Katlyn Grasso, 20, is a Wharton junior studying finance and strategic globalization. She is also an entrepreneur whose latest startup champions the empowerment of young women. Grasso sat down recently with fellow student Hari Joy in the KWHS studio to talk about her work this summer researching leadership development in high school girls, and to explore why it is so important to think big – no matter how loudly the realists protest.
Hari Joy: Hello, everyone. My name is Hari Joy, and welcome to today’s segment of Knowledge@Wharton High School. Joining us today is Katlyn Grasso. Katlyn’s a junior from Buffalo, N.Y., studying finance and strategic globalization at the Wharton School. On campus, she’s a managing practice leader of the Wharton Small Business Development Center and a Wharton Ambassador of Entrepreneurship. She’s here with us to talk about her female empowerment startup. Thanks for being here, Katlyn.
Katlyn Grasso: Happy to be here.
Joy: I know you’re interested in entrepreneurship, and I see you’re a Wharton Ambassador of Entrepreneurship. How did that interest first get sparked, and how has it developed over the years?
Grasso: Well, I’ve been in entrepreneurship my entire life. I think that stems from my passion for taking an idea and executing a vision into a tangible result. It’s often said that entrepreneurship is executing a vision in the face of uncertainty. And uncertainty is what I love about entrepreneurship. You never know what the next day is going to bring, who you’re going to meet, which direction your business is going to turn. I think it’s those factors that create a dynamic community that inspires innovation.
I started getting involved with entrepreneurship when I was in high school. I was very involved with Girl Scouts, and my troop created two nonprofits — Comfort Kits, which provides toiletries and care packages to victims of domestic and sexual abuse, and the Kids Distributing Knowledge Book Closet, which provides free books to underprivileged children in the Buffalo community. Then I came to Wharton, and the summer after my freshman year I founded the company Tap for Tots, which is a dance exercise program for daycare students. That started because I was looking for a summer job, and I always go down the nontraditional path doing stuff that a lot of people may not want to do or they may not think is really interesting. I was just walking along, and I saw a daycare with a sign that said “Teachers Wanted.” I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher but I said, “I’ve been tap dancing for 17 years. I think I could teach kids how to tap dance.”
So, I went in and said, “Do you want to try this program?” I had no program at this point, but I said, “I’ll think of something. I’ll make something up.” So, they gave me a chance, [the initiative] became successful and now I’ve grown to over 20 clients. It’s still growing. It’s a great way for me to fuse my passions of business and tap dancing. I’m really excited to keep building that business.
Most recently, my main priority has been on my female empowerment startup. That comes from my passion for empowering girls because I’ve grown up in an environment that nurtures female leaders. I’ve never thought that gender dictates success. So, as I grew older and got to college, I wondered why there were so few women in the highest leadership positions in government, academia and business. I think the only way we can truly close that leadership gap is if we tell girls at a young age that they can become influential leaders — before they fall victim to their own self-doubt. That has brought me to my current project, and I’m so excited to talk about it today.
Joy: Walk me through the development of your startup. For entrepreneurs all around the world, those first few foundational pieces are often the most difficult, but yet are the most important parts of starting their businesses. So, I’m sure our viewers are interested in hearing more about what steps you took to lay that framework.
Grasso: Great questions. I would say that this idea began to materialize in 2012. When I came back from winter break in the spring semester last year I said, “I need to talk to people who know how to build successful businesses.” So, I [decided I was] going to talk to anyone [who would agree to speak with me]. I talked to Penn professors, entrepreneurs [and] women leaders in the Philadelphia community. Everyone said you have to understand your target audience. Since my target audience is high school girls, I decided to spend my entire summer [of 2013] researching leadership development in high school girls. That was made possible due to the generous support of the Wharton Innovation Fund and Wharton Social Impact Initiative.
During the summer, I traveled and conducted focus groups and surveys, interviewed educators and also met with executives to learn about their leadership experiences. Then in the middle of the summer, I launched the Leadership Camp for Girls 2013, which was a leadership development program for girls in western New York. By the end of the summer, I [had] interviewed more than 700 girls, 40 female executives and 30 educators in all 50 states, nine countries and four continents.
