What do 3D printing prosthetic limbs, bringing attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women, and creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ children and young adults have in common? These are just a sampling of the ambitious initiatives spearheaded by 32 high school girls who have been selected as the ninth annual class of HERlead Fellows

This impressive group of sophomores and juniors, who hail from across the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico, descended on New York City last week – many visiting for the first time. The Fellows were in town for a four-day HERlead Leadership Forum where they learned leadership skills to bring back to their local communities, developing projects that address pressing social issues related to economic empowerment, the environment, public health, education, political and public leadership, and human rights.

Founded in 2011 and supported by retail brands Ann Taylor and LOFT, HERlead is a leadership development and mentorship program that teaches leadership skills based on the Vital Voices model. Every year, a new class of HERlead Fellows is selected via an application process. After completion of the Leadership Forum, Fellows are eligible to apply for a HERlead Grant to turn their ideas into realities, and to participate in even more sector-specific, in-depth training. 

Since its launch eight years ago, HERlead has mentored and trained 310 young women and funded 246 projects, resulting in significant global impact – more than 117,000 people in over 20 countries have been directly affected by Fellows’ work. 

Women often aren’t given the support and mentorship needed to foster leadership. In a LinkedIn survey of nearly 1,000 female professionals in the U.S., 82% of women agree that having a mentor is important yet 19% of women have never had one. HERlead is seeking to change that by investing in young girls early on and helping them to navigate a clear path to leadership. 

“HERlead was a life-changing experience for me. Connecting with inspiring women from all over the world, who had overcome adversity and devoted their efforts to empowering others, pushed me to push past the adversity
I was going through at the time and take action. HERlead gave me the confidence in my voice and made me feel powerful with the potential I held, something I did not feel when I entered,” wrote Nadya Okamoto, a 2017 HERlead Ambassador.

According to HERlead, 92% of Fellows have gone on to assume leadership positions in their fields – an uplifting statistic in a time when female leadership is particularly crucial. HERlead alumni include Amanda Gorman, who became the first-ever U.S. Youth Poet Laureate, and Allyson Ahlstrom, founder of Threads for Teens, a non-profit organization that helps young girls build self-esteem and confidence. 

This year’s Fellows are equally inspiring, taking on critical and timely topics ranging from ending gun violence in the Bronx to fighting for disability rights. The common thread is that they are working to improve their communities and the world. 

If this is the next generation of leaders, the world already feels in better hands.