Diane Meiller has hosted a competition for high school girls the last eight years to promote the idea that gender shouldn’t hinder leadership roles.
Meiller, who runs Diane Meiller & Associates, a business management consulting company in Orlando, Fla., brings in high-achieving women to convince teenage girls that they too can become business and community leaders – maybe even captains of industry – if they’re willing to persevere against obstacles.
“Sometimes, all it takes is a little attention and encouragement to inspire a girl to really pursue goals they were capable of achieving all along,” Meiller said.
The theme for this year’s competition – Economic Independence Equals Freedom – struck a chord with Etta Money, chief executive officer and president of InCharge Debt Solutions. Money supplied two of the mentors for the event, Soraia De Araujo, vice president of operations, and Nidia Mercado, director of creditor relations.
“The mentoring aspect of the competition is huge, something we really wanted to be part of,” Money said. “Women who have substantial positions in the community and share their experiences in solving problems are great role models for young girls.
“And the theme is exactly what our company is about,” Money added. “We help people become debt free and enjoy the financial freedom that goes with that.”
The participants in the competition were chosen by guidance counselors from the public high school system in Orange County. Meiller specified that she wanted “middle-of-the-road” students, who might be flying under the radar.
“The kids at the extreme ends – straight A’s or underperforming – typically get all the attention at school,” Meiller said. “We wanted good kids, who maybe have a job or are involved in school programs, but come from socio-economic challenged environments where they don’t get any exposure to the community and business leaders.”
The students are divided into groups and each group is assigned a different community problem to solve. Each group has a mentor to provide expertise in problem solving.
The groups are given a mythical $100,000 budget to spend on consulting, research and marketing. They are encouraged to share resources, network with other groups, collaborate when possible, and make a presentation at the end of the day.
The subjects they tackled were drugs in schools; cyber-bullying; access to healthcare; student safety in schools; access to higher education and mass transportation.
“We didn’t give them any advance notice about the problems we wanted them to solve, but their ability to quickly comprehend the issue and its impact on the community was extraordinary,” Meiller said. “They really exceeded our expectations.”
The winning team was awarded $2,500 and decided to donate $1,000 of that to the “Girl Up” program sponsored by the United Nations. The “Girl Up” campaign offers financial and education resources to girls living in places around the world where it is hardest to be a girl.
Yolanda Londono, vice president for Global Social Responsibility at Tupperware, shared stories with the participants about women from around the world who had nothing, but as soon as they were able to start a business and generate income, could make decisions about what to buy, where to live, and how to raise and educate their children.
“When you have economic independence, you have the ability to make your own decisions, rather than have them made for you,” Meiller said. “We hope all the girls are confident they have the ability and the aptitude to succeed and a greater passion for becoming leaders in their community.”
“We need to help girls develop their understanding of setting goals, understanding budgets, networking and working with others,” Money said. “The more we can encourage them to step forward with a can-do attitude, the better the pool for women leaders is going to be.”
In his 40-plus-year newspaper career, George Morris has written about just about everything -- Super Bowls, evangelists, World War II veterans and ordinary people with extraordinary tales. His work has received multiple honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press and the Louisiana Press Association. He avoids debt when he can and pays it off quickly when he can't, and he's only too happy to suggest how you might do the same.