Student Impact Story: Katlyn Grasso, W’15

Katlyn Grasso believes that young women have the potential to change the world for better.  But, too many young women are sidetracked on the path to leadership and influence.  Last summer she set out to learn why and to do something about it.

Katlyn– a Wharton junior and young woman, herself — spent last summer researching the factors that may contribute to an achievement gap between women and men in leadership positions.

Although women now outnumber men in earning collegiate degrees, she explains, gender disparity still exists in leadership positions in the United States: women constitute only 18.3 percent of Congressional seats and 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions. But this leadership gap begins much earlier in women’s lives.

Grasso, an economics major with concentrations in finance and strategic globalization, began her study by surveying 700 high school girls to uncover the biggest issues facing these potential leaders — issues such as peer pressure, gender stereotypes, or intense academic and societal expectations.

She’s parlaying her research into a social enterprise start-up, GenHERation.

A group of high school girls listen to speakers at Grasso's summer leadership camp in Buffalo, NY.
A group of high school girls listen to speakers at Grasso’s summer leadership camp in Buffalo, NY.

“Girls have to be told at a young age — before they fall victim to their own self-doubt – that they can be influential,” Grasso explains. “Once a girl thinks that she can’t be successful, it becomes challenging for her to overcome this perception.”

Exploring the leadership gap

Grasso’s passion for the topic led her to also interview 40 executives, ranging from business leaders to social entrepreneurs.  She met with entrepreneurs such as Ivanka Trump, and executives from Oprah Winfrey’s TV network, the Tory Burch Foundation, and Gilt Group.

From her interviews, she noticed many similarities among these successful women. Most had held early leadership roles in school and every executive said her career had been shaped by a professional mentor or sponsor somewhere along the way.

“These women believe their prior experiences provided them with a foundation for leading diverse groups of people,” says Grasso. “The most critical part of becoming a professional leader is demonstrating confidence in your abilities.”

Grasso now believes that in order to encourage women to become leaders, her efforts to empower women must occur earlier in the timeline – when they are in high school or even earlier.

With grants from the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and the Wharton Innovation Fund, Grasso piloted a girls’ summer leadership camp in her hometown of Buffalo, NY, with the intent of developing a female empowerment start-up.

The camp brought female executives to speak about the camp’s four principles: confidence, public speaking, social impact and innovation. Thirty high school students met with the leaders, while also seeking advice from local professionals and brainstorming potential social impact projects.

“What I enjoyed the most about this camp was that each speaker was unique; however, they each explained that through determination any goal could be achieved,” said one camper, describing the environment as one where girls are encouraged to “create the best version of themselves.”

Once she returned to classes at Wharton, Grasso was inspired to scale her program by joining Wharton’s Venture Initiation Program — and shifted from a nonprofit to a for-profit model.

Adapted from Grasso’s pilot summer camp, GenHERation is an online leadership portal designed to empower girls to take a stand against social inequalities

“GenHERation enables girls to become advocates for a particular issue, and provides them with the resources and opportunities for collaboration to develop their own social impact projects,” she explains. By bringing these projects to life, GenHERation users apply and strengthen leadership skills while working to make a positive difference in their communities.

Grasso’s mission is to inspire young women to be more socially conscious, to think innovatively, and to be more confident in their leadership abilities – and perhaps stimulate a new generation of social entrepreneurs.

Looking forward

The busy undergrad sees the field of social entrepreneurship growing, and Wharton playing a key role.

She believes that Wharton Social Impact Initiative and its programs can help promote social change by encouraging students to take a proactive approach in impacting the community through business-based solutions.

“What I love about Wharton Social Impact Initiative,” Grasso says, “is that it takes problems that exist and couples them with business programs to develop sustainable solutions.”

And that’s precisely what Grasso is hoping to do with GenHERation – to use a business program, in this case online coaching and community, to build young women’s confidence, aspirations, and achievement.