Run the World, Girls

Judy Vredenburgh knows what it means to break barriers and defy expectations—and she’s helping girls from low-income communities do the same

Judy Vredenburgh.

Story by Jennifer Kitses | Photographs by John Emerson

“I believed that women could manage and lead a little differently, that we could break through the glass ceiling, that we could get paid properly and have leadership roles. ”
Judy Vredenburgh

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Judy Vredenburgh discusses why it's important for girls to be strong, smart and bold.

Though the Girls Inc. office is high above Wall Street, it is modest, even plain, and its few elements of decoration speak of its mission and motto: “Inspiring all girls to be smart, strong, and bold.” Alongside similarly inspirational quotes, black-and-white portraits of girls who have participated in the organization’s programs are displayed on the walls—each girl looking straight at the camera, her expression confident and proud.

It is here that Judy Vredenburgh (MBA ’75), president and CEO of Girls Inc., is helping girls from low-income, underserved communities move past gender, socioeconomic and racial barriers to achieve their dreams. Last year, more than 156,000 girls in 337 cities in the U.S. and Canada participated in its programs, primarily through after-school, school break and summer programs offered at schools and community centers. In its 154-year history—it was founded in Waterbury, Conn., as the Girls Club and was later known as the Girls Clubs of America—millions of girls have been served.

The nonprofit, like many others, struggled in the wake of the recent recession. But in Vredenburgh’s eight years leading Girls Inc., she has moved it to a position of financial strength. Now she’s focusing on growth. Her goal is to double the number of girls who participate in its programs, which address everything from health and financial literacy to coping with bullies, all in an effort to give girls the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to succeed in school and in life.

Girls Inc. is focused not only on service, but also on advocacy. In this way, it hopes to reach girls on the individual level, while at the same time raising national awareness of the struggles girls face. “We help girls value their whole selves, discover their inner strengths and push past obstacles,” Vredenburgh says. “The larger game is changing the conditions that create the obstacles.” On both of these fronts, Vredenburgh is prepared to lead.

Judy Vredenburgh.

Exceeding Expectations

Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia in the 1950s, Vredenburgh faced obstacles too—in her case, in the form of parental expectations. Although she was good at math (her father, a family doctor, often gave her word problems to solve at the dinner table), she was not encouraged to follow in her father’s footsteps, or to have any career ambitions at all. That encouragement was instead directed toward her younger brother, who would go on to join her father’s practice.

“I was reared for achievement, but also given the message that the ideal is to get married and have kids,” she says. Her mother graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, but identified as a traditional wife and mother. By the time Vredenburgh was in middle school, she knew she wanted something different. “I wanted to be independent,” she says. “I needed economic independence; that was very important to me. The model of being devoted to your husband and believing that your ability to support and nurture children was your whole identity—that was not for me.”

She enrolled at Penn, in what was then called the College for Women. (It merged with the College of Arts & Sciences in 1974.) Her love for numbers and analysis steered her toward a degree in economics. At the same time, she became interested in social change. “My feminism was forged at Penn during the anti-Vietnam, anti-authority movement of the ’60s,” she says. “But I was also very career-oriented, very ambitious. I believed that women could manage and lead a little differently, that we could break through the glass ceiling, that we could get paid properly and have leadership roles.”

She also fell in love, at the age of 19, with a Vietnam vet who had enrolled in the MBA program at Wharton, Penn’s business school. After graduation, they married, but still focused on starting a career, Vredenburgh joined a company that had recruited on campus: Abraham & Straus, a division of Federated Department Stores. “I didn’t know anything about business,” she says. “But as an assistant buyer, I had real responsibility. There was measurement and goals.”

A year later, the couple was living in Buffalo, where Vredenburgh’s husband was pursuing a PhD and Vredenburgh was earning her MBA at UB. By day, she worked as a buyer for the Hens & Kelly department-store chain; at night, she took classes in finance, management and strategy, the only woman in a program largely populated by middle managers from General Electric. However, these challenges only added to her experience. “I got a world-class education,” she says. “And I loved taking courses while I was working, because I could apply lessons from the real world to the academic world, and back again.”

Those years also produced a real-world lesson of the barriers women face in the workplace. During her time at Hens & Kelly, the company was sued by the Department of Labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act for pay and promotion discrimination. Hens & Kelly’s records were subpoenaed, and Vredenburgh, like other employees, submitted forms to the government’s lawyers that included salary information. She was invited to join the class-action suit and later agreed to a settlement. The amount of back pay she received suggested she had been paid one-third less than the male employees in similar roles.

Two jobs and several years later, and with a daughter now, Vredenburgh was back in New York and working again at Abraham & Straus, where she moved quickly up the ranks. “I was making money for the company,” she says. “I kept getting promoted to even more responsibility.” Yet once again, she found herself facing the hurdles of being a woman in a man’s world. In a management shuffle, a male co-worker was promoted above her. “My numbers were much better,” she says. “And I had experience in the heart of the moneymaking part of the business.” Unwilling to report to her former colleague, she managed to carve out a position for herself in which she reported directly to the CEO. However, this new role didn’t give her the responsibility she was looking for—and it wasn’t the promotion she felt she’d earned. “I said to myself, ‘Fine, I’ll do this job, and I’ll blow the numbers away, and then in a year I’ll go into the job market.’ Which is exactly what I did.”