Joy: Wow. Can we elaborate a bit on that work that you did in terms of focus groups, interviews and the camp?
Grasso: Definitely. Beginning with the focus groups, I wanted to collect data points. So, the focus groups were for the qualitative aspect of it. I would go to girls and have conversations with them — one-on-one in an AP history class, at a leadership conference — and ask them questions such as, “How do you define leadership in your life? What are your short- and long-term goals? What are the characteristics of a successful leader?” I was able to get great insight into how the teenage girl’s mind works. Through the survey, I wanted to collect quantitative samples, so I would ask them questions in a survey [like] rate your confidence on a scale of one to 10, rate your ambition on a scale of one to 10.
The survey and the focus groups worked together to reveal critical insights into the external factors that influence leadership development in girls.
Joy: What exactly did the executive interviews consist of?
Grasso: The reason I went to these female executives in a variety of industries was because I wanted to see what women at the top of their fields believe about leadership, the challenges they faced, how they got to where they are today — and also, [from my perspective as a] young entrepreneur, how they’ve become so successful. I went to a lot of organizations and companies such as the Trump Organization, the Tory Burch Foundation, Bravo, Ness Fragrances, just to name a few. I would ask these women questions such as, “What are some of the challenges you faced in your life? What are the biggest issues facing girls and women today?” And most importantly, “What advice would you give to young girls trying to climb up their professional ladder and achieve that success?”
Everyone said that you have to be able to take risks in your life if you want to succeed professionally. You always have to be inquisitive, asking questions. You can’t worry what people think about you. You always have to be focused on becoming your best self. It was really incredible that these powerful women would even talk to me. It was so inspiring for me, and I hoped that I could pass that along to the girls.
Joy: The last aspect you mentioned was the leadership camp. What did that consist of?
Grasso: The Leadership Camp for Girls 2013 was an idea I had after I read The Lean Startup at the end of May. Everyone was telling me, “You need to read this book if you start a business.” I definitely recommend reading it. It was about developing something to test your assumptions. I said, “My hypothesis is that girls will engage in a leadership development program.” So, every Monday night starting in July [I organized] a session or a workshop where girls would come and listen to prominent executives in the Buffalo area — the CEO of the local zoo, the CEO of a branding agency — and those women shared their experiences with the girls.
I also developed an interactive website that allowed the girls to participate in skill-building activities that were related to what we were talking about that week. It was just an incredible experience because through the short amount of time I spent with them, I could see such growth. That’s when I really learned that although business is about making money and making profits, the deeper issue is how can we inspire social change. For me, that’s helping girls and empowering them to do great things in their lives.
Joy: Can you tell me a little bit more about your startup right now in terms of what you’ve done over the past few months, what you plan for the future and your outlook?
Grasso: Yes. I’m currently in the process of expanding upon the success of the camp. That means getting a more detailed programming module done. Also, I’m developing the next iteration of the website as we speak. Hopefully, someone’s coding it right now. I’m actually going to be launching it in the next few months, even a few weeks. I’m going to New York at the beginning of November and presenting to schools [to get] more girls on board. And I’m also doing the same thing in Philadelphia with the support of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and the Vice Provost of University Life office.
That’s in the next few months, so a lot of exciting things are happening. I’m happy to get all that moving and work with even more girls. And most recently [I’ve become a] youth champion of the UN Foundation’s Grow Up Initiative, which is a campaign to raise awareness about international girls’ rights. That provides me with an additional platform to get out there, talk to girls and learn to empower them even more.
Joy: Having you describe all this makes it seem so effortless. But as with any new venture, I’m sure you’ve faced challenges. Can you tell me more about what challenges you face and how you’ve been able to overcome them?
Grasso: Yes. First of all, I’d say that facing challenges is part of everyday life as an entrepreneur. It’s in the job description if there were a job description. What I like to tell people is that everyone out there wants to tell you that your idea’s not going to work or this isn’t going to sell. But entrepreneurs are those crazy people who have a vision and they’re not going to let anyone or anything get in their way of executing it. You have to be optimistic. I always say, “If you knock long enough on that door, eventually someone’s going to open it.”
