Yollanda Zhang, Founder of Girl. Strong. | Toronto, Canada

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Yollanda Zhang is the founder of Girl. Strong., an organization that empowers young girls through STEM, entrepreneurship, public speaking, and more to be unstoppable women. Yollanda has lived in Toronto, Canada since the age of 10, and is fluent in Mandarin. 

Meera Dahiya is a high school senior, and an intern with The Fem Word.

Meera: Today on The Fem Word I'm talking to Yollanda Zhang from Girl. Strong. I know that the mission of Girl. Strong. is to empower young girls, how do you work to do that? 


Yollanda: We do that through a few different platforms. Our main platform right now is a full year program for girls to join. There are five pillars that we focus on designed to help empower young girls to live limitless lives, which include developing a positive mindset and growth mindset; another is exposure to STEM; the third is public speaking; the fourth is entrepreneurship; and the last one, which is really overarching, is to strengthen the mother-daughter relationship. That's really the full program, to expose the girls in a full year to these five pillars. Another way that we help girls is a weekend retreat where the girls and moms come together. We also partner with charities, and soon we're going to be partnering with schools in the TDSB (Toronto District School Board) where we offer the growth mindset, positive habits pillar, and the entrepreneurship pillar separately at a daytime program to girls at their schools. 

Meera: And how do most of these girls find out about your program? 

Yollanda: I own another business called Panda Mandarin. It's a Mandarin and math program that's been running for almost five years. Initially, people were hearing about Girl. Strong. was through my platform, and Girl. Strong. had been running as a subsidiary of Panda Mandarin in its first year. But right now, we are in the process of separating Girl. Strong. as its own entity. Since then, we've had a lot of really great media features. We were featured on CBC radio before the program was even launched and on Huffington Post. We had a TV interview about Girl. Strong. and Panda Mandarin for the Chinese media, and we were featured on The Globe and Mail as well. 

Meera: You talked a little bit about building that bond between a mother and daughter. Why do you think this is so important for building confidence in young girls? 

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Yollanda: I do have some personal motivations for this area. I have a daughter myself, and so of course I would love to have a very close relationship with her. I've always had a bit of a rocky relationship with my own mother, and we're much closer now through a lot of work that we had to do together, family therapy, and work counseling. That process made me realize that some of the issues that became much larger in adulthood really stemmed from misunderstandings that happened when I was much younger. I want to help young girls to build that bond and develop those communication skills, and help moms to be able to form a very strong foundation so that they can discuss these issues when they happen and don't let them fester into something larger that might impact their relationships negatively. I think that moms are definitely the biggest role model for a girl.

Meera: I know that Girl. Strong. was inspired by your grandma. Can you tell us a little bit more about that story? 

Yollanda: My grandma was really my mom growing up. She had a very difficult life herself. Her dad passed away when she was two years old in China, and it was actually very, very rare for a single mom to be able to raise a child on her own. But my great grandmother was this amazing woman; she really took on the responsibilities of raising her daughter and ended up working. As a result, my grandmother had to be taken care of by friends and family. She just kind of rotated around different houses, and she was abused emotionally and physically. It was really hard for her to recover from that. She was married as a child at nine years old. And she had every right to be bitter, mean, and negative about life, about people, but she actually somehow turned into this really kind and generous person. When I got older I saw the scars of her childhood and it's really sad because she's very smart, but she was never given the opportunity to learn. And she really instilled that passion in her children, and in me, of how important education is and how we cannot take that for granted that we have that access to learning. 

Meera: How have you seen social media really affect young girls and their confidence? 

Yollanda: I think that social media is probably the biggest culprit for girls being affected by social anxiety, comparing, and having a very unrealistic view of what other's lives are like. Adults are affected too, but young girls are so impressionable. I know of a real life case of a girl really suffering from social anxiety and crippled to a point where she just can't even go to school because she's constantly comparing her life to what she is seeing with her friends. At 14 years old, it's really difficult for her to understand how filtered those posts are, but she sees them as reality. It's just incredibly difficult. Social media is a very dangerous contributor to what the girls are experiencing right now. 

Meera: And you touched on this before, but what can parents, both mothers and fathers do to ensure that they have confident daughters? 

Yollanda: There's no one answer, and there's no magic bullet either. There are definitely several things that parents can do for their girls to help foster that confidence. But I always kind of feel hesitant to give blanket advice. I'll share some things that I think inevitably will help every girl. The one thing I think that's really key is to teach the girls about a comfort zone and what that actually means. When I do my lesson, I always say to draw a circle and I would say, this is your comfort zone. Often when you're little, your comfort zones are huge because you have no fear of anyone. You go outside wearing polka dots and stripes and sing some random things like Frozen at the top of your lungs, and you don't care. But as you get a bit older, your comfort zone shrinks a little bit. 

