Kirsten Helgeson is a social change visionary, strategist and advocate, using technology to drive mental health and women’s empowerment efforts globally. After 12 years leading D&I, philanthropy, sustainability and branding efforts with Fortune 500 companies, she left corporate life behind, jumping into global relief and empowerment. This work has taken her to all corners of the world – from refugee camps in Greece to orphanages in Haiti. Hurricane zones to public health crises. Along the way, she’s learned a lot about people, community and what it takes to build a better world for everyone.
Armed with expertise and experience, Kirsten founded Just A Girl – the digital hub of mental health and women’s empowerment globally. Just A Girl (JAG) welcomes women and girls of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs to come together to build a global sisterhood of support and solutions. Initiatives within JAG include Girl Talk Radio (on-demand radio and feminist podcasting syndicate), JAG Grow (tools that help people heal and thrive) and Artio (abortion support and resources).
Kirsten was a finalist in the 2018 Institute for Evolutionary Leadership’s Future Challenge, a TEDx speaker and an advocate for the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign. In addition to her formal post-secondary education many moons ago, she holds certifications in Psychological First Aid and Therapeutic Art Coaching to best support the psycho-social healing efforts of the people, organizations and communities she serves.
Where did the idea for Just A Girl come from?
As a bootstrapping social entrepreneur, I’m always thinking about how to do more with less. I needed some quick cash flow and decided I’d see if driving for Uber/Lyft would be worthwhile. I gave it one day, and the very first person I picked up was a guy in his 40’s that worked for a startup. He was with a colleague of some kind and they sat in the back of my car talking about the company’s latest fundraising round. In a lull in their conversation, I asked what round they were raising and if they integrate AI/ML into their software. With a confused tone, he gives me very short replies and then asks what I do. I gave him a quick overview. After what felt like a five-minute awkward silence, he said “Wow…good luck to you.” He and his colleague could no longer talk about business in front of me. Instead, they began talking about boats. When we got to their drop-off point, he got out of the car and again all he said was “Good luck to you,” and shut the door. This made me feel sad. A couple of riders later, a younger professional guy got in my car. We were talking about misconceptions, and I shared with him the experience I had earlier. He started laughing and said “He didn’t know what to say. In his mind, you were just a girl. And just an Uber driver, at that.” I started sharing this experience with more women – and more women founders. It struck a nerve with every woman I spoke with, and I knew that I had to pivot my approach, lean into a broader global dialog around all the emotions and experiences we leave out of our everyday relationships.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Typical really does go out the door when you’re a social entrepreneur. We have three different initiatives under the Just A Girl umbrella, which can be tricky to juggle. So, each week I outline the top priorities – what must get done, what should get done, what would be nice to get done and what can sit.
Every organization seems to be chasing productivity. I think a key for me is simply knowing myself and how I work best. Corporate does a great job of skill set assessments and personality testing. So, after 12 years of corporate, I understand what I need in order to offer my best to the world around me. For me, that means getting lots of sleep. Spending time with family and friends. Disconnecting from technology when I’m with my significant other. That also means allowing myself the space and time to read, surf social media and plug into the world around me, knowing these ideas fuel my creativity and innovation. Productivity means working smarter, not harder. Allowing my process to flow, and not allowing outside opinions and expectations get in the way.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I’ve always been a very creative person, with enough ideas to fuel a universe. For me, having ideas isn’t an issue. It’s knowing which ideas to cultivate. Cultivation is the key to transformative ideas. This is the hardest part, in my opinion. We get attached to ideas, to potential. We see a path ahead and want to bring it to life. Especially as a social entrepreneur, what you want to do, what the world needs and what people are ready for are often very different things. To learn cultivation, you have to let a lot of your ideas fail, and then learn from that process.
Personally, I’ve mastered the art of the pivot. I see failure as a co-creator – the universe telling me “this isn’t your door.” I’ve gotten good at taking a step back in those moments and saying “OK – I hear you. What am I supposed to learn from this? What is this supposed to become?” I drink coffee out of the same mug every morning. This mug literally says on it: “Listen to the World.” For me, those failure moments force me to step away from my ego and allow me to tune into what the world actually needs. My highest form of productivity is being attuned to this process. My best ideas are born from this approach. By pivoting through failure, I can effectively build solutions that will bring the greatest benefit to the women I serve.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Women running for political office. It’s exciting to see women starting to dismantle systemic patriarchy from the inside.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Courage. I do and say things that most people want to bury in a dark corner. Courage helps me hold my ground, create safe space and find solutions to problems that most people are afraid to tackle. It also helps me stay committed long-term to this roller coaster that is social entrepreneurship.
What advice would you give your younger self?
There are a couple things I’d like to say to her:
Don’t be so hard on yourself. Give yourself the patience and care that you give to other people.
