Kirsten Helgeson is a social change strategist and advocate, who is using tech to drive mental health and women’s empowerment efforts globally. Kirsten believes in active compassion, creativity and connection- that if we want to make the world a better place, we have to start by building authentic, honest relationships. With that goal, Kirsten has founded Just A Girl. Just A Girl uses technology to foster inclusive mental health and womxn’s empowerment efforts globally. It supports the communities by holding safe space for the difficult, as well as the beautiful, aspects of our lives as womxn. Kirsten’s goal is to build a global sisterhood of support and solutions capable of helping all 4 billion women on the planet thrive.
Kirsten was highlighted as one of Idea Mensch’s Top 50 Women Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2020 and has been featured in many magazines.
Kirsten, could you tell us about your present work in relation to promoting women empowerment and gender equality?
We’re in the midst of a global mental health crisis. And while overall mental health has been on a steady decline over the last 20 years, women are the hardest hit, as they are 40% more likely than men to develop mental illness. There are certain categories of mental illness where this statistic is most felt. Women report higher rates of loneliness, depression, anxiety, PTSD and even suicide. As a woman, I find this terrifying.
Many experts believe this significant decline in mental health is due to social factors like increased violence, sexual abuse, bullying, financial stress and negative social media. Does any of this sound familiar? Our mental health is a cultural mirror – the bad things happening in the world around us trigger a mental health crisis. And that mental health crisis triggers more bad things to happen in the world. We’re caught in a brutal cycle. So how do we start to fix this? Where do we begin?
Social support is the scientifically validated term for the network of people and resources that surround us. A thriving social support system is integral to mental health, boosting our oxytocin levels and increasing resilience. Research also shows that social media, when used as a tool for good, boosts dopamine and oxytocin levels as well.
Just A Girl uses technology to foster inclusive mental health and womxn’s empowerment efforts globally. We’re deliberately building Just A Girl to be a digital social support system for women and girls globally. We believe this is the key to solving our global mental health crisis and building a better world for everyone. Think of Just A Girl as the parent company to unique and interesting brands that all align to this one mission.
Our goal is simple: elevate our emotions, experiences and voices as womxn and girls. Our work has two streams: Support & Solutions. Our Support initiatives focus on building community. Our Solutions initiatives focus on driving meaningful action for individuals, communities and companies. Below are a few examples of what we’re working on.
Girl Talk Radio (girltalkradio.co)
Girl Talk Radio is the first streaming service for podcasting and multimedia content created by womxn and girls from all corners of the world, going live on January 4th, 2020. Consider this is an official, open invitation to womxn creators of the world – we’d love to showcase your work.
Mental Health Barometer
Just A Girl’s Mental Health Barometer is the only ongoing study tracking the evolving mental health of people globally. We’ll be issuing findings in 2021, developing thought leadership tools to help organizations better understand mental health and drive global progress on resources and support.
We’re in the midst of a global mental health crisis. But the stigma surrounding mental health keeps us from having the information and support we desperately need. SIYA is a personal mental health app that helps users track their mental and emotional well-being through a friendly user interface. Users can then see how their emotions change over weeks, months and even years, giving them insights into their personal emotional patterns. SIYA will also offer self-care and mental health resources to support each user’s well-being, based on where they’re at.
Privilege Awakening is Just A Girl’s five-stage proprietary framework that helps people navigate their privilege and become functional allies in their communities. It’s designed to support individuals, companies & communities. We offer classes, trainings and consulting to support this growth process.
Mental Health Classes
75-90% of all success in life is driven by our emotions. We understand the powerful role mental health plays in each of our lives. That’s why our classes, trainings and workshops help people learn, heal and grow. From a place of emotional and mental strength, we are able to build a better world for everyone. Fun fact! Just A Girl is a global leader in Psychological First Aid Training, To-date, we’ve trained hundreds of people on five continents!
Just A Girl Publishing
At Just A Girl, we know that words hold power. As we work to build a fair and equitable world, publishing gives us the creativity and flexibility to be audacious. We have a non-fiction series
already in the works, with our first book launching in early 2021.
Would you please share about your journey?
I joined a startup focused on supporting women entrepreneurs worldwide. My expectations didn’t line up with reality, and I decided to leave the organization by the end of the year. While this experience didn’t turn out the way I had anticipated, it did open up new pathways for me. During this time, I started collaborating with the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign (focused on leadership development for girls ages 14-24). I also became an international disaster relief worker, focused on psychosocial support for people experiencing severe trauma. This work took me from refugee camps in Greece to orphanages and schools in Haiti. Hurricane zones to public health crises. Along the way, I learned a lot about people, community and what it takes to build a better world for everyone.