For some people that might stop shrinking at one point, but for others, it keeps shrinking. I say to my daughter and my girls, however big your comfort zone is right now, it's great. I'm still going to be challenging you to go out of your comfort zone, but I'm not going to push you a thousand kilometers out, I may push you 10 meters out. And then that little dot is going to eventually expand their comfort zone. The point of the program is to help them kind of slowly expand their comfort zone. 

I say to my daughter and my girls, however big your comfort zone is right now, it’s great. I’m still going to be challenging you to go out of your comfort zone
— Yollanda Zhang

The second one that I would say is really important is communication and self understanding. We always have lessons around love languages, and this is the unit where we bring the moms in as well. Because, I want them to understand how they communicate and how they receive and give love. And this really helps the girls to have a language around how they're feeling and what they need. I initially found this out because I was doing family counseling with my parents and it really helped with my marriage, with my friendships, and definitely with my parents. I completely tailor to their love language now and that's made a huge difference with me and my mom, how we communicate, and how she feels. I feel like sometimes when you experience different challenges in your own life, you can be a better person at helping other people with their challenges. This is kind of how love language knowledge came about for me. I use the children's curriculum for love languages and I teach it to the kids and I teach it to the moms. I think this is a really great tool for them to gain a better understanding of themselves and other people as well. 

Meera: And can you tell us a story of a young girl who has really gained their confidence from Girl. Strong.? What has this transition been like? 

Yollanda: This girl - she started in the program at six years old - but the unique thing is, I taught her Mandarin for two years prior to Girl. Strong., so I had seen her behaviors. It has never really changed. She just was a nervous kid and always very timid. And when she speaks, when she answers questions in class, you can always tell that she really doesn't want to and she can't speak fully. She can't formulate a sentence very well. 

And so she wouldn't answer questions in class. Even when she was asked, the teacher would have to wait for a long time for her to be able to formulate her thoughts. Her mom said, I think it's actually because she is such a perfectionist that if she can't do it perfectly, she doesn't want to do it. And it's debilitating for her, this desire to do something perfectly. That was before she joined Girl Strong, and throughout all the different pillars that we went through with her, it really helped her to develop that confidence in herself and in her surroundings, and knowing about her comfort zones, and all the things I've mentioned already. The difference is just amazing. 

Her teacher actually stopped me in the hallway and said, are you the woman that's doing Girl. Strong.? And she's like, “wow, I cannot believe the difference you've made in her. It's night and day from September to now.” I was just really happy. I couldn't believe that it's made such a difference for her and I'm really proud of how hard she's worked. Her mom has also been such a big supporter for her to do all the work that needs to be done and just participate. That teamwork has really made a huge result in her behavioral changes. 

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Meera: Wow. That's amazing. And I just want to end this with a question that we ask everyone on The Fem Word. Can you describe a moment in your life when you felt powerful? 

Yollanda: Okay. This one's gonna make me cry a little bit. There was this group of girls that we collaborated with who live in a very difficult community in Toronto. They have a lot of challenges. I partnered with their school to deliver the Girl Strong program entrepreneurship component, and they were supposed to create their own products. The same full-year program was very hard for them, because they didn't have the family support that the girl that I just mentioned did. They didn't have that strong support network. It was difficult for a lot of them to complete their products. But there was one team of two girls that did complete their product, they made cake pops and they wanted to donate the money to SickKids, because one of the girls was always sick when she was young, and she was in and out of SickKids. So she wanted to give back to SickKids, and there were a lot of logistical challenges for them to bake the cake pop and get them ready. We brought them to a networking event for women entrepreneurs in my community. They really didn't think that they could do it. They kept saying to me, “these women are not going to buy our cake pops. Why should we do this? I just don't think it's going to work. I don't understand why we have to bake like so many.” Fifty, that's how many I was asking them to make. But they really worked through all of those doubts with me and on their own. And they did it. They finished fifty. They brought it to this event, and they sold out of their cake pops. 

And in that moment - seeing how happy they were and knowing all the challenges that they go through, or will have to go through, or have gone through in their life - I was just so happy and I felt powerful. I felt like, wow, I did that. I helped them do that. I helped them realize that they could do it. I was really happy, and the women were so encouraging and supportive, and it just made them feel really good. It was just so nice to give them that exposure and validation, and give them a view of what else is possible for their lives. I felt really powerful. 

Ms. Media