By Dave Flessner
Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
In 1906, Girls Preparatory School was started in Grace McCallie’s Oak Street home, in part, to prepare Chattanooga’s girls for the academic rigors of college in an era when most women were not expected to go to college.
GPS was later influential in launching the city’s first basketball league for girls as well as the first academic contest to include women.
Autumn Graves, the new head of school hired last summer to lead GPS, is determined to build on the school’s trailblazing legacy for women — not just for GPS but for the Chattanooga community as a whole.
“Our founders were really social entrepreneurs and we want to continue that vision to identify ways to help our girls become more entrepreneurial to play a key part in the future economy,” she says. “Entrepreneurship is a type of creative problem solving that we need to encourage and nurture for whatever type of career our graduates pursue.”
So within a couple of months of taking the top job at the 585-student school — while still finishing her doctoral thesis and preparing to give birth to her son — Dr. Graves began pushing for an entrepreneurial conference to help inspire and propel more female-owned business startups. In late February, the fruits of that dream were presented in an all-day community forum dubbed “Mad, Bad and Dangerous.”
The event showcased successful women entrepreneurs, and helped connect investors and mentors with those either playing with business ideas or those determined to pursue their startup ventures. The event included a 24-hour generator which assembled female students from different schools to work as teams on business problems under the tutelage of CoLab and the Public Education Foundation.
The conference was designed to inspire women to “ditch expectations and start something.” The name, Graves says, was developed by a branding company, Tiny Giant, to highlight how women need to be more unconventional, bold and willing to take risks.
“Mad, Bad and Dangerous” not only drew more than 500 area students, parents, entrepreneurs and investors, it drew participation from perhaps the leading advocate for more female leadership in business and company boardrooms.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, author of “Lean In” and founder of leanin.com, sent a personalized video message to the conference, urging girls and women to encourage one another to assume greater leadership in the U.S. economy.
“I want to thank GPS for organizing such a great event and investing so much in girls’ futures,” said Sandberg, who is leading a global movement that has already led to the creation of nearly 22,000 “lean in” support circles for women in 97 countries.
“Women are underrepresented in leadership positions in every country and every industry in the world, which means that our voices are not equally heard when decisions are made that affect all of us.”
While traveling the world for Facebook or promoting her book, Sandberg has observed gender disparities in leadership and opportunity in all areas of the globe.
“In every culture, men are expected to be leaders and women are expected to be nurturers,” she said. ‘These stereotypes are everywhere and they are holding all of us back.”
In the United States, white women, on average, make only 77 percent as much as men; black women earn only 64 centers, 56 cents for Latino women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although women now earn a majority of college degrees, they comprise only 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and hold just 19 percent of corporate board seats. Sandberg says she doesn’t necessarily want women to take control, just gain parity, which she said would help better utilize the talent of all people and thereby improve business.
“We are 50 percent of the population and we should fill 50 percent of the seats at every table or board where decisions are made,” she says.
But gaining parity will require new cultural norms and attitudes and a willingness by young women to take more risks and be more confident, Graves said. To foster that change will require new ways of teaching and learning, she says.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous was an early step in that change, Graves said.
“By 2040, a majority of people in the workforce will either be those who create something that is brand new and solves a problem or those who work in interdisciplinary like an Amazon or a Cisco,” she says. “For our girls to play in that world, they need to practice creative problem solving.”
A marketplace expo at Mad, Bad and Dangerous displayed more than 50 women-owned businesses, while a Tech Tinkering Lab allowed girls to play with fun techie stuff like 3D printing, coding and video games.
The branded name of “Mad, Bad and Dangerous” may seem a bit jarring for the 109-year-old prep school that has educated many of Chattanooga’s elite families for generations. Graves says that it’s intentional to get people’s attention and to recognize women need to thinkand act in new ways.
“It’s not about being reckless,” Graves says “In our poster for the new American muscle, the woman is on a motorcycle but she’s wearing a helmet. Be bold and willing to take a risk, but don’t be stupid.”
Internet blogger and consultant Jon Moss brought his 10-year-daughter Jenna to Mad, Bad and Dangerous to learn more about how she might pursue her idea of starting her own business. She ended with a $250 scholarship from one of the speakers, Lily Sandler, the 17-year-old co-founder of BLAMtastic, LLC, an international consumer goods company.
“I believe MBD (Mad, Bad and Dangerous) will have a lasting impact on the development of my daughter,” Moss said after the conference.
Although hosted at GPS, Graves stresses the event was intended to be a community event and reflects GPS desire to be more externally focused.
“We want to be more engaged with the community and partner with others in Chattanooga,” says Graves, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on community engagement and the public role of private education. “I had an idea, but it got so much better because it got fleshed out by people not only from GPS but from the community. This was a social entrepreneurship attempt by our school and the results really exceeded our expectations. We think we can really build on this in the future.”