MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRLS THINK BIG.  They want to educate the world, stop violence, end discrimination, and save the planet.  What then happens to this female ambition?  Why do girls lose their voices?  Studies show that it’s because they lose their self-esteem.  As girls hit puberty, they become reluctant to assert themselves and it’s largely culture-based.

Katie Kirsch ’16, Jenna Leonardo ‘15, Rachel Chung ’15, and Natalya Thakur ‘15 are working to reverse the female brain drain.  The team of Stanford students has banded together to form Girls Driving for a Difference (GDD).  This summer they’re driving across the country in an RV to empower 10,000 middle school girls with design thinking.

Leonardo and Kirsch met working on social impact projects for Design for America.  After volunteering one day with the d.school’s SparkTruck, the duo was inspired.  SparkTruck has traveled over 15,000 miles across the US, teaching thousands of kids how to prototype and unleash their creativity.  Why couldn’t they apply the SparkTruck thesis to female empowerment?

“We started talking about how SparkTruck came out of nothing.  We first joked around about how we’d drive around California, then it was the west coast, and then it was why not the United States, all summer?” Leonardo chimes.

But GDD should not be confused with SparkTruck.

“SparkTruck works specifically with elementary coed to get them excited about the maker movement.  We are adopting a new vision and audience.  We’re angled to empower 10-14 girls as leaders.  Making stuff is not the focus,” Leonardo explains.

The group chose middle school girls for a reason.  They have found that many girls want to have social impact, but only one third of middle school aged girls want to lead it.

“The design thinking process forces them to step out their shells.  Girls are less likely to take risks, which is compounded when boys are in the room.  At the same time, we’ve seen that girls are more likely to take our teachings seriously simply because they mature differently than boys,” Kirsch explains.

The team acknowledges the complexities of only targeting middle school girls.  These girls will eventually grow up to face the challenges of a male dominated workforce.  GDD believes that girls will be prepared, however, if they are given a safe space to develop a certain confidence.

“If we’re just empowering women to be leaders in a context of just women, what happens when we bring in men?” Kirsch asks thoughtfully.  “Allowing girls to explore the type of leadership style they can embody is so important to allow them to pause and take guys out of the picture – it gives them a space that is uniquely theirs.”

So far the team has run five workshops, reaching over 100 girls.  The team has spent hours restructuring the design-thinking process in a way easily understood by middle schoolers.  The girls are coached to think visually, collaborate, and plan roadmaps to achieving their dreams.  They share stories, explore user needs, team brainstorm, analyze their own skillsets, and develop unique mission statements.

“We don’t baby them.  They know what drives them.  Our role is just to help them synthesize what they already know.  The girls can then carry this self-awareness as they grow into themselves,” Thakur explains.

The workshop culminates with each girl shouting her “mission statement”:

“I will use my skill in being a leader and my interest in cooking to make school lunches healthier.”
“I will use my skill in writing stories and my interest in debating to teach people how to be eco-friendly.”
“I will use my skills in leadership and my interest in reading to make a law that states that everyone should learn how to read.
“I will use my skill in speaking and my interest in human rights to make people equal and fight discrimination in our world.”


The mission statement prompt elicits a more powerful response than the age-old “What do you want to be when you grow up” question.

Chung explains what is wrong about the question: “It forces you to answer something you’ve already heard about.  We should be asking how you want to effect change.  It’s not I want to be a doctor, it’s what do you want to do for the world?”

In the midst of all the unique middle school mission statements, the GDD team is pretty clear in their mission.

“My mission is to use design to shape the future of education, empower young women, and change the world.  I want to go into the rest of my life with great intentionality and purpose. [GDD] is my mission statement becoming a reality,” Kirsch answered.

The team has already raised more than half of their $25,000 goal on Kickstarter.  They are actively seeking more sponsors, promotional support, and partnerships with girls’ communities across the country.  Currently, they are planning a test run over spring break.

“We’re still on the lookout for a low-cost RV,” Chung adds.  And as for living with three girls in an RV all summer, “there’s a first time for everything!”

Email: hello@girlsdrivingforadifference.com

By: Elise Johnson
Photos courtesy of GDD