As young girls, we may have been taught to “be nice,” “be quiet,” or to take a back seat. Mission Propelle flips this socialization on its head.
Imagine the power of a room filled with elementary-age girls chanting, “I am smart, I am strong, I am kind!” Mission Propelle is bringing to life a world where girls can feel like confident leaders and use their voices. Through after school programs that include reading, yoga and reflection, their mission is “to empower elementary-age girls to know who they are, what they believe, and how to advocate for themselves.”
The co-founders Annie Warshaw and Jill Carey witnessed first hand the obstacles young girls face today during their time as teachers with TFA. “Our work should start with girls,” says Annie, CEO and co-founder. Annie and Jill create their own books that they feel represent girls’ needs to use during their programs. Dottie, a strong female protagonist, is a character the girls can look up to and relate to.
“Mission Propelle accelerates girls toward a path of leadership by giving them the skillsets to step up in any situation that calls for intervention,” added Jill.
As these girls become women and step into the world, they will have already practiced leadership in a safe setting and understand their intrinsic value. Mission Propelle is an important step in the journey to achieve gender parity in leadership roles and make the world a more equitable place.
Jill Carey, President and Co-founder, says her dream for Mission Propelle is to “raise up a generation of girls that step up … and say I am a leader and I have ideas and I’m going to change this country so that we can realize gender equality on all levels of leadership.”
Her Agenda: As co-founders of Mission Propelle, could you describe what your partnership is like?
Annie: Jill and I are complete opposites, which is really complimentary in terms of being able to achieve goals and outcomes. Although we are opposites, we’re cut from the same cloth so we understand how to plan, what planning looks like and what vision setting looks like. We are opposite in our thinking patterns but we can keep each other in check.
Jill: We’re aligned on the things that matter. One of Annie’s top gifts is that she sees what needs to be done and hops to it without hesitation. By contrast, I’m more detail-oriented (Annie: which is amazing!) and I really want things perfect. Annie sometimes jokes about it and says [Mission Propelle] wouldn’t exist, which is true! I have a hard time bringing things public if I don’t feel like they’re perfect. So there would be no Mission Propelle without Annie. She is like the propellant; she makes things happen. Once we are running, then I take a second look at say ‘okay, how can we do this differently?’
Annie: But it’s the same with Jill. She’s the vision for our branding and our illustrations, which are a huge component of bringing our work to life. If it were just me, we would be in ten cities failing right now (laughs). But, we’re both really good problem solvers. We are also leaders in very different ways and how we use our influence.
Her Agenda: How did you both come to the decision to pursue this endeavor full-time?
Annie: We were incorporated in January 2013. I was still teaching and Jill was at Groupon. We got one school while we were both working that spring. I just said “I’m going to do this. I don’t care if I have to work at Starbucks.” That was my mindset. Once I was done with school I was full-time starting June 2013. Within two months we had 8 schools so we were really just figuring it out and couldn’t bring Jill on full-time yet. In September 2014, we were finally able to financially do that.
Jill: We always knew we were going to be full-time, we just didn’t know when. We weren’t waiting for success to make the leap but, we were looking for a path to make it possible to be fiscally responsible while growing.
Her Agenda: What is your advice for those looking for a co-founder? What do you think are best practices for successful partnerships?
Jill: Advice I would give to someone with a business idea looking for a partner is to have a deep and fundamental respect for that person and asset-based thinking toward them. There’s always going to be a gap between expectation and reality. Whatever you fill in that blank needs to be positive.
Annie: I would say when you found a business together, you are getting married. The personal is professional. Most people I know who approach partnerships are of the mindset that ‘this is my best friend’ and I think that works in some circumstances but I would be careful. You have to evaluate whether this partnership is worth the friendship. Once money is involved and you have to approach things in a professional way, which is probably not what your friendship is based on, I think it becomes difficult to navigate both of those dynamics simultaneously.
Her Agenda: In your own words, could you talk about the impact of Mission Propelle’s programs?
Jill: Mission Propelle is the catalyst that helps girls accept who they are with the understanding that their value is intrinsic. It helps them move from there to helping others. So they come into the class and often times they’re not clear on what their identity is and where they derive their value – we help them find that. Once they feel secure in themselves, then they have security to be leaders and to stand up on behalf of other people who are voiceless or face conflicts in their life where they need support. Our girls can offer that in a really mature way, which is exceptional. We have first graders who are problem solving with skill sets that adults are just now beginning to learn. I was at a corporation full of adults and we went through trainings like ‘how to use I-statements to solve problems.’ We have five and six year-olds who are using I-statements to solve problems.
Mindfulness is now a huge component of corporate cultures and we teach girls mindfulness. In the space between a stimulus and a response, they take a deep breath, think through what they’re going to do and then move forward rather than just being reactionary.
Her Agenda: Why specifically reading, yoga and reflection as a program?
Annie: Reading specifically using our original books gives girls the platform to discuss what’s going on in their lives because the content is very normal and things that they will encounter. It’s that 15-20 minutes of their day carved out to specifically discuss the problems they’re facing, the feelings that they have within them and how they want to manage those feelings and solve those problems. If they don’t feel comfortable talking about it from their own perspective, then they have our characters to project their feelings onto.
