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Impact Story: The Penny Pilgram George Women’s Leadership Initiative

Home Blog Impact Story: The Penny Pilgram George Women’s Leadership Initiative

First launched in the 2015-2016 academic year, the Penny Pilgram George Women’s Leadership Initiative (PPGWLI) was created to address the need for greater connection for undergraduate students looking to grow their capacity around women’s leadership development. Penny Pilgram George (WC’65) and her partner, Bill George, have a deep appreciation for and knowledge of authentic leadership and holistic wellness, and PPGWLI’s goal of empowering women to lead in any context is made possible by a generous gift from the George Family Foundation.

The Initiative includes a year-long cohort experience for 50-75 undergraduate students looking to explore their leadership identity and how it intersects with other identities they hold. Members of the cohort participate in regular events designed to build upon each other to grow their confidence and voice as leaders, including spending time each month with a femme-identifying staff/faculty mentor who volunteers with the program. One student reflected:

“The person at the end is much more confident and committed to living an embodied and empowered life, thanks in part to spaces like Penny that allow for women to talk about life at Duke.”

In partnership with local Durham non-profit organizations, the cohort also works in small groups on a project related to women’s issues to put their leadership learning into practice. Intentional programming for the cohort includes content around leadership styles, communication, ethical community engagement, conflict resolution, and self-care.

Funds for PPGWLI have also supported cohort members participation in overnight retreats, one-on-one public speaking coaching, Duke Women’s Weekend, and large-scale speaker events, including Retta (T’92) and Luvvie Ajayi Jones. Another student, in considering her growth over the year, shared:

“I think that I have become more confident and reflective as a result of this program. I now think about leadership more in terms of how my strengths can be used to create positive change, and considering how others can provide help in areas that I struggle with.”

The program also allows for students to return in years following their participation as Cohort Executive Officers (CEOs), a paid leadership role designed for students to remain connected to PPGWLI and continue to develop their skills as leaders. CEOs help to guide and facilitate the small group projects with Durham non-profits, as well as develop content to deliver to the cohort during some of the cohort-wide events and activities. One former CEO shared:

“I definitely learned a lot about the importance of communication over the course of my time working with PPGWLI…I learned a lot about how to lead effective meetings. I feel like now I go into a meeting confidently, and everyone walks away having gotten more out of it.”

They also support retention and engagement among cohort members, and spend intentional time developing their own leadership learning plans for their extended time as part of PPGWLI.

The George Family Foundation’s continued involvement and commitment to the program has resulted in new efforts to scale the program to impact a larger net of Duke undergraduate students. A former cohort member shared:

“Having spaces like Penny Pilgram [are] really valuable especially in places like Duke because of the very nature of professionalism…[W]hen it comes to being a woman, you have to really forge your own path, often away from other women who share your experiences and perspectives. So, you don’t really get opportunities usually to work and be your most authentic self around people who share your perspectives and life paths. So it’s really, really imperative that you have a support system like Penny Pilgram.”

Beginning in the 2021-2022 academic year, the Initiative sought to better engage first-year womxn and cohort alumnae. Scaling will continue to strategically occur over the next three years, as the cohort grows from 50 students to 150 students, which not only means more participants gaining confidence and skills in their leadership abilities, but also scaling the number of volunteer mentors and Durham non-profits impacted by the Initiative. The Foundation board and staff has been integral in the success of the Initiative, not only in the ways of financial support, but also with their time as thought partners, cheerleaders, and colleagues. Their generosity in speaking with staff, volunteer mentors, and students about their personal or professional goals has been invaluable.

Submitted by Emilie Dye, Interim Director of Student Involvement & Leadership, and Anna Lehnen, Associate Director of Student Involvement & Leadership