A Discussion with Jin In, Founder of 4Girls GLocal Leadership

With: Jin In Berkley Center Profile

March 12, 2015

Background: Jin In’s passion and mission for girls’ empowerment is obvious and contagious. Any statistical measures suggest that Jin never would have thrived; she was born in South Korea when it was one the world’s poorest countries and her father died when she was very young. But she overcame every obstacle in her path. Her story can inspire girls and young women around the world to defy the odds. Jin became a women’s advocate through her effort to find a cure for one woman—her childhood mentor. She was determined to value girls, to fight the “throw away” culture that treats them as something disposable. But today, she faces her own illness, her toughest challenge. She is determined to heal through the gift of empowerment—healing by empowering others, for her, and for girls. Crystal Corman sat down with Jin In during the UN Commission of the Status of Women after Jin had spoken at the 2015 Global Tech Women Voices Conference. In this interview, Jin describes her leadership journey, explaining how she became an “actionist” and found a mission beyond equality. Empowerment, she believes, is the most powerful tool for change.

What led you to start 4GGL?

Since I was 8 years old, I have worked at the grassroots level empowering people. So I learned early that people can change. But they need to be empowered to change.

Fast forward 25 years. I was hired to start a brand new department, Global Action, at the Girl Scouts USA. Their focus is leadership development for American girls, and they have been doing it for over 100 years. The result—when I was at GSUSA, 83 percent of women in U.S. Congress were former Girl Scouts. So I got to see the long-term impact and at the national level.

It occurred to me, then, that this should be the strategy for girls everywhere.

Now, you may think girls in the United States are different from girls in economically poor countries. They are if you only look from the angle of problems. For instance, teen pregnancy is a problem in the U.S. In poor countries, it is child marriage. This is what I call the symptoms.

Now let’s investigate the root cause, or what I call the disease. Uncannily, it is exactly the same—not valuing girls.

So I started 4GGL [for Girls Glocal Leadership] to make leadership development possible, not just for American girls, but for all girls—near one billion globally. This is the largest number we’ve ever had on our planet.

How does 4GGL work? 

The mission of 4GGL is twofold. Foremost, it is to develop powerful future women leaders; and to transform antiquated mindsets about girls, especially in the developing world.

At first, it was all me. I was going to the countries, training trainers and working with local organizations and schools to develop leadership programs, as well as a greater community that would work for girls’ positive development. I imagined this would be for 50, 100 girls at a time. I clearly underestimated. My first experience was for over 200,000 girls in Bangladesh. BRAC is the world’s largest development organization.

So I experienced firsthand “build it and they will come.”

You said you “built it and they came.” How did people come to you?

First, I’ve been working with women and girls my whole life. I’ve worked for large institutions like the U.S. government serving our nation’s girls. I’ve worked at the United Nations with over 1,000 civil society organizations serving 10 million girls worldwide. 

Now there are nearly one billion girls and young women are on our planet today. Ninety percent of them are in the developing world. So finding girls isn’t the problem. The real problem is the catastrophe our world—you and I—are facing and will have to tackle as this large population is continually oppressed and marginalized.

I believe it’s why in less than one year after creating 4GGL, I received partnership requests from organizations and schools serving over 500,000 girls around the globe. They were all seeking a solution, a greater vision, for their huge number of girls.

This is when I knew 4GGL’s vision and mission could truly go to scale. And to do so, it became a “glocal” movement—powerful global thinking, local action for girls.

You know the saying, “all politics is local.” Well, all change is also local.

What brought you to this work? What’s your story? 

Nelson Mandela said, “Freedom is indivisible. The chain on any one of my people [is] a chain on me.” My people are girls and the chain on any one of them is a chain on me.

My story began in South Korea when it was a poor country. Just seven months after I was born, my father died unexpectedly. In poor countries where girls aren’t valued, if you don’t have a father as well, girls are easily sold or just left to die.

In fact we know that more than 100 million girls—let me say that again—100 million girls who should be alive today are not simply because they had two X chromosomes.

Fortuitously, I wasn’t killed or sold. My mother championed me, and was determined that I would have a different trajectory, and she as well, a widow in a poor country. Like girls, widows are also not valued in these societies. My mother courageously moved to the United States, ahead of me. I reunited with her in Houston, Texas, when I was 8 years old. 

That was when I met a truly remarkable woman, a life mentor who jump-started my leadership journey. Barbara Crocker was a heroine who embodied leadership. She silently championed the voiceless, especially minority women. And now that I reflect, I see that voice was truly her gift. She was a speech pathologist.