We use yoga because it is a very internal practice. It gives you a voice within yourself that allows you to accept who you are in that moment. While ours is not really a quiet yoga that focuses on that inside voice all the time, we’re still teaching girls to access that voice by giving them the words that different poses conjure up. So in any of our power poses the girls are screaming powerful phrases so that they’re connecting ‘when I take up space with my physical body, I am actually taking up space in this world and I am big and I am important and I deserve to be in this space.’
The reflections/games reiterate the theme that we were discussing for that day. Everything in our class is driven by one of our 12 character traits; our books also align to them, perhaps what they’re yelling in the yoga sequence too. Then, the game allows them to take the concept and see it in practice so it’s not this theoretical idea but something that’s tangible and feasible.
Her Agenda: As female leaders, do you undergo some version of these programs yourselves? What is your own practice?
Jill: I teach a handful of classes and I learn a lot from the girls. Even when I’m teaching I’m thinking ‘oh, I need to do this.’ For example, I was teaching a group of Kindergarten girls about reflectiveness, which can be very difficult to explain. Reflectiveness is about what you see on the inside. That is very high-level thinking for a Kindergartner. So, how can I explain how to exercise reflecting rather than the theory of it? I told them: “This is reflectiveness – Something happens. Press pause. Take a deep breath and say something that’s true.” We worked on this for a long time; we even chanted it. The “say something true” is the hard piece. If someone says they don’t like me, something true might be “well I like me” or “other people like me.”
So, I’ve been trying this in my own life. When there’s a stimulus and I want to respond immediately, like someone sends [me] a sassy email, I’m like ‘time out, deep breath, say something true!’
Annie asks Jill: How has being around our language and how we write our books changed who you are?
Jill: I’ve learned that there’s a duality in every conflict situation and I need to set people up to succeed. So, there are pain points in my life just like in everyone else’s life and when I make myself vulnerable to someone else I will preface it with ‘I’m going to tell you something I feel vulnerable about and the only response I need from you is to listen.’ And that duality sets that person up for success. People sometimes don’t know what to say or what to do. I see this all the time with our girls and they’re hurting each other. It’s because they don’t understand the duality of conflict management. You do have to humble yourself and set aside what you think you deserve in order to bring to light a path forward. This applies to our girls but it also applies to our adult relationships and I didn’t view the world that way until I started doing this. I just thought ‘people should know what to do,’ but everyone has a different idea of the right response.
Annie: Well our big thing in class is the language that we use because we want girls to continue and emulate certain behaviors. So along the same lines as Jill, when I get what I need out of a relationship, I positively reinforce the crap out of it and make sure that I vocally acknowledge that I see the person trying so they know it’s hitting a chord with me and continue that behavior.
Also, we are telling girls ‘you are leaders, you are important’ and if we don’t believe that about ourselves then we can’t convince girls of that. I’ve really had to take that on and feel comfortable with it. When we first started, I was not comfortable selling us or our ideas and even doubted why people were buying our product. Initially, a lot of people had to convince me why but now I don’t need anyone to tell me because I know that. I don’t doubt what we’re doing for a second and I don’t doubt my ability to sell it or Jill’s ability to sell it. And, coming from spaces that were not super supportive it was definitely not a natural mindset for me but holding this role has forced me to do so.
I was also a ‘gut and do’ kind of person but now I have to stop and reflect to come up with an action plan, which is something we always talk to our girls about. For example, if there’s conflict on the playground, go onto that playground with a couple of options in your back pocket. That’s how we approach work as well, which has been really useful.
Her Agenda: What advice would you give to some of our millennial female readers who are still feeling unsure of themselves or have a lack of self-confidence?
Jill: I would strongly recommend anyone who’s feeling unsure to sit down and write down the five things in their lives that really matter. Then, make every single decision based on that priority scale. When I start to feel pressured to perform or win awards, I go back to that list and say ‘is where I’m putting my energy reflecting my value system and the things I want to prioritize.’ So mine are: Faith (I begin the first half hour of my day journaling and a bible study), Family (having strong relationships), Finances (I want to be a good steward of my finances), Friends (nurturing strong group and speak truth into my life), and work. This is very grounding because there is so much pressure to constantly be in the spotlight. The ’30 under 30 lists’…it’s all so burdensome. But, then I get still and go back to that list and say ‘how am I doing in my faith or my marriage?’ I know if these things are strong all of that other stuff just falls away. Whatever holds our attention, is the direction of our path.
Annie: You don’t need to win a 30 under 30 contest to be successful! Realize your assets and skill sets you’re gaining in whatever position you are in. While you might not like your job or whatever it is at this moment, if you can leverage those assets in 5, 10 years then you’re going to be positioned to do whatever you want to do. Everything you do in life, you’re gaining some skill set. But, if you are complaining and not recognizing it then you’re not going to use them and benefit.
[Editor’s note: This feature published on July 5th, 2016. It has been edited for length and clarity.]