After some dabbling and a few failures as I navigated all that was coming at me, I knew I needed to build an organization that served as a bridge between people. A way to unite all of my expertise and experiences to build a fair and equitable world for everyone. So in 2018, I began by creating a non-profit organization that used art as a way to cultivate community, awareness and unity. This was an interesting point in my journey because while I started to make some progress, big roadblocks began to pop up. I’m a hippie at heart and believe that the universe is on my side. So, I knew there was a point to the roadblocks, but was at a tipping point. My money was running out and I needed to find a way to pay my bills.
I didn’t want to go back to corporate, so I decided that I’d drive for Uber for one day, to see if it would be a good fit for me. After jumping through the hoops, I was ready to go. The very first person I picked up was a male entrepreneur in his 40’s and an older male colleague. He talked about how they were raising a round of funding. That he had relationships with big banks and even some folks in China. There was a lull in their conversation, so I asked him “What round are you raising?” He hesitantly answered, “B round.” I then asked what his company does – he told me it was a healthcare company. I asked if they used AI/ML – he said they have an algorithm. At this point, he looks openly confused and asked about my background (because I was asking very informed questions). I gave him a quick snapshot, and he was dumbfounded. He was silent for about 30 seconds, and then responded with “wow – good luck to you.” He felt like he could no longer talk about business in front of me, so they talked about boats the rest of the way. When they got out of the car, he looked at me again and could only muster “good luck to you.”
A couple of riders later, I had a young financial advisor in my car. He was having a hard time, and we were having a great conversation about misperceptions and being underestimated. I told him about the conversation I had had earlier in the day, and he started laughing. He said “To him, you were just a girl. And just an uber driver. You weren’t supposed to be so much more.”
That night, I went home and posted this experience to a forum for female founders, talking about my feelings about being underestimated and how I navigate all this. My post went viral, and it was clear that I needed to do something different. That I needed to dig into the emotions and experiences of women. And after a week of meditating and thinking, Just A Girl was born. From the start, we’ve been able to spark immense support and dialogue surrounding the difficult emotions and experiences of womxn and girls worldwide. Almost immediately, we had womxn plugging in on multiple continents. And while 2020 has been challenging and forced us to pivot and grow in ways I didn’t expect, we’re on the cusp of truly amazing things. Our voices as womxn matter. Our experiences matter. I’m so honored and excited to continue to find ways to amplify those voices and craft solutions that foster support worldwide.
What motivated you to take this path and start this work?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a feminist, but I was a teenager when I started to consciously see the inequalities of the world and have experiences that brought inequality to life for me. I was on the debate team in high school, an extracurricular that was dominated by men. I’d walk into a room and instantly be underestimated by the high school boys. To them, I was just a girl…barely a speed bump on their way to winning the debate tournament. Instead of letting this tear me down, it fueled me. I bought a pair of four-inch high heels and would walk right up to those overconfident boys, look sternly into their eyes and introduce myself with the hardest handshake I could muster. Then I’d use my intelligence and creativity to tear them down in the match. I knew I was so much more than just a girl…and by the end of the match, they did too.
In college, I started learning more about feminist theory, the status quo and how media reinforces widespread inequality. At that time, being a feminist was unpopular. I took a class on post-modern literature, where we actively discussed how literature can be used to break down old systems and challenge the status quo. During a discussion of book by a female author, feminist theory was brought up and a simple question was asked – who in this class considers themselves a feminist? In a class of 30 students, I was the only person to raise my hand. My fellow students feared the word, seeing feminists as angry, man-hating women that burned things down. I was horrified by this outdated perspective and decided that I would use my voice to advocate for feminism and the rights of women in any room I was in.
Fast forward a few years, and I became an aunty. I have four amazing nieces and one fantastic little nephew, along with several other littles that I have taken on as my own along the way. These kids have entirely changed my life.
My oldest niece was born almost 17 years ago. Her birth changed the trajectory of my life, in every possible way, pushing me to stand on my own precipice of vulnerability. I remember holding her in my arms as a newborn, looking at her with tears in my eyes and thinking: I want her to have all the choices in life. I wanted her to run fully toward life, heart wide open. To say yes to everything she wanted to try. To say no to the things that did not serve her highest good. I wanted her to grab onto life fully, with both hands, and own it. But I also knew that for children, seeing is believing. The most important role models in a child’s life are the people immediately surrounding them. So, I knew that if I wanted my niece to have all the choices in life, I first needed to give them to myself.
