“Who runs the world?” master of ceremonies Rene Knott of KSDK-TV News channel 5 would routinely say to check in with the audience during Girls Incorporated of St. Louis’ 13th annual Strong, Smart and Bold Luncheon on November 14 at the Ritz-Carlton.
“Girls!” the 600 or so in the crowd shouted back – quoting the popular Beyoncé song “Run The World (Girls).”
The lyric was a fitting call and response for the afternoon’s festivities, which celebrated “Women Who Inspire.”
“It gives me great pleasure to be here – because I am the father of a daughter, I am the husband to a wife, I am the son to a mother and I am the brother to a sister,” Knott said. “I understand the love and recognition that we need to give women in our world.”
According to Knott, Girls Inc. inspires girls to be strong, smart and bold through life-changing programs and experiences that navigate gender, economic and social barriers.
That programming includes research-based curricula delivered by trained professionals that “equips girls to achieve academically, lead healthy, physical lives that are active and develop an interest in science, technology, engineering and math.”
The national network of Girls Inc. serves more than 156,000 young women ages 5-18 each year across the U.S. and Canada.
Cheryl Jones, president and CEO of Girls Inc. St. Louis, said in her remarks that 8,000 young women are served annually through the local branch. “And I want to say thank you for being a champion for girls,” she said.
Current members of Girls Inc. were spread across the room with at least one of the young ladies in a smart red blazer situated at each of the 50-plus tables.
The afternoon’s speaker came from within the organization. Kayla Payne – a Girls Inc., member, Strong, Smart and Bold honoree and 12-grader at McCluer High School – delivered the afternoon’s keynote address. She conducted her speech as if it were a debriefing of a case.
“I’ve spent the past 10 years at Girls Inc. gathering evidence,” Payne said. “The first piece of evidence was discovered – leadership – finding out about leadership skills and gathering information on what it takes to be a leader.”
Payne revealed that the structure of her speech was inspired by her desire to become an FBI agent. She plans to continue he studies at either Howard University or Alabama A&M.
“This case has been a 10-plus year process,” Payne said.
She also proclaimed that she will ultimately return to St. Louis to serve as CEO of Girls Inc.
“I want to thank Ms. Jones, who believed in me and pushed – and I mean pushed – and made sure that I knew the potential I had in me,” Payne said.
Women from several capacities were recognized at the event for their contributions to the region.
They included Catherine Gidlow, founding partner of Bearden, Breckenridge and Gidlow, LLC; Ann Marr, executive vice president of Global Human Resources for WorldWide Technology; Kathy Osborn, president and CEO of the Regional Business Council; Valerie Patton, senior vice president of Inclusion and Talent Attraction and executive director of the Saint Louis Business Diversity Initiative at the St. Louis Regional Chamber; and Judge Gloria Clark Reno, presiding judge of the 21st Judicial Circuit Court in St. Louis County.
“You shouldn’t let other people define you – you can define yourself,” Gidlow said. “That’s what ‘strong’ smart and bold’ means to me personally. Thank you, Girls Inc., for inspiring all girls to be strong, smart and bold.”
Growing up, Marr didn’t have to look outside of her home to find a woman who inspired. Her mother served as the model for how she sought to live her life.
“She was compassionate, she was talented and she was elegant,” Marr said. “She really believed in family, and she raised us with certain values. Even though she’s gone and my daughters never knew her and my grandchildren never knew her, they know her through me.”
Marr had words of wisdom for the young women of Girls Inc.
“Don’t be afraid to continue to learn,” Marr said. “You have goals and aspirations, sometimes the only way to fulfill that is if you are a little bold and take some risks. And you’ll feel good about the next time an opportunity presents itself. If you are prepared for that, then take the risk and see where it is going to take you.”
Patton and Reno said they hope that their work with the organization inspired the women as much as they were moved by being able to help shape the minds and hearts of tomorrow’s women leaders.
“It has been a joy in my life to have been able to participate with Girls Inc. St. Louis and the tremendous work they do in the community,” Reno said. “I just hope that I have been able to inspire participants as well.”
“I want to empower every young girl and to let them know that the limits are not there,” Patton said.
Each of the women were presented with a proclamation by St. Louis County Executive Sam Page.
“Girls Inc. provides safe spaces and educational and cultural opportunities for young women – and with these programs, Girls Inc. encourages these young women to realize their potential and to raise their aspirations,” Page said.
“That dedication to women helping women and blending all of the knowledge and experience and unique perspectives into the next generation of young women is part of why I know the future of St. Louis’ young people is bright.”
Girls Inc. members were also recognized as Strong, Smart & Bold Honorees, Rising Stars, Advocacy Scholars and Senior Scholarship recipients.
The program included the recitation of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” by Ariel Gordon, a Strong, Smart & Bold Honoree and senior at Metro Academic and Classical High School as well as a performance of Beyoncé’s “Spirit” by the entire group of Girls Inc.’s current members.
“We are up here quoting lyrics to songs, and I can’t help but think about Kendrick Lamar’s song ‘DNA,’ I’m not going to give you the lyrics because they are not the best for a crowd like this – but primarily what the song says is that inside of you is the power to be whatever it is that you want to be because you have that DNA,” Knott said.
“If any of the young ladies in this room question that, just look at the ladies at these tables – who at one time were just like you: dreamers who kept believing, kept striving and stayed focused. Look at where they are today.”