Haley Kilpatrick, now a successful author, social entrepreneur and dynamic speaker, remembers when she ate alone in the middle school restroom to avoid being left out of the lunchroom scene. But when an older high school girl befriended her, things began to change. Once she understand that she was not alone, she gained a source of confidence and hope, and was and inspired her through those difficult years of transition

It was this experience that inspired her to start Girl Talk in 2002 at the age of 15, and to build it into an nonprofit organization that has reached 40,000 girls in 48 states and 7 countries. The goal: empower middle and high school girls through peer mentoring, leadership opportunities, and community service.

With the talk “Confident Women, Confident Girls,” Kilpatrick will be one of the featured speakers at the G3 Women’s Conference, November 13-15 in Sonoma.

The Sun: How did you get Girl Talk started?

Haley Kilpatrick: Girl Talk was started with the sole intention of helping my sister and her friends get through middle school and to not have the same experience that I did. I shared the idea with my mom and she immediately saw Girl Talk’s potential. She really encouraged me to make that vision a reality. I conceptualized the program in my room and the name came to me naturally! I scheduled a meeting with my principal and went in with a poster board that served as a visual for what I wanted to do at our school. With his blessing, Girl Talk started just a few weeks later. Eighty percent of our middle school girls came to the first meeting and in that moment I realized just how much these girls needed support and guidance.

Where have you seen the greatest growth and development of the program?

We’ve recognized that Girl Talk is far more than a mentoring program for middle school girls, but also a leadership program for high school girls — more than 83 percent of our once middle school participants are now Girl Talk Leaders. It’s also been proven that if girls feel more cared for emotionally, it will show in the classroom and on their report cards (as I instinctively knew in sixth grade when my grades dropped, thanks to my social situation): we found a 14 percent improvement in Girl Talk participants’ math grades and a 24 percent improvement in language arts since they started the program. And of course we’ve seen positive effects that can’t be measured; our Girl Talk Girls and Leaders report feeling more confident, kinder to others and sure of themselves.

As you have transitioned from a teenager with a goal into a woman on a mission, has your perspective changed?

The more time I spend around middle and high school girls, the more I realize that they are truly the experts in how to best navigate their uncharted, digital world. I’ve found that if most adults would listen more, they could learn the ways that girls want to be supported, even if they come in one-word sentences. My hope is that today’s middle school girls will grow up to be servant leaders, who treat one other with kindness and respect, and that they will model and encourage that behavior throughout their lives.

Why is this whole tween thing so much more challenging than ever?

Why is this whole tween thing so much more challenging than ever?Digital drama, unrealistic expectations, and the pressure to be perfect. I have learned that the three main pressures girls feel today are around bullying — physical, emotional, and cyberbullying; body image and how others perceive them; and brand consciousness, who has what and how that affects their life. We know bullying is an epidemic. It is all of the things an adult experienced, except today it doesn’t end when students leave school. Digital drama is hard to escape and it is 24/7. Girls are bullying each other through texts, pictures, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the list goes on. A recent MTV/AP poll found that 56 percent of people ages 14-24 have experienced some form of digital abuse.

As for girls who watch reality television, it is no wonder they accept more drama in their lives and have a skewed definition of friendship. These girls have grown up watching women be paid to tear each other down. That kind of television doesn’t make it easier to raise kind, confident girls

I know a girl’s body image is so wrapped up in her self-esteem. One of the most shocking discoveries was learning that tween girls don’t understand self-esteem; they define it as how others see them instead of how they see themselves. Adults need to model good behavior whether you think they are watching you or not, I promise you they are. These are also the years where girls simply want to blend in and they are going to materialistic extremes to not be the subject of ridicule. As backwards as it may seem, we learned having the “it” things, merely prevents the spotlight from being on her. In short, her materialistic desires are more about blending in than standing out.

How do you think we can give girls (and guys) the tools to navigate their tech-saturated environment?

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three things you can incorporate into their lives that don’t require too much time or a lot of. Each of these is invaluable, but when they’re used in tandem, they can be transformative. These things are an anchor activity, a helping hand and an adopted older sister.

How do they help?

They help keep her mind off the drama, and also serve a source of confidence and validation. An Anchor Activity: This could be a sport, a musical instrument, theater, art classes, babysitting, a school club, environmental activism, something she can throw herself into, that takes place outside of school, so she can be free from the social pressures of school and that seems to fulfill her creatively, intellectually, and socially. A Helping Hand: A chance to be a part of something larger than herself, to connect to a larger world, to instill gratitude for what she has, and allow her to see the reality of others’ lives. This could be a weekly or monthly volunteer commitment. And there’s the Adopted Older Sister: A positive role model your middle school girl can look up to. Someone who’s just been in your girl’s shoes and can both relate to her, so she doesn’t feel as alone, and can advise her on how to handle whatever she’s going through.

When each of these is a part of her life, she has an outlet to keep her mind off the ups and downs of middle school; she has an opportunity to be of service, to give her; and she has someone to decipher and decode her experiences, to let her know that she’s not alone.

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This post was originally published on It is re-posted here with permission of the author.

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