Lynn Johnson started her professional career as theater teacher/artist. For years, she used the theater as a tool for community-building, social and emotional learning, and personal transformation. She and her wife, Allison Kenny, met while they were both teaching theater at a summer camp in 2002. “Almost as soon as we met, we decided that we wanted to create our own programming,” Johnson recalls.
The pair ran children’s summer camps in the San Francisco Bay Area for the next six years. Then, out of pure coincidence, all the enrollees at one of their 2008 camp sessions were girls. Both Johnson and Kenny had backgrounds in girls’ educational programming and thought, “Wow, this is cool,” Johnson says. “We decided to make the theme that summer all about the magic and power of being a girl.”
Held in a church basement in Oakland, California, the 2008 girls’ camp quickly became the most meaningful program for Johnson and Kenny. Over the years, the program conceived that summer also wound up being the most lucrative. “From a social-business standpoint, it hit all the buttons,” Johnson tells us. “We thought, ‘This is what we’re supposed to be doing.’ We rebranded our business and changed our mission to working with girls exclusively.”
The couple’s social enterprise, , is now a with a mission “to educate, inspire, and activate girls and women to take center stage.” Through enrichment programs and a multimedia platform, the Spotlight: Girls team teaches participants “to love ourselves and each other, and to become the leaders the world needs us to be,” Johnson says. Some of the girls who attended the fateful 2008 camp session where it all began even work for the company now.
We talked with Johnson about community development, social entrepreneurship, and how a little time in the spotlight can help girls become the leaders of tomorrow.
“Spotlight: Girls” at a Glance
• Location: Oakland, CA
• Founded: 2006
• Team Members: 4 year-round and 30 seasonal
• Traction: Go Girls! Camp started as 17 girls in a church basement in 2008 and now works with over 500 girls each year in multiple Bay Area locations.
• Impact: 56% of parents report growth in their daughter’s overall confidence after just 2 weeks of camp.
• Awards: Winner of SheKnows Media’s #ThePitch: Live competition at BlogHer17; first investee of the Force for Good Fund (LIFT Economy)
• Structure: For-profit benefit corporation
• Certifications: B Corp with an initial score of 118; Social Venture Network Innovation Entrepreneur status 2018
• Mission Statement: “To educate, inspire, and activate girls and women to take center stage.”
How would you describe the mission of Spotlight: Girls? What is the problem you’re trying to solve in your community and the world at large?
Lynn Johnson: I was a drama geek as a kid. Quite honestly, as a black girl, I learned early that I would have to be okay with taking supporting roles — both literally in theater and also figuratively in life. As I got older and learned more about women and girls from different cultures, backgrounds, and economic groups, I realized that so many of us learn that it’s only how you look as a girl that matters. Appearance sets up the biggest measure of our success, rather than what we can invent or create. We rarely take up that space in history as creators.
It’s vitally important for us to solve that problem. We need to make sure every girl — no matter where she’s from — understands that she has the right to be in the starring role of her own life, and she has the right to take up space.
That’s not only important for her as an individual girl, but also for us as a society. I believe that so much of what’s happening in the world right now is based on the fact that we are grossly out of balance in terms of the feminine and masculine powers. This world needs a natural rebalancing of power in that way. When girls and women are able to step into the spotlight and take up that space, we will become a more compassionate planet.
You mentioned that the impact and the financial performance of your program both seemed strongest where they intersect with girls’ education. Can you talk a little bit more about the relationship between performance and purpose within your company?
LJ: There is a real need for children’s enrichment programs in the marketplace. Working parents need something for their children to do after school, on holidays, and during the summer. Unfortunately, this country doesn’t have great childcare, so there’s a solid business case for creating high-quality, out-of-school children’s programming.
We were able to bootstrap our business with no seed money. Parents paid camp fees in advance, which we used to pay ourselves and fund the programming. It’s a lovely business model in that way. At the same time, we have an incredible opportunity and responsibility having children in our circle. We’re not just caring for them while their parents are at work, we have a responsibility to give them an experience that can accelerate them as people.
To compete in this space, you have to be a quality program, and quality means providing an opportunity that enriches kids’ lives. There are all kinds of ways to do that. We choose to work with girls and their internal empowerment, but there are so many opportunities in this space for a financial return as well as a vital social mission.
How did you decide to become a for-profit social enterprise rather than a nonprofit? Was it a tough decision?
LJ: At first, it was a total no-brainer to start a social enterprise. My background is in nonprofit art and youth organizations, and I spent almost a decade working as a trainer, consultant, and coach for youth-serving nonprofits. Because I did so much work in the nonprofit space, I knew I didn’t want to do that. Working in the nonprofit space always put me in the position of having to ask other people with money to help me with a need.
Starting a nonprofit didn’t feel empowering. It was important to me as a woman of color and an artist that I build my own wealth and be able to lift up my own. I didn’t grow up poor — I grew up middle-class — but there was no sense of wealth-creation in my family. They worked, made money, and spent it. I was empowered by the idea of building something with a lasting financial legacy that could lift up my children, my community, and other entrepreneurs. I’m in this almost as much for that as for the content of our business.
How do you approach culture at Spotlight: Girls, both for your team and your customers?
LJ: Initially, I was the primary teacher of the program, along with my co-founder and wife, Allison. Once we started thinking a little bigger, we realized we needed to articulate our mission, what we were teaching the girls, and what it means to teach social and emotional skills through the arts. Through both scientific research and artistic inquiry, we created our — a five-point bible, as it were, for culture at Spotlight: Girls.
