Meridith Maskara: CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York
The #SheInnovates stories team sat down with Meridith Maskara 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?
Meridith Maskara: New York City is experiencing a persistent homeless crisis. We, at the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, recognized that we can help ease the homeless crisis, particularly by using our organization’s strengths and known track-record to make a difference for the nearly 8,000 girls who are homeless in New York City. For more than 100 years, Girl Scouts has been the premier girls’ leadership organization, helping girls develop the skills and confidence to take action in their own lives and in the world. The organization has become a sisterhood of girls and women supporting each other, something homeless girls need. But, our programs were out of reach for homeless girls – both because of costs (albeit minimal) associated with enrollment, and because of the logistics of getting homeless girls to troop meetings.
We decided to address these barriers and bring troops into homeless shelters, launching Troop 6000 in 2017 in one homeless shelter in Queens, NY. Thanks to a partnership with the NYC mayor’s office, the NYC Department of Homeless Services, support from the Mayor’s Fund, and support from thousands of individuals and organizations across the world, we now serve more than 500 girls and women in the NYC shelter system, with the unique network of Troop 6000 sites in all five boroughs of the city.
#SheInnovates: When did you realize your innovation was a breakthrough?
MM: We recognized the incredible potential of Troop 6000 when we started inviting girls living in a shelter to the first troop meeting. The impact was almost instantaneous. Girls walked in shy, nervous, and feeling alone. Within a couple of meetings they had developed, in their sister Girl Scouts, a support network and a group of confidants who let them know they were not alone in their homeless experience. They also began raising their hands, speaking out, and engaging in girl led, time-tested programs that help girls develop courage, confidence and character. The news about the pilot troop also made us recognize this program was a big deal. The outpouring of support from all over the world demonstrated just how much people want innovations like this.
In addition to financial support, we received a flood of inquiries from volunteers who wanted to help. Most notably, enthusiasm from the New York City Department of Homeless Services to help roll out Troop 6000 citywide. Since announcing the program’s expansion, we have had a steady waitlist of shelters who want to join, showing a real hunger for this kind of programming for homeless youth. The girls who participate, continually express how Troop 6000 changed their homeless experience from one where they felt afraid and alone to one where they know there is an army of sister Girl Scouts to support them.
#SheInnovates: What were some unexpected obstacles you overcame in the innovation process?
MM: Integrating Girl Scout Troops into NYC homeless shelters required GSGNY to navigate a bureaucracy that we were previously unfamiliar with. However, we were lucky to have so much support from the Department of Homeless Services in the process.
#SheInnovates: What inspires you to love your work?
MM: The girls are what inspire me every day. We serve more than 28,000 girls in New York City, from all walks of life. I hear, directly from them, about the challenges they are facing in the world, and the challenges that they fear they will face in the future. But, I also hear about the way Girl Scouts has empowered them. How they have found the confidence to try new things, or take action in their communities to make a difference. It inspires me to get up each day and work to make Girl Scouting reach more girls who have not previously had access, while also advocating for policies that would improve the lives of women and girls.
#SheInnovates: What do you hope that young women coming behind you take from your work?
MM: I want all girls to recognize that they have power to make change in the world. Core to Girl Scouts’ leadership development, is helping girls to identify problems in their community and take action to make a difference. We model that with our strategies at the council—Girl Scouts of Greater New York saw an area where we could make a real impact with Troop 6000 and took action to make that happen. All of our programs are by girls, for girls. We put girls in the driver's seat, giving them decision making power and an opportunity to be leaders. Girls should know, and have the chance to see, that their actions make a difference — today and tomorrow.
#SheInnovates: Why are women in innovation important?
MM: At Girl Scouts, we believe diversity in leadership is crucial, and that includes gender diversity. Representation in leadership is important across all fields, including innovators, to ensure that progress does not only benefit certain groups, but addresses the needs of a larger society. Girl Scouts encourages girls to think critically about problems in their community, and use their skills (whether in STEM, advocacy, or entrepreneurship) to address those problems. We encourage them to be leaders now and in the future. We already have young girls designing apps to solve social problems, girls creating websites to encourage dialogue and action, girls testifying at City Hall to support policy changes, and more. We believe that a world with more girls and women as leaders and innovators will be a better world.
Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.