Blair Brettschneider became the founder of the nonprofit organization GirlForward after noticing the need for a support community to help young refugee girls reach their goals. A Chicago transplant with a B.S. in Communication and a Professional Certificate in Nonprofit Management, Blair has been featured on CNN Heroes, named one of Forbes' 30 Under 30 in Education and Crain's Chicago Business 20 in their 20s, and honored by the Chicago Foundation for Women Impact Awards and the YWomen Leadership Awards.
Women’s workplace-rating company InHerSight connected with Blair to learn more about what inspired her to create the nonprofit and how she overcomes challenges.
Q: What made you want to start a nonprofit?
I started GirlForward because I recognized a gap in support for adolescent girls whose families had resettled in the United States after experiencing long-term displacement. After college, I got a job at a refugee resettlement agency and was doing entry-level fundraising and communications work. I wanted to learn more about the organization’s mission and the families coming through the doors, so I started tutoring at the after-school center in my free time. I started tutoring one-on-one with a girl who had grown up in a refugee camp in Tanzania before resettling in Chicago in 2008. I saw that there was no support — no after-school program, mentorship program, anything — designed to really help girls like her achieve their goals, and I thought that should change.
Q: What kind of programs does GirlForward offer?
Our mentoring program pairs girls with mentors to engage in "4W" activities (Wellness, Wisdom, Wallet, and World) in order to explore their passions and graduate from high school. Girls are paired with women mentors within in the local community for at least one school year, and they meet together at least two hours weekly to talk about anything from school, to relationships, to careers. Mentors and mentees are friends, role models, teachers, and confidants for each other.
Camp GirlForward provides a space for girls to simultaneously build their English skills while exploring their identities and learning about the world around them. Over [the course of] six weeks during the summer, our literacy-based curriculum explores the themes of identity, community, and power through classroom instruction and field trips.
And finally, the Safe Spaces Program provides safe spaces for girls to explore their identities, connect with other girls, and access the resources they need. Curriculum ranges from tutoring to a variety of monthly workshops.
Q: What were the toughest parts of starting an organization from scratch, and what helped you get through it all?
The toughest parts are having to learn everything as I go. I’m still trying to learn what I need to know to do my job. It can be really lonely and isolating. I have such supportive friends — they come to events, they’re monthly donors, they’re helping me stuff envelopes for days on end — but their jobs are different, so I don’t often have someone who can relate to the same struggles. Finding a few informal mentors has been crucial for me. I also try to connect with fellow executive directors and founders when I can. Sometimes we talk about apps that are helpful or strategies we have used, other times we just complain to each other, and I think both can be really helpful.
Q: What’s your favorite program or service that GirlForward offers?
I don’t think I should pick favorites because all of our programs are important, but the Mentoring Program is my favorite and is the closest to my heart. It’s incredible to watch the bond between girls and their mentors develop over time. When girls graduate from high school and have a mentor by their side who has been there for three or four years, it’s amazing.
Q: What future projects are you working on for the organization?
Right now, our Austin team is working on getting their new program center set up. We just moved into a space that will host our office as well as after-school programming, and we’re really excited to get it all going!
Q: What advice would you give to women trying to start or run a business?
Find mentors! Even if it’s someone you just meet for coffee every couple of months, if you find someone great, it is really helpful. Learn how to manage people. If your job includes managing people, it will be the hardest part of your job. Many people who start businesses or organizations are visionary people, big picture people. Eventually, you might start to feel like a middle manager and be totally ill equipped to be in that role. Fortunately, there are resources out there to help.
InHerSight offers women an online community to connect with company reviews and workplace advice, all centered on female-friendliness.
By Meredith Boe
Meredith Boe is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago. Aside from contributing to InHerSight with insights about women in the workplace, she regularly writes literary criticism, nature articles, poetry, and creative prose.