Jenny Raymond stands smiling in front of a black curtain. She is wearing glasses, a navy blue long sleeve top, and has a blue and white scarf around her head.

JENNY RAYMOND: Executive Director of the Harnisch Foundation, Founder of Funny Girls

The #SheInnovates stories team sat down with Jenny Raymond to discuss the role of women in innovation. Get involved at She Innovates Global.  

#SheInnovates Stories: Innovation is solving the world's problems. What problem are you solving?

Jenny Raymond: Why don’t women naturally fill at least half of the leadership roles in the world? Perhaps the most basic reason is, girls are seldom taught to think of themselves as leaders. In many communities, girls’ voices are actually stifled. Our Funny Girls program lets young women take simple, fun steps on a natural path to discover and develop their leadership. The curriculum includes exercises that build girls’ self-confidence and give them reasons to see themselves as leaders, using improv comedy to engage 3rd-8th grade girls in the U.S. Funny Girls’ curriculum offers an original opportunity to invest in building practical, right-now leadership skills in a younger generation.

#SheInnovates: When did you realize your innovation was a breakthrough?

JR: We knew we had a breakthrough when we saw girls transform in just a few weeks of programming; when their teachers and parents told us how the young women were able to articulate the changes they were feeling and seeing in their everyday lives.

They told us that they loved the improv comedy games, which they played with others in their group, creating characters and inventing crazy plots on the spot. They were working, but it looked and felt like playing, which is one of the secrets of the program’s success.

For some of the girls, there are major breakthroughs just entering a space where the rules say, “There is no right or wrong, and every contribution is valued.” That’s revolutionary freedom, and it allows the girls to use improv as a methodology to ‘try on’ leadership skills.

The curriculum uses a variety of games and exercises—in which failure is impossible!—to develop 5 core skills: self-awareness, empathy, collaboration, learning agility, and resilience.

Funny Girls pilot programs were workshopped with social justice forward, after-school programs in under-resourced neighborhoods. This is where we first saw young girls in action. We saw how our curriculum sparked the girls to use their own life experiences in the improv exercises, and could see how their personal stories gave them a reason to use their voices. We loved how easily they found humor and lightness in the improv situations, even as they were learning serious life skills. The girls aren’t learning to write jokes. Instead, they’re developing the skills of being present in their physical bodies (especially tricky at this age), getting their minds moving with agility, and using their more confident voices.

#SheInnovates: What were some unexpected obstacles you overcame in the innovation process?

JR: We had the goal, from the first glimmer of this idea, to create a curriculum that was unassailably inclusive, so that everyone who wanted to participate would find it easy to fit in.

We found a challenge in that improv, based on the instant creation of characters in the moment, can occasionally produce a reference that might be seen as a stereotype. Because full inclusion and equal dignity for all are keystone principles of Funny Girls, we found it was essential to identify implicit biases in our instructors and ourselves. We insist on holding ourselves and each other mutually accountable, to catch our own implicit biases and respectfully help others to see when they might be unintentionally showing bias. The number one rule of improv is “Yes, And”, which means in the games and exercises we value every voice. We build on one another’s strengths and ideas. We never say “Yes, But”, and “No” is out of the question! We never try to make ourselves look good, be funny, or stand out by stepping on others and making them smaller.

#SheInnovates: What inspires you to love your work?

JR: For nearly 20 years I’ve been working at the Harnisch Foundation, alongside the visionary philanthropist Ruth Ann Harnisch. I’ve enjoyed leading from the nexus of money and world-changing ideas, and working to make the world more fair and equitable through creative philanthropic strategy. It’s a dream job, as rewarding as you might imagine. However, there’s been a special satisfaction in leading the creation and evolution of Funny Girls, since I proposed it in 2014. What took thousands of hours to develop, now has a life of its own. These great ideas are finding expression, right now, through the girls engaged in the Funny Girls program after school—girls who were chosen because we think they have the most to gain from what Funny Girls can offer. Every time I see a Funny Girls Showcase performance demonstrating what they’ve learned, I am grateful for the chance to give them the gift of their best selves. Their smiles make me proud every day! I’ve been doing this work for a generation, and I’ve seen time and again that change can happen, beginning with investments in people. This investment in these people, at this time, is the culmination of my work to date.

#SheInnovates: What do you hope that young women coming behind you take from your work?

JR: I want more women, younger and older, to continue to step up and use their voices as leaders, and to have a seat at the table; whether that’s in government, local communities, the boardroom, or at home! I hope our Funny Girls will take advantage of everything they’ve learned and stretch their leadership muscles. I want them to keep using and honing the skills they’ve learned, whether the result is having greater command of their own emotional landscape, becoming a more effective collaborator, responding quickly to changing circumstances by offering fresh ideas, or creatively pivoting around obstacles.  A Funny Girl is prepped to be a powerful woman. I’m glad to be offering this gift to today’s young women, knowing how much I would have benefitted from such a program when I was a young girl. And I’m not alone. Whenever I tell women about Funny Girls, many tell me they too could have used such an enrichment opportunity when they were younger.

#SheInnovates: Why are women in innovation important?

JR: When you think of how many good ideas have not been heard because they are women’s ideas, you see how much talent and innovation the world has squandered since the beginning of time. Routinely ignoring the ideas of half the population means society has been missing out on a lot of innovation.

Perspective and creativity are hallmarks of innovation, and women bring both to the fore. From an empathic place, we also give greater credence to some of the ‘softer’ social-emotional skills, which can be driving forces behind innovations that meet basic human needs.

Follow Jenny Raymond on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.