Who SHE is
Lulete Mola’s purpose is to build power with individuals, families, and communities for real change.
Lulete Mola ’14, College of Liberal Arts, is a social change strategist and chief strategy and innovation officer at the Women's Foundation of Minnesota. What follows is extracted from recent reflections she offered on how she realized her purpose in powering social change.
Growing up, I always believed in the idea of possibilities and new beginnings. My mother and my grandmother and women around me endured so much, and yet they always showed up in their full strength and power.
I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, came to the United States at age six, and grew up in St. Paul. (So I call both home). I realized at 15, when in high school at St. Paul Central, that unless you were in sports, there really wasn’t any programming that encouraged power building and leadership with girls, particularly Black girls and girls of color. Every interaction sent us the message that we were unlikely to go to college, or that we weren't smart and capable of dreaming big. This was a complete contrast to what I knew women and girls to be in the home I grew up in.
So I decided to start a program. I called it SHE.
SHE is born
First, I brought my good friends together. And soon after that, girls and young women I may not have known but who were also interested. We would meet and we would talk about body image, we would talk about issues specific to girls and young women, we would talk about our dreams … all of the things we cared about.
If you share your vision with people, they are likely to respond positively. People want to support folks. There’s so much goodness out there. It felt like I’d found my purpose; it was always inside of me. -Lulete Mola
Soon we started planning activities. The first big event we planned was a fashion show. It was October 17, 2009 (I won’t forget it, because we’d shout it everywhere we’d go). We planned it for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The event was accessible and fun, yet the topic was serious. We wanted students to feel like they were coming to a fashion show, but then leave knowing more about how domestic violence impacts women and what we could do about it.
In the process of planning, we were able to talk with local businesses, including boutiques around St. Paul. We’d tell them our vision and they’d sign up. They wouldn’t even ask for a deposit. They’d just say, “We love what you’re doing. Here are the clothes. Just return them.” There was so much trust and love in the way the community responded. We ended up planning something powerful.
This was when I realized: If you share your vision with people, they are likely to respond positively. People want to support folks. There’s so much goodness out there. It felt like I’d found my purpose; it was always inside of me.
SHE goes to the U of M
When I graduated from high school, in 2010, I went to the University of Minnesota and enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts. I’d noticed that there wasn’t a group like SHE on campus. So, my freshman year I still supported the SHE at St. Paul Central, and another that had emerged at Woodbury High School. My sophomore year, in partnership with women leaders on campus, we started a SHE student group at the U of M. We organized a conference called “Be the Change SHE Seeks.” We brought 100 high school girls from St. Paul Central, Woodbury, and South High School to the U of M for a day of power building and leadership. It was an event organized by girls, for girls. And mind you—at this time I didn’t have a full understanding of what nonprofits or foundations were. We weren’t being paid. It was just work that needed to be done that we stepped up to do.
Soon I majored in political science. My studies helped me articulate what was happening. My studies gave me words. The program grew as I grew. And after eight years of operating, SHE just had a natural closing, because other programs started emerging. The visibility of girls came to the surface. More nonprofits were going into high schools. And I began interning at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota (WFMN). My internship there sharpened my understanding of public policy, and of how change occurs through systems change.
‘Purpose is internal’
I feel like purpose is internal. A lot of folks look for purpose in the organization they work at or the organization they run or the idea they come up with. But I think those things are just vessels to put purpose into action. Who I am, what I’m called to do—that’s my purpose. So while SHE is no longer my vessel, my purpose—my commitment to Black girls and girls of color and women—can never go away.
We need to build power with and within individuals for real change.-Lulete Mola
A few years after graduating from the U of M, when I was recruited to a director position at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, they asked, “What would you bring to the Foundation?” And I said, “I would ask the Foundation to fund girls directly.” Because when we look at nonprofit organizations, less than 17 percent of them are run by Black, Indigenous, or people of color. Yet a substantial number of folks who receive services from nonprofit organizations are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. So there’s a mismatch there. If we want to actually put resources in the hands of people most affected by systemic inequities, we have to make it more accessible.
So we created a program. We called it the WFMN Innovators program, and we did a pilot round of 25 young women. They received $2,500 each. And they also received “convenings” to support their vision, and a coach. The program was a success. Now we’re getting ready for the fourth cohort of the Innovators program. Our donors understand the impact because they’re meeting the people who are powering the change. It’s even being replicated in other cities across the nation. This is not to downplay the importance of systems and infrastructure building. But by itself it can be limiting. We need to build power with and within individuals for real change.
Starting points for change
“Building community on campus is beautiful; building community with the communities around campus is critical. Work with local high schools and community members. Explore the vibrant communities around you.” -Lulete Mola
Meet the people behind the story
Lulete Mola ’14
Political Science, College of Liberal Arts
Social Change Strategist and Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, Women’s Foundation of Minnesota