Vredenburgh was eventually able, at a different company, to secure the senior vice president title she sought. She was later recruited to become the CEO of a business in need of a turnaround,
but split with the company amid disagreements over corporate direction. By then, she had spent more than two decades in the retail industry. “I’d been working 60- to 80-hour workweeks, traveling the world, sourcing the world, while trying to be a decent wife and a decent mother,” she says. She decided to take a break and explore whether she could pursue a dream she’d had since her 20s: working for a nonprofit.

Judy Vredenburgh.

To the Top, Take Two

“I grew up with the idea of service,” Vredenburgh says. “Giving back and helping others—that’s just what you do.” Her father had charged patients on a sliding scale, and sometimes didn’t charge at all; her grandparents, all immigrants who’d managed to work their way to the middle class, were lifelong contributors to charity.

Her first step was volunteering for Big Sisters of New York City. Soon, they asked her to join the board. From there, she went on to serve for six years as a senior vice president at the March of Dimes and was then recruited to run Big Brothers Big Sisters from its national headquarters in Philadelphia, where she stayed for a decade; during that time, she also served as a Big Sister.

In 2009, she moved back to New York to be closer to her husband (who had stayed in the city for his job) and daughter, who was recently married. A year after that, Vredenburgh learned of the opportunity to lead Girls Inc. “I knew this was the ultimate position for me,” she says. “It’s a much smaller organization than I had run. I could wrap my arms around it, figure out how to shape it. I love, love, love what I do.”

One attraction for her was the organization’s dedication to advocacy, with which it has a long history. Girls Inc. opened a Washington, D.C., office in 1971, and several years later, its national board adopted a long-range plan with a goal of taking “a leadership role as an advocate for the rights and needs of girls of all backgrounds and abilities.” From the beginning, the organization was involved with the campaign for Title IX, passed in 1972, which mandated equal opportunities for women and men in education, including the ability to participate in college and university sports. In the early 2000s, former Girls Inc. president and CEO Joyce Royce testified at the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which provided funds for investigating and prosecuting crimes against women.

Yet for all its advocacy work on the national level, Girls Inc. is a grassroots organization, with each affiliate operating like a franchise. All local offices rely primarily on paid professionals, with help from volunteers who serve as role models. Many of the professionals are women who grew up in similar environments, facing similar socioeconomic barriers and discrimination, as the girls they serve; volunteer speakers, such as rocket scientists from Lockheed Martin, introduce the girls to jobs that might seem out of reach. At some Girls Inc. sites, girls can enroll in multiyear internship programs that include activities on college campuses; many of these programs focus on STEM subjects. “Girls are given messages at a very young age that math and science, engineering, tech are not for them, just like I was not encouraged to pursue becoming a doctor,” Vredenburgh says. “We create an environment that counters the messages and helps girls deal with these stereotypes.”

Vredenburgh is a firm believer that developing life and social skills is just as important as learning about careers and getting academic assistance, and Girls Inc. programs also focus on reproductive health, stress management and confidence building. “When I see Girls Inc. girls, I notice a sense of self-assuredness, a confidence in one’s own capabilities,” says Andrea Delgado, who participated from kindergarten through high school and graduated cum laude from Harvard University last year. She credits Girls Inc.’s after-school theater program with helping her get over her shyness. “We got to write our own plays and design the costumes—basically everything was our creation—and then we got to perform. Without that experience, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable speaking up in the classroom.” Vredenburgh confirms that every girl is encouraged to set her own goals; there are no predetermined measures of success. “We don’t impose in any way on the girls. We help them discover who they are and figure out what they want.”

Judy Vredenburgh.

Vredenburgh has made significant progress on her goals for the organization’s growth: Since 2011, a year after she took over, the number of girls who participate yearly in its programs has increased by more than 25 percent. The organization has also added close to 200 sites in 50 cities. “She challenged us to substantially grow the number of girls served because we have a moral imperative to do so,” says COO Pat Driscoll, who was previously a Girls Inc. executive director in Lynn, Mass., for 18 years. “That motivational leadership has paid off in many more girls being served, increased visibility and respect for Girls Inc., new partners, new advocates, and a renewed commitment to improve the conditions for all girls.”

Vredenburgh is also working on an upcoming advocacy campaign centered on sexual harassment and violence. The theme was chosen by the girls themselves; a network-wide survey the organization conducted two years ago determined that this was their top concern. “People aren’t aware that it starts very young,” Vredenburgh says, citing research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suggests approximately one in four girls is sexually assaulted before the age of 18. Girls Inc. is working with an outside firm on ways it can promote the “norm shifts and awareness shifts” necessary for reducing sexual harassment and assault. As with all of the organization’s efforts, Vredenburgh is determined to make sure the girls’ voices will be heard. “They will be leading the campaign,” she says.

The organization has won smaller, local victories that way. Girls Inc. of Omaha brought participating girls to testify at a hearing to persuade the city’s public schools to teach comprehensive sex education, and succeeded. The girls of Girls Inc. of Memphis convinced their city council to vote against a proposal to put a landfill next to the Girls Inc. farm and an elementary school.

Changing norms and awareness within society is a much larger goal, and one not easily measured by metrics. But Vredenburgh isn’t daunted. “We have a lot of systems issues—cultural and policy issues— to address,” she says. “The barriers are huge. But we want to help girls understand that power is a neutral. It can be used for good.”

Jennifer Kitses, a freelance writer based in New York City, recently published her first novel, “Small Hours.”