleurimond with Susan Bevan, Greenwich philanthropist and GWI supporter, at the Girls with Impact annual luncheon

TALENT
“I’m a huge believer that there is so much potential in young people,” says Jennifer. Girls With Impact candidates needn’t meet a grade minimum to enter the program. “We just require that they commit to finishing,” says Jennifer. “Jeff Boyd, former chairman of Priceline, was a C-student. Just because you don’t have A’s does not mean you don’t have talent.”

Girls With Impact is mining terrific teen talent. “We have a girl who has gotten a triple full-ride to three colleges, totaling over a million dollars,” says Jennifer. “Two have gotten double full-ride offers to Babson and Howard.” Others have been accepted to Duke, Yale, Princeton, Boston University …

Darline Fleurimond from Stamford entered the program at age 15. She is now a Kathwari Honors Scholar studying management information systems in Western Connecticut State University’s Ancell School of Business

Jennifer with GWI graduate Kristen St. Louis, holding her business plan developed in GWI’s Academy for her venture to improve literacy

“GWI played a pivotal role in shaping my decision to study business in college,” she says. “Before participating in GWI, I was unsure of what to study. The program introduced me to the world of business.” Darline is also active in student government.

Government is another area where Jennifer hopes women can gain more traction. “The World Economic Forum report just came out,” she says. “Women having more opportunities boils down to women having more leadership in business and government. They need early training so that they are challenged and think like leaders.”

Jodi Bell, a Greenwich native, started at GWI at age 15. While at Greenwich High School, she launched In Case of Deportation, an online resource center for youth preparing for the possibility of their parents being deported. Her venture attracted international press, and she received a full scholarship to college. She landed herself an internship and then a full-time position on BlackRock’s sustainable investing team. “She did not come from a Harvard but worked very hard and proactively networked herself,” says Jennifer, who, incidentally, was rejected by Harvard Business School. Now Harvard Business School professors teach for Girls With Impact.

Jennifer with GWI graduate Matayah O’Banyoun, who now attends College of the Holy Cross

The organization also reaches young women through the community college system. “Those students do not get presented with opportunities like those in traditional four-year colleges,” says Jennifer. “They need to know how to connect with companies.”

“It is still really hard,” admits Jennifer. “The truth is that most of the wealth and philanthropy is in the hands of men. I want those men with daughters to pay it forward. Women are a $12-trillion economic opportunity. The governor and our employers in Connecticut are hungry for this talent. They have jobs unfilled, because they do not have prepared talent.”

GET INVOLVED
Jennifer launched Girls With Impact with $25,000 from the Fairfield County Community Foundation, $25,000 from Houlihan Lawrence and $50,000 of her own money. She has built it up to an annual budget of over $1 million and given up her finance job in the process. “We are looking to go from 16,000 graduates to 50,000,” she says. “We are kicking off a $5 million campaign to enable us to do that.”

She encourages companies to make Girls With Impact a priority in their philanthropic or corporate efforts. Company employees can be mentors to GWI’s talent pipeline. “It’s a leadership development opportunity for their young people,” explains Jennifer. “They can help us transfer skills in their people to the next generation through mentoring, video education, interviews, power hours.”

Entrepreneur Brett Markinson and Jennifer with GWI graduates Karin Lund and Arianna Anderson

GWI partners include Johnson & Johnson, Nestlé, Henkel, Strategic Value Partners and Oaktree, among others. “If someone wants to play a leadership role with us, they can,”
says Jennifer, “whether it’s a gala event, helping to launch a new region or giving us speaking opportunities.”

Valeria Gladsztein, Henkel’s Regional Head of Human Resources for North America, comments, “At Henkel, we believe education is key to unlocking opportunity. We are proud to sponsor Girls With Impact, as they create opportunities for the next generation of leaders. By investing in the future of teen girls, GWI is helping to build a more inclusive and equitable future for all.”

Jennifer has two daughters, age 10 and 14. She started them in math tutoring in pre-K, “because it’s a language, and I wanted to get their brains flexible,” she says. As they grow up, she hopes for the minds around them to expand. “Companies have a responsibility to make sure they have an environment where women can thrive,” she says. “Many still operate with very outdated belief systems. Women are promoted on performance and men on promise.”

Jennifer at the Milken Conference with Anastasia Titurchuk, Chief Investment Officer of New York Common Fund; Los Angeles GWI student Siga Sakho, founder of Dear L.A., a venture addressing medical “deserts”; Victor Khosla, CEO and Founder of Strategic Value Partners; GWI graduate Anika Mistry, John Hopkins University student and CEO of DevMind VR, a virtual reality aid to help individuals with developmental disabilities

Jennifer continues, “We need to invest in the training of young women across the board. They offer untapped potential that we as a society need to unleash—it’s good for the girls, it’s good for their families, it’s good for the community, it’s good for our workplaces, and it makes America more competitive.”

On a personal level, Jennifer also emphasizes how making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate makes our own lives richer: “We have a natural inclination—because of all the things coming our way—to put up walls to giving, to sharing our time, talent and treasure. Don’t. You can make a difference by engaging your company, engaging your philanthropy or engaging with your own time as a mentor. But it starts with each of us.” girlswithimpact.org


SUCCESS SPOTLIGHT

Shreya Prabhu: The Female Factor Podcast

“I did the Girls With Impact mini-MBA program when I was in eighth grade, and I am a junior at Greenwich High School now. I founded a podcast called The Female Factor Podcast in partnership with Girls With Impact, and I am so proud of the fact that it has reached hundreds of listeners in 18 different countries and hundreds of followers on Instagram.

In the podcast, I interview inspiring teenage and college-aged girls who have made a positive change in the world, whether it be through starting businesses and nonprofits, advocating for more women in STEM or pushing overall for women’s rights through activism. We have recorded 20 episodes now and stick by a regular schedule of releasing episodes weekly.

Girls With Impact has equipped me with so many important skills that I will use for the rest of my life, but most important, it gave me the confidence to start my own venture. There are not many teen girls out there who have started their own venture, and being surrounded by women who have been successful in their initiatives and aspiring founders created an environment where I felt like I could create my own business and have it come to fruition.

Not only has GWI given me the tools to succeed in business, but they also supported me by partnering with me on my podcast and helping by spreading the word on social media and helping with finding inspiring young women to interview. I hope to give back to GWI through my role as the Events Chair on the NextGen Advisory Board.”

The Female Factor Podcast is available on Apple, Google and Spotify podcasts and on Instagram @femalefactorpodcast.

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