When I joined American University’s inaugural She’s the First chapter as an undergraduate student in Washington D.C., I had no idea the incredible impact my work would have on young girls across the world. Moreover, I did not realize how much I would learn more about my own leadership style as well as gain transferable skills that I still use for my work today. This comes as no surprise given that Tammy Tibbetts, the co-founder of She’s the First, is passionate about helping women and girls realize their full potential.
Originally starting as a social media campaign to inspire and motivate millennials to support girls’ education, She’s the First has equipped 1,100 scholars with scholarships, mentorship, and all the tools needed to be community change-makers across the world. With over 200 chapters on college and university chapters across the country, young women are helping to progress the fight against global gender inequality thanks to She’s the First.
Running a purpose-driven organization, Tammy successfully leads staff, coordinates with her co-founder, meets with direct reports, and interfaces frequently with Board members, funders and advisors across the country. Using her background in traditional journalism, she applies her experience in ethical storytelling to the social impact space to drive the development of her organization.
On Day of the Girl this year, She’s the First announced its involvement in The Global Girls Alliance, a program launched by former First Lady Michelle Obama. Focused on creating long-term visible impact, one of Tammy’s tips to success is clarifying her top three priorities every day to ensure she stays focused. Read on to learn more about Tammy’s career journey and her insight as a purpose-driven founder.
Her Agenda: How would you describe your career path up until you founded She’s the First?
Tammy Tibbetts: My career path as far as ending up in nonprofit was very unexpected, but there’s been a common thread in everything I’ve done. What has guided me is a personal passion for helping women and girls realize their full potential.
When I started my career in media at Hearst Magazines in 2007 great brands were [beginning to] launch digital platforms. I had the chance to be a part of that entrepreneurial experience. I was working on brands associated with Seventeen Magazine. Later on, I became the first social media editor of Seventeen. Digital and social media have been a driving force in my work and the creation of She’s the First. [We] started it as a social media campaign. I have always strived to take the traditional journalism education I have about ethical storytelling and apply that now to the social impact space, the business of fundraising and running the development side of an organization.
Her Agenda: Understanding the background and story around how She’s the First started as an idea and then grew into what it is today, what would you tell someone you know that might have a great idea but hasn’t moved forward yet in making it a reality?
Tammy Tibbetts: Start really small and put your idea immediately into your communities. I think that’s what made She’s the First successful. It did not launch with the grand plan of becoming a nonprofit organization. It was a simple social media campaign meant to inform people about the issue of girls lacking access to education around the world and give you some ideas on what to do about it. We were focused on identifying easy ways you could fundraise as a young person with limited cash and we were directing you to organizations that you could give to. This was way before we ever thought we could develop programs of our own and before we had deep relationships with locally lead nonprofits around the world.
All of this came with time and listening to our local partners about what their needs were and responding to those, but in the very beginning it was just a concept that we put out into our own networks with the question of how much could we get them to care about girls education globally and inspire them to pay it forward. It turned out that She’s the First was very effective at evoking those emotions and desires. Everything kind of snowballed from there.
Put your idea out and see how your own friends and family respond to it. Chances are you’ll pick up supporters or even a co-founder along the way.
Her Agenda: What motivated you to tackle such a huge problem?
Tammy Tibbetts: I know how important education has been in my own life as a college graduate, as someone who was able to dream up a career in the magazine industry and then make it happen, and someone who has been able to travel around the world. I traced my success back to the fact that I had a great public education and then a wonderful college that I could go to, to specialize in journalism. The other part is that the problems in this world are so massive and crippling but if you really focus in on what skills you can contribute it will move you towards creating an impact. I knew my limitations. I knew what I was strong at. In the very early stages, what I was best at was social media and that is really all I intended to contribute in the beginning. My digital skills back in 2009 were even more valuable because fewer people knew what to do with them. I saw how I could plug into that. It is important to realize that it’s not on your shoulders to figure out these problems and issues on your own. It takes partnerships with other people, which is even more important when it’s a global issue. Be kind and humble enough to know what strengths that you can offer, but also recognize when you have to take a step back and let other leaders who know best step up. In our case, the women and girls we work with are those leaders. It is important to let other people lead the way and provide the resources that they need to succeed.
…the problems in this world are so massive and crippling but if you really focus in on what skills you can contribute it will move you towards creating an impact.
Her Agenda: What is the reason you choose not to call what your organization does charity?
Tammy Tibbetts: Well it starts with the connotation of charity, which particularly for most people is not very positive or empowering. It doesn’t protect the dignity of the people it addresses. When you think of charity, you most likely think of handouts or helping people who can’t help themselves. We don’t believe in being put in that box because what we’re creating is sustainable change. When a girl is educated and specifically through programs that mentor her to become a leader she is capable of creating change in her community that far outweighs anything that we could directly provide. It is important for people to understand when they want to make an impact in the world. There is a time and a place for charity, for example, in the wake of a natural disaster or hurricane, you need to participate in those band-aid solutions such as donating clothes or food to help people who are immediately in need. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that it takes the change of systems to prevent people in the long term from being disadvantaged. We have to stay focused on solutions that make people self-sufficient. This is what She’s the First does.
…it takes the change of systems to prevent people in the long term from being disadvantaged. We have to stay focused on solutions that make people self-sufficient. This is what She’s the first does.
Her Agenda: What is the character trait you think has allowed for the amount of success you’ve experienced?
Tammy Tibbetts: I’m really good at surrounding myself with people who compliment my own strengths and weaknesses. For example, my co-founder and I are very complementary. I hire people who are really brilliant and do what I do even better. I choose board members who can take She’s the First to new heights and also listen to ideas that the people around me and on my team have and when it’s a good idea, I work with them to make it happen. I’m open to change.
…I’m really good at surrounding myself with people who compliment my own strengths and weaknesses.
[Editor’s note: This interview published on November 26th, 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.]