Even in the past six months, although I interviewed 40 executives, I reached out to over a hundred women. Some people never returned my calls or my e-mails, but I expected that to begin with. I said, “If 10 people say no, hopefully one person says yes.” And of those women that I met, some were so transformational and provided me with great opportunities that I’m very grateful for.
Also, [I faced challenges] with getting girls to register for the camp — in the beginning of the summer I only had five to 10 girls registered. And I said, “It starts in three weeks. What are we going to do? Is this going to work?” But I always knew there was something in the idea that was going to work; it was going to take off once people knew about it. So, I just kept going out to schools and advertising. By the time the camp came around, I had more than 30 girls. I’m always a firm believer [that] through hard work and perseverance you can accomplish your goals.
Joy: Going off of that question, entrepreneurship by definition involves risk. So, this risk can be related to capital, to time — especially for our budding high school entrepreneurs. How have you managed to mitigate your risk and balance your college life with this amazing new startup?
Grasso: I’m not going to say that being a student entrepreneur is an easy task. It is difficult, but it’s also the most rewarding thing that I do. What I really think is so critical about being a student entrepreneur is learning how to prioritize because you want to be successful in school, but you also want your business to be successful. I think it’s important to apply a commitment to excellence across everything you do in your life. If you want to have the best startup, you also want to be the best student you can be.
I manage that through a structured time management system, or at least I try to. For example, if I know I’m taking a more difficult class this semester, I’ll say, “Every day for 30 minutes I’m going to study this subject — turn off my phone, close my lap top, set a timer and for 30 minutes I’m just going to focus on this class.” That’s what I need because the days can be so hectic that you just don’t get to it. And then it’s time for the exam, and no one wants to be in that boat. Although you do need some structure in your life, you also need flexibility because opportunities are going to present themselves all the time. “Oh, I want to go hear this speaker.” “I can meet with someone to join my team.” And you’re going to have to adapt. You have to know that some nights you’re going to have to put in a few extra hours, stay up a little later. But I think by definition, entrepreneurs are people who are willing to do whatever it takes to be successful. So, it’s an idea that they easily incorporate into their lives.
Joy: To wrap things up, I was wondering if you could impart some wisdom for our viewers. Since you focus on the empowerment of women, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to a high school girl looking to get involved in entrepreneurship or the betterment of her community? And what’s one piece of advice for any high schooler looking to start his or her own business?
Grasso: The most important thing I would say to anyone is think big. You should never place limitations on what you think you can achieve. I always say try to do the most impossible, crazy things and defy people’s expectations, because those are all the stories you hear about on the front page of the newspaper — those things that no one ever thought would work. I really hate when people say, “Oh, your idea has to be more realistic. Think realistically.” That bothers me because I don’t think entrepreneurship is a realistic thing at all. But in order to think big, you have to be confident. If you’re not confident in yourself, no one’s going to believe in you. Why would they want to give you money? Why would girls want to come to the camp if you don’t believe enough in yourself?
Putting the thinking-big mentality and confidence together, I have a little phrase that I always say. I want to put it on a t-shirt: “Always be selling.” Even if you’re not in business, you’re always selling yourself. Whether you’re giving a presentation in a class or pitching to investors, you’re trying to convince other people that your ideas are valuable; [you’re] trying to sell your personality. That’s important in life no matter what you do. If I could tie all that up together — that’s not really one piece of advice — I’d say, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, because if you believe you can change the world, you can and you will.”
Joy: Awesome. Thank you so much for being here, Katlyn. I wish you the best of luck with your startup and everything else in the future.
Grasso: Thank you.
Joy: If any of our viewers want to contact Katlyn directly or want more information, feel free to e-mail her at email@example.com. This is Hari Joy. Thank you so much for watching.
How did Katlyn Grasso further explore her idea to help empower girls? What did she do last summer to help build a strong foundation for her startup? Why was this research and exploration so important?
Find three insights about entrepreneurship in the interview and expand upon them. Why did you choose these three? What advice resonates most with you and why?
What does Grasso mean when she says, “Always be selling?” Do you have to be an aspiring entrepreneur to embrace this mindset?
Give some thought to the notion that gender dictates success. Do you agree or disagree with this? What are the stereotypes that perpetuate this way of thinking, and how might you help eliminate them? Be specific.