At first we used our Culture Code as a key methodology for what we teach girls, but it didn’t take us long to realize it was our code for everything. Those five values inform how we hire staff, how we run our meetings, and how we measure our professional development. They’re integrated into everything that we do, and the code has become something of a secret sauce. Of course, it’s not very secret, because we share it with everybody and anybody who asks.
How has the Culture Code influenced the way you run Spotlight: Girls as a business and engage your team?
LJ: We find that it’s especially important in hiring. Our small year-round team triples or quadruples during the summer, so we hire more often than most companies of our size. We interview a lot of people who teach drama, music, or art — and they may be great at that, but they also have to fit into our culture.
For example, our program started as a summer camp called “Go Girls!” so the idea of what it means to be a Go Girl is central to our culture, as is inspiring girls to “take center stage.” That means inspiring girls to make bold and brave choices, take power and ownership of their own voices, bodies, and imaginations, and contribute their unique talents and perspectives to a larger picture. It’s important for the people who work with us to adopt this culture for themselves and recognize that they’re a part of it.
Getting trained in the practice of changed everything for us. To see how candidates match up, we ask them to tell us about a time in life when they took center stage and what it meant for them. The stories they tell in response make it clear whether or not they’ll stick into our culture. As a result, we find great matches, and the parents who bring their kids to the program are blown away by the quality of instruction.
How would you describe the role of business in building communities, solving social problems, and creating a better world?
LJ: I’m reading a book by Father Greg Boyle. The social enterprise he founded, , in Los Angeles, provides job training and employment to young people formerly involved in gangs. In his latest book, Boyle writes that if Jesus were around today, he would probably be an entrepreneur. I love that quote because I feel that business is the ideal space for solving social problems.
Yes, a lot of businesses say they’re solving social problems yet have little impact, but those businesses that do are shifting our society. They’re creating jobs and transforming the existing economics in communities. Business has the potential to create equity in this way and at the same time connect to their consumers and everyday people. I’m so excited to be in this space because I feel like it’s in the middle of everything.
As business owners, it’s so important to. Can you give us an example of a struggle or failure that turned into a teachable moment?
LJ: A big part of our Culture Code is that girls make mistakes, and we try to make sure our team and the kids understand that. But it’s hard for a lot of us. How do we celebrate our mistakes as an opportunity for growth when they feel so crappy while they’re happening?
Most recently, I made a big mistake in our efforts to grow the business and take on new investors. We’d secured a new investment, but it came in later than I expected. I spent the money before I got it, and it created a huge cash flow crisis. We couldn’t pay people on time, and I had to stop taking a salary. It was a horrible mess, but I learned a lot.
Often, businesswomen like me who are creative and have a social mission get tied up in thinking, “The money is important, but it’s all about the impact. It’s all about what we’re doing.” But social entrepreneurs can’t have the impact they want to have without working with investors effectively, choosing the right advisors, and managing financials responsibly. We’re still learning and growing, and that’s just one example of how we learned the hard way.
As a social entrepreneur with a growing business, what keeps you up at night?
LJ: As we grow, we’re always looking for new ways to sustain our business while also serving girls whose parents can’t afford to send them to camp. Additionally, our next big step is expanding to other parts of the country. We’re becoming franchisers in California, and we’re seeking women and girl advocates from across the US who want to replicate Go Girls! in their communities. Part of our mission is to inspire more girls to embody the Go Girl culture and show up in their communities, which can make a huge difference, but I’m constantly thinking about how to better support people who want to get involved. I was up at 3:00 a.m. last night making myself a note.
What gives you hope?
LJ: 2017 felt pretty hopeless to me, as it did for a lot of us, but I came into 2018 feeling much more hopeful. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements — while they have their problems — sparked a common conversation in our country around, “Wait a second. There are a lot of spaces that aren’t safe for women and girls. How can we change that?” We should embrace those conversations and think about how to help young women stand up for themselves and help young men understand their privilege. Similar conversations are happening around race and spaces that may not be safe for people of color, and we need to keep those going, too.
At the same time, women and people of color across all backgrounds are running for office and making their voices heard. It feels like a collective energy is rising around lifting up our most vulnerable and centering those folks who have been on the outside for so long. It’s inspiring to see more people listen with intention and start discussing things that women and people of color have been talking about for a long time.
Lynn Johnson’s Advice for Social Entrepreneurs
1. Start a for-profit if you can.
It’s so much more fun than non-profit, and you have more control.
2. Get the help you need.
So many times we try to do everything ourselves, and we can’t. No single person can contribute the diverse skills and talents — not to mention the time and energy — that’s needed to start a business, so it’s important to surround yourself with people who can pick up the slack.
3. Don’t be afraid to raise money.
Entrepreneurs often think that a need for outside financing means our business is somehow not doing well, which isn’t true. Most businesses need money to grow, and entrepreneurs shouldn’t be afraid to go out there, get investors, and raise money so they can pay themselves and their people.
4. Once you figure out your mission — or your “why”— it’s time to figure out the “how.”
For us, that “how” is our Culture Code. It outlines how we hope to accomplish our mission and the culture that surrounds it. As a social entrepreneur, if you can create your own version of a Culture Code that’s integrated into all your operations, it will set you apart from everyone else. I’m most proud when our customers say, “Wow, you all really walk your talk,” and that’s important for any social entrepreneur. When you’re clear on authenticity and transparency, you can articulate that to your customers and everyone who works for you.