With this epiphany, all kinds of dark emotions came crawling up from the shadows within my soul, and I suddenly had lots of questions for myself. Am I good enough to have these choices? Am I smart enough for these choices? What will people think if I fail? What if I embarrass myself? Even really damaging and irrelevant questions such as: Am I pretty enough to have all the choices? When I started to ponder all this, I realized that the big question I was asking myself was: Do I deserve to take up all the space that comes with owning all of the choices in life? I did not have an answer, but I knew that I could not tuck all that emotion back into the shadows. So instead, I put it to work. This is how I started down the path of equity, empowerment and advocacy.
Can you share some of the major challenges and roadblocks which you’ve faced in empowering womxn/girls?
I knew that making the world a better place would require hard work. But I didn’t realize how hard it would actually be, or how much of myself this work would require. I didn’t recognize the expectations I was bringing with me – or the ones that other people had. And I certainly didn’t understand how failure would take on a new meaning in my life.
I also underestimated the beauty this work would bring into my life. How my heart would be shattered into a million pieces and then rebuilt stronger because of the unconditional love and generosity of strangers. That I would find true, fierce bravery walking through the darkest corners of this world.
Over the past four years, I have failed more times than I can count. Faced countless roadblocks and challenges. I’m not being dramatic. This isn’t an overstatement. It’s been a near-constant state of failure in both big and small ways. The truth is that failure has become a state of being for me – and I’m eternally grateful for it. Here are a few of my big failures.
By the end of 2016, I quit working for the women’s empowerment startup that I had left corporate to join. My expectations were entirely different from reality and I learned some hard lessons very quickly. But that failure opened up the door to amazing new relationships and gave me the opportunity to commit more of myself to international relief work, which has become a part of my DNA now.
Right after leaving the startup, I started my first fintech company – it was a really good idea – but I realized that my heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t build a company that fed into a system I knew was broken, so I quickly closed the doors. Another big, public failure. Interestingly, that same kernel of an idea has inspired some longer-term solutions I’m working on now for Just A Girl.
In 2018, I started creating a nonprofit that would use art to build soft skills and foster equity within communities. But I had to abandon the nonprofit structure (compliance is a beast) and pivot the strategy twice to align the work to what the world needs. I had to let go of projects I deeply loved to make room these pivots. This felt like a total failure, but I was able to build some powerful programming and expand my personal education (yay new certifications!). It was this failure that led to me founding Just A Girl.
I’ve put everything I have into trying to make the world a better place – my heart, my pride, my reputation, my creativity, my money, my career, my time, my comfort…everything. There were many times I thought about giving up. And if I’m being honest, giving up still crosses my mind sometimes (because being all in is hard).
I have failed my way to where I’m at now. All these failures now seem to line up, pointing me to Just A Girl. Pushing me toward creating support and solutions surrounding inclusive mental health and womxn’s empowerment. I’ve come to realize that failure is not my enemy. It’s my co-creator. It’s the ever-loving hand of life redirecting me toward learning, growing and becoming more. Failure isn’t something that happens to me – it is the state of being that allows me to thrive in ways I never knew were possible. I’m proud to be a failure. Because of failure, I have found my voice.
Please share some of your achievements and major milestones that you are proud of.
We’ve been really lucky, as we’ve had great traction already. We have built a fledgling community on six continents, and are expecting to skyrocket our engagement in 2021.
I gave my first TEDx Talk back in 2019.
I’m also regularly invited to speak at organizations both in the US and abroad. A recent highlight is a speaking engagement with women in STEM at the Imperial College of London!
Through this work, I earned a Therapeutic Art Coaching certification. I’ve become a kintsugi artist and built a workshop around this art form to help womxn and girls learn to celebrate who they are, cracks and all. Grotto Network did a mini-documentary on my work with kintsugi.
I was also highlighted as one of Idea Mensch’s Top 50 Women Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2020 – a huge honor for me.
I was also profiled by Idea Mensch.
I am a source for a number of news outlets, including Girl’s Life Magazine and Motley Fool.
Just A Girl is crafting a new approach to leadership, collaboration and sisterhood. We’ve established our Inclusivity Advisory Board and are amping up our efforts in 2021.
I also serve on the steering committee of Women’s Entrepreneurship Week, and we recently had our inaugural Pitch Competition, built by women entrepreneurs for women entrepreneurs. It was such a challenging, rewarding experience.
What would be your advice to our readers who want to empower others or promote gender equality?
I have a favourite coffee mug that I got on a trip to Scotland. It says “Listen to the World” with trees, birds and people on it. As I started to navigate the challenges and failures that arose, I suddenly realized that the best advice had been sitting right in front of me the whole time. I just needed to listen to the world – truly listen. And from there, my job was simply to create solutions that aligned with what I learned. This might sound really simple, but truly listening is one of the hardest skills to develop and is often overlooked. But to build a fair and equitable world, you must understand the hearts and souls of the people in it. This means setting aside your own ego and expectations, to build something of real value.