Felicia Philibert listened as a roomful of entrepreneurs, artists, academics and community organizers discussed projects for which they’d each recently received a grant.
A playwright was working to launch a new theater. A baker hoped to expand her business. A birth doula sought additional support for low-income families. They’d come from around Minnesota, representing different disciplines and backgrounds. But they had at least one thing in common: they were all women in their teens and early 20s, eager to improve the world and well on their way to doing it.
Philibert, a 22-year-old college student, came with her own big plans: building a nonprofit to encourage young women to get into politics. The gathering, she said, was a transcendent experience. There was no competition or comparison. No negativity or naysayers to suggest that the diverse group of young women should step aside and let someone else lead.
“That’s not a room I’ve ever been in before,” Philibert said.
Creating more of those rooms is the goal of the Young Women’s Initiative, a first-of-its kind partnership between the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and state government that seeks to support young women in a wide variety of ways. Launched in 2016 with the help of former Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration, the effort has blossomed from a big idea to a real force for change in the lives of women around the state.
In addition to handing out some of the $9 million the Women’s Foundation has pledged over the next several years, the initiative is connecting young women with influential leaders in business, government and the arts, and training them to advocate at the State Capitol.
Saanii Hernandez, vice president of the foundation, said the aim is to show Minnesotans the impact young women have right now — not just some distant future.
“We believe young women are leaders of tomorrow, but we also believe they are leaders of today,” she said. “They’re already starting nonprofit organizations and running businesses and leading change, so we need to invest in that now.”
Sorting out where to make that investment has taken work. Before setting up the partnership with the state, the women’s foundation sent its staff out around Minnesota to gather input from young women and the communities in which they live. They asked about the women’s successes — and their struggles. What problems did they hope to solve? What roadblocks seemed to stand in their way? What would it take for them to continue their education, join the workforce, find housing and feel safe?
The organization zeroed in on groups that face significant disparities in some or all of those areas — young women of color, American Indian women, LGBTQ women, young women with disabilities and young women from greater Minnesota — and set about building a panel of experts.
The Young Women’s Cabinet, made up of 25 members between the ages of 16 and 24, now meets regularly at the YWCA in St. Paul. Its young members operate like the board of a nonprofit organization, handing out grants, setting up events and training sessions and even crafting a policy platform for this year’s legislative session.
Cabinet members have awarded multiple $25,000 grants to community organizations that support young women, like St. Paul Youth Services, Honor the Earth, and the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys, along with $2,500 “microgrants” to individual women.
For cabinet members like Ling Debellis, 18, the experience provides both validation and a window into future opportunities.
Debellis, a senior at Mounds Park Academy in St. Paul, has a neuromuscular condition that “looks like polio.” When she spotted a notice at school about applying for the cabinet, Debellis was excited to see that its organizers were specifically looking to hear from someone like her — something she said doesn’t always happen for people with disabilities.
Even better: the initiative didn’t just want her to represent people with disabilities. Its members valued her experience as a Chinese-American adoptee, a student recently accepted to college and a science-minded scholar who hopes to work in biomedicine.
“We’re bringing awareness to these specific community groups and emphasizing that we’re not just one thing,” she said.
Fellow cabinet member Raie Gessesse, 20, is an Ethiopian-American student at Hamline University. She hopes to one day earn graduate degrees in public health and public policy, and said her work with the Young Women’s Initiative is already helping with that goal. In her second year on the cabinet, her fellow members elected her co-chair — a position that meant she’d be the one meeting directly with elected officials and business leaders to urge them to tackle issues facing young women.
Gessesse said those are the kinds of meetings that should be happening more often, and involving more of her peers.
“We are very cognizant of the fact that we are opening doors for other young women to follow and enter spaces of power that continue to be inaccessible,” she said.
Some major Twin Cities businesses and institutions are taking note. After members of the Young Women’s Initiative recommended that Best Buy expand its “Career Pathways” program for young people to focus more on young women, the company launched two new programs. Based at Hope Community in Minneapolis and Keystone Community Services in St. Paul, the programs offer training in both “soft skills” — communication, interpersonal skills, job interviewing — and “hard skills” like video production, information security and computer programming. The company has already hired on more than a dozen young women as paid interns, following their successful participation in the program.
Andrea Riehl, a manager on Best Buy’s social impact team, said the company is eager to invest in young women who will be needed to help ease a coming shortage of workers in technology. She said leaders can gain valuable insight from young women that can shape everything from product development to store design.
“That perspective is something that’s desperately needed in the [technology] environment,” she said.
Women’s Foundation leaders say there’s much more to do in the years ahead, and they intend to keep the momentum going in partnership with Dayton’s successor, Gov. Tim Walz. A spokesman for Walz said the administration is still formalizing plans with the initiative, but intends to continue the partnership.
That’s good news for women like Atlese Robinson, 25, an Augsburg University student who last year received a $2,500 grant she used to help with the “baby steps” of starting her own theater company. She hopes to earn a second grant this year to keep the momentum going and is eager to share in the enthusiasm of the other leaders powered by the Young Women’s Initiative program.
“Each and every woman in the room has given me reason to shine,” she said, “and given me reason to go further in everything I do.”