Don’t let the opinions and expectations of other people drive your decisions. Build better boundaries faster and trust yourself.
Keep going all-in on people and ideas. You’re built to do big, difficult things that help lots of people. Swing for the fences, girl.
Stockpile more money at an earlier age…you’re going to need it once you finally figure out what you’re here to build.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
The world is made up of good people. And that we all want pretty much the same things. Love, acceptance, safety for our families…the list keeps going on and on. These days, we’re sold a lot of fear. Our differences are used to divide us. But the truth is that our common ground is vast. No matter your skin color, age, beliefs, sexual orientation – you have common ground with every single person you meet. I believe it’s our job to find that common ground, so that we can replace fear with compassion. And from that place of compassion, anything can bloom. We can change to world if we simply open our hearts to each other.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Be open, honest and vulnerable. By putting down the masks we wear and giving people a window into your heart, you create safety and trust. This is the cornerstone of great relationships. Of meaningful partnerships. Of building a strong, dynamic and thriving community around you. I realize that this is incredibly hard, but it’s worth it.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I fundamentally believe in Blue Ocean Strategy. Essentially, Blue Ocean Strategy challenges you to build outside of the status quo, believing that the most innovative and successful businesses are created in spaces that nobody has defined yet. Build something totally new and disruptive, in a currently undefined space – and make everyone else chase you. This approach has been fundamental to building Just A Girl. We’ve broken down growth into two phases (Phase 1: Build a Kick-Ass Global Platform; Phase 2: Frontier Tech Financial Solutions for the 4+ Women Globally). At both phases, we’re building with innovation and disruption in mind. Going big and bold, in alignment to what the world needs and what it’s ready for. Embodying this strategy means pushing three initiatives forward at the same time, knowing we’re building a universe of support and solutions.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
The company I started building in 2018 is very different than Just A Girl as it is today. At the time, I wanted to build a nonprofit that would use art as a tool to build soft skills in communities and elevate broader humanitarian conversations globally. I had big ideas, and big projects that I started putting together, all while setting up the legal and organizational infrastructure. It was what I thought the world needed and what I believed it was ready for. After eight months, I realized that the nonprofit structure wasn’t feasible (compliance is a beast) and donors weren’t lining up like I’d imagined. So, I had to take some big steps back, put my ego aside and listen. I decided to invest in personal education, which got me two new certifications. From there, I was able to start creating again. It was during this time that I created the workshop behind [email protected] I pivoted the strategy twice, needing to let go of the projects I loved to make room these pivots.
This felt like a total failure. It cost me a lot of time, money and a couple of important relationships. But it was this failure led to me re-launching as Just A Girl in 2019. I’ve been able to build a community of women and girls on six continents because of this failure. Failure fueled my future.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Remote work is a hot topic. But I think there’s a big blind spot that could be creatively addressed. There are millions of refugees and immigrants with usable skill sets that are not being utilized. Build a SaaS platform that allows Fortune 500’s to hire immigrants/refugees as their remote workforce. This would open up the global talent pool while giving millions of people in transition the opportunity to earn an income and support their families.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Quality lighting for photography and video production. I bought a simple kit online, based on the reviews. I had high hopes, laced with the fear of buying the budget option. But it honestly makes everything I create look so much better, and my life so much easier. It was a fantastic buy, and I wish I would have made the purchase sooner.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Canva Pro. It allows me and my team to create awesome branded pieces and content without having to spend time and money on an outside designer. We use it for social media graphics, newsletters, presentations…the options are endless.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I’m going to throw a little curve ball in here. Instead of encouraging the community to read a book, I’d like to encourage everyone to have a conversation with someone that looks or lives totally different from them. Ask someone to coffee. Learn about who they are, where they’re from. What makes them excited. Simply be curious and come from a place of kindness and compassion. If each of us did this once a month, we’d start to dissolve a lot of the fear and misunderstandings in the world. Only good things can come from us learning how to understand each other. So, this is my ask – get out and talk to someone.
What is your favorite quote?
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Angela Davis
- These days, we’re sold a lot of fear. Our differences are used to divide us. But the truth is that our common ground is vast. No matter your skin color, age, beliefs, sexual orientation – you have common ground with every single person you meet.
- Cultivation is the key to transformative ideas. To learn cultivation, you have to let a lot of your ideas fail, and then learn from that process.
- Failure moments force me to step away from my ego and help me to tune into what the world actually needs. My highest form of productivity is being attuned to this process. By pivoting through failure, I can effectively build solutions that will bring the greatest benefit to the women I serve.
- Be open, honest and vulnerable. By putting down the masks we wear and giving people a window into your heart, you create safety and trust.
- Build something totally new and disruptive, in a currently undefined space – and make everyone else chase you.