Illana Raia Is Disrupting Middle School

These are the women who see the male-dominated status quo and envision a different way. They are the entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders who are creating new systems, organizations, and narratives. Along the way they are also changing perspectives about what is possible.

Illana Raia is one of these women, and is changing the narrative about what middle school girls can do and be. She spoke to Milk about her inspiration for her site Être and her dreams for the future.

How did Être come to be?

When my daughter (now 19) was in grade school, she was seemingly unaware of the quantity and caliber of powerful women that surrounded her. Whether family members, friends of mine or the mothers of her own friends, she was in the midst of some vastly accomplished women yet she never thought of them as such. She needed, I decided, better access to these role models. So I sent out an email and asked my girlfriends if they would take part in a one-day "girls' summit" at my home. I pictured a sunny afternoon where my daughter and her friends could listen to the hard-won wisdom of these smart women -- writers, surgeons, CEOs, designers, attorneys, news anchors -- and gain insight and encouragement before heading off to high school.

While the summit never took place due to all of our crazy calendars, the idea never strayed far from my mind. A forum where girls could be inspired by successful women seemed a goal worth pursuing. When I left the law firm world in 2014, I revisited the idea. Recognizing that wise words were being exchanged among women – whether at conferences or on the pages of bestsellers – I wondered why weren’t we sharing them with our girls? Why weren’t women banding together and asking girls what they hoped to accomplish? Who they sought to emulate? What kind of girls did they want to be?

Over dinner in 2015 with one of those rockstar girlfriends, Être took shape. No longer a one-day Summit but now a website…an ongoing dialogue with any girls who wished to listen. The site could talk about why it’s important to be informed and where to find age-appropriate news sites. Why girls should raise their hands instead of lowering their standards. Ways to volunteer at a young age, how to connect with mentors and why no age is too young for entrepreneurship.

You could say it took a decade for Être to come to be. Or you could say it happened over dinner. Either way, it was the result of a group of fundamentally inspiring women that I have the privilege to call my friends.

What exactly is Être?

Être is a new, non-commercial resource site for today’s motivated girls. Created for the middle school set, when girls are arguably their most authentic selves, Être is designed to help girls stay true to the subjects they love right now (math, art, engineering, languages), while encouraging financial confidence, mentorship, philanthropy and entrepreneurship along the way. By offering curated links to helpful resources, quotes from accomplished women and examples of other girls their age doing amazing things, Être acts as a springboard for girls to pursue what they love in an impactful way.

What the inspiration behind the name Être?

As you know, Être means “To Be” in French. The more I thought about what I wanted the site to accomplish, the more I came back to the question: “Girls, Who Do You Want To Be?” It’s an important question – particularly when posed to girls at an early age – and I wanted to help them figure that out. Each page of the site is keyed off that phrase…#BeInformed, #BeSmart, #BeWi$e, #BeInnovative, etc.

Why you were interested in providing resources to girls in particular?

While the initial idea stemmed from wanting role models for my daughter, research regarding middle school girls redoubled my interest. Studies about the gender gap in STEM classes caught my attention. Statistics about the rate at which girls drop out of sports compared to boys sank my heart. Hearing teachers discuss when girls stop raising their hands in class fired me back up. I recognize that providing resources to our boys is important (I have been asked more than once about when “Être Guys” is coming), but the vulnerability that accompanies middle school girls can affect much more than where they sit in the cafeteria. It can impact the classes they choose, the hobbies they drop and their confidence in both. If Être can offer even one girl the right resource to keep her interested and engaged in a subject that resonates with her, I will be thrilled.

What do you think are the unique challenges faced by teenage girls today?

Access to information is no longer the issue for our girls. Indeed, they are growing up in an age of information abundance. A major challenge for girls is to decipher what information is trustworthy, age-appropriate and actionable…and what is not. What charity, for example, is an authentic extension of something they love (animal rights, better schools, clean water) and therefore worth their time and effort, and what is simply the latest hashtag retweeted by their favorite celebrity? These are hard distinctions for young girls to make…but the right resources can help.

Another challenge for today’s girls is to develop confidence in their own abilities and ideas. Reinforcing that their ideas have real worth, that discussion of financial matters is not impolite but, in fact, essential, that knowing your mind isn’t bossiness but rather emerging leadership – these are all concepts that our girls are capable of comprehending. But it’s even better if they are reinforced by the right role models.

Can you share a little bit about where you drew inspiration from as a teenager?

As a teenager I was an avid reader and loved books with strong heroines. I was grateful that my parents never really limited my choices or trips to the library as a full collection of Nancy Drew gave way to biographies of female leaders, artists and musicians. A Jersey girl at heart, though, my teen years were accompanied by the constant - and I do mean constant - soundtrack of Bruce Springsteen, and that continues to this day. The women who surrounded me growing up were unquestionably huge sources of inspiration - from my grandmother who became a lawyer in 1936 to my mother who first went to law school at age 50. My father, a world-class neurosurgeon, certainly inspired hard work and high expectations, but my mother's curiosity and courage at nearly the age I am now still takes the cake. I was unspeakably lucky to have the resources and role models I did growing up. It doesn't seem unreasonable to try to inspire today's girls in a similar way.

How do you think women can do a better job connecting and listening to the girls in their lives?

I think the main thing is not to underestimate our girls. Today’s girls are fully capable of discussing “grown up” topics like political events, how finances work, why mentors are important and how ideas turn into startups…women can use any item in the news or the market to broach these conversations. Sure, keeping the discussion age-appropriate (in both content and length) is good, but if we want to cultivate curiosity, resilience and ingenuity in our girls we need to start talking about the situations that require these qualities.

As the big sisters, the moms and the cool aunts, we need to spark the conversations and then listen hard to what girls say and the questions they ask. It is not too early. It’s time.

We can also do a better job demonstrating the importance of peers and mentors in our own lives. When girls hear us talk about our early role models or sponsors at work, it highlights the teachers and coaches central to their lives. It reminds them that they too could be role models to girls in younger grades. Perhaps they can tutor someone in a grade below…maybe they can run pre-practice drills for newer teammates. Girls who help other girls grow up to be women who support other women…if we can help girls make that connection today, we light the way for their leadership tomorrow.

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