During the past two decades, Jennifer Openshaw has been a prominent woman in the business world. She has held such titles as head of marketing and director of investor services at Wilshire Associates Inc., founder and CEO of the Women’s Financial Network, senior vice president of corporate marketing at JPMorgan Chase, CEO of the Family Financial Network, executive director of the Financial Women’s Association and partner at global consulting firm Mercer.
And that doesn’t include her output as a columnist for MarketWatch and her media appearances as a personal finance expert on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Today” and the major cable news channels.
In her latest endeavor, Openshaw is laying the foundation for a new generation of women to succeed in the corporate world. She recently launched Girls With Impact, a Darien-based nonprofit that provides an educational regimen designed to instill business savvy among high school-level girls. For Openshaw, this effort could not come at a better time.
“Companies see that women contribute to higher returns, more innovation and a better focus on customer service,” she said. “But many young people are not equipped to step into the working world. Companies are saying they want certain soft skills and business skills and we’re bringing that to them.”
Openshaw pointed to statistics that show women account for more than 50 percent of the workforce, but are less visible at the C-suite level. “Most people would say that’s because of business culture and leadership,” she said. “It is the cultural mindset of corporations that needs to change. The way to change that culture is to create a new kind of leader.”
Girls With Impact is designed as a 12-week academy that gives its young participants a crash course in how to conceive a business. Volunteer instructors offer their lessons through live online coursework and the students are encouraged to identify issues or areas where existing voids could be filled with new solutions.
“They are learning: Is there a real need and a problem?” Openshaw said. “What’s the solution? How do we bring it to market? Are there any competitors? They go through all of those exercises and get feedback from other people and learn how to take and accept feedback.”
Girls With Impact began with a pilot run in March with five girls from Greenwich and Fairfield high schools as participants. Applicants needed to fill out a written application and create a video on why they wanted to participate, as well as commit to staying for the full 12-week run. The program ended with a graduation ceremony on June 26 at the Stamford Innovation Center, where the program’s participants detailed their projects and received certificates of appreciation from the office of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
Among the members of the first class in Girls With Impact was 16-year-old Greenwich resident Jody Bell, who developed the business plan for “In Case of Deportation,” an online information resource to help children whose families are separated by deportation. “I previously wanted to follow science, but now I am thinking that I am genuinely interested in business,” Bell said.
Another Greenwich 16-year-old, Maddie Bassilik, used her Girls With Impact time to create a business plan for the proposed “Babysitter’s Club of Connecticut,” an online network that allows parents to hire babysitters trained in tutoring techniques and CPR. “I learned how to responsibly run a business and what different aspects I need to work on and incorporate into a successful business,” she said.
“Three weeks into the academy part, you can already start to see a change in them,” Openshaw said. “And their parents said they were also starting to see a change.”
Openshaw plans to expand Girls With Impact in the fall to a 100-student program focused in Connecticut. She plans to charge a $495 fee for program participation, although she said a waiver could be arranged for girls from families in serious financial need. At the moment, she is self-financing this startup, although she is hopeful that corporate sponsors will step in and help cover the costs going forward.
For the long haul, Openshaw thinks Girls With Impact will also grow into a self-supporting network of women business leaders and innovators.
“This is a conversation that doesn’t happen at school or at home, but it is about them and what is of interest to them and equipping them with knowledge and tools to succeed. Over the next decade, there will be virtually no real change unless we make lots of changes. And not just baby steps.”