So I learned from the age of 8 the art of empowerment, specializing on the voice or more accurately, restoring voice of the voiceless. Furthermore she awakened me to a powerful reality. She said, destiny is not determined by gender but shaped by one’s action.

These are powerful words! How did they transform you as a girl?

It transformed me into an “actionist.” Not an activist, but an actionist. It also made me realize that I was responsible and accountable for my life. That is, I could no longer blame culture, gender, parents—whatever we all use as a crutch.

Barbara didn’t just talk. She led by example. She took me along to “the “projects” of Houston and put me into action. She said, “If you want to change something, don’t just talk about it. Take action.” If you fail, that’s okay. Failure is success unrealized.

So together, Barbara and I served and restored voices. What’s really amazing, when you’re an actionist, is that you don’t see limitations—statistics, stereotypes, etc. You simply take action, and I realized that I, an immigrant girl raised by a widowed mother, could change the world.

Then in high school my world was rocked. Barbara was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease which is prevalent in women. And Houston, Texas, with the world’s largest medical center, could not cure my Barbara. 

I thought this was the greatest injustice. It was as if the world didn’t care about her, didn’t value her. So I went to medical school to find a cure for my Barbara.

So the illness of your mentor and role model really changed the course of your life. How did medicine focus you on women and girls?

Yes, that’s generally how we find our passion—when we experience a great injustice. By championing one woman, I opened the Pandora’s box of gender inequality. I was horrified that this is happening at a massive scale, every single day. For example, as I said earlier, 100 million girls are not alive today simply because they were girls. This is more than the number of people killed in all of the genocides in the twentieth century, including the Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenia—all combined. Shocking that it has not received more attention.

So I went from medical school to public health school to study women’s health at the population level. Knowing that medicine approached women in body parts, I proposed a comprehensive women’s health curriculum for the schools of public health as my master’s thesis. It was a continuum—from the womb to girls to womanhood to wise years. And I proposed it at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was doing my graduate studies.

Believe it or not, UC Berkeley rejected it. They said they already had a curriculum for women—Maternal Child Health (MCH). Well, MCH is mostly about the child. What about adolescent girls, women who do not have children, older women. It didn’t matter. In essence, they didn’t care.

That’s when my mentor at the time, Dr. Patty Robertson, at the UCSF School of Medicine, encouraged me to submit my thesis to the International Congress on Women’s Issues. Simultaneously in order to graduate, I worked on another thesis. It was on adolescent girls.

It sounds like your new thesis focusing on adolescent girls was really pivotal to your career?

Absolutely! Failure is success unrealized.

My abstract was accepted and the conference was ‘coincidentally’ in South Korea. I reconnected with my maternal grandfather who told me the story, my herstory. I was born into a wealthy family on my father’s side. In fact, my paternal grandfather may have been killed by the North Koreans during the Korean conflict for his wealth. And if my father had lived, he would have inherited millions. Fortuitously, not a penny was for girls.

With this said, I’m a living example that nations can transform. In my lifetime, my birth country went from one of the poorest to one of the wealthiest in the world. When I was born, South Korea’s GDP was less than Ghana’s. Even more unimaginable is the transformation my mother experienced. When she was young, they received aid—rice—from North Korea because they had less than the North. 

I speak, teach, and mentor young women around the world. No matter where they are or where they come from (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen) they are utterly shocked about South Korea’s transformation. They also see hope and are inspired to be the change.

Now the Conference, too, was a ‘coincidence.’ There, I met the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Women’s Health. I told her about my (new) thesis and expertise and offered my service to champion girls with her. The next thing I knew, I was moving to Washington, D.C., to serve our nation’s girls.

In D.C., I learned nothing new about girls, and everything about politics. In fact, D.C. didn’t care about girls. Girls were an afterthought, and thought it was sweet I was advocating for them.

Then I remembered Barbara’s wise words and strategy; you may not win the battles, but aim to win the war. I made sure to insert girls on the agenda whereever, whenever. I reached out to other departments and federal agencies to see how we could partner. It was a powerful training in system-wide infiltration!

At the same time, I learned more about specific issues girls suffered in individual countries and regions around the world. Although I knew the root cause, I wanted to learn more about the symptoms—the issues—because that’s where most people are.

When did you see girls as the game changer in development?

I attended a global development briefing where I met a gentleman specializing in poverty alleviation. He said his work had touched the lives of 100 million poor people.

He then asked me about my work. When I shared with him my mission to develop powerful future women leaders who will transform their world, he was intrigued and asked me to tell him more. In the end, I asserted that empowering girls is the most powerful force for change, including in poverty alleviation (his work). And that by helping girls reach their greatness, our world will in turn see dramatic progress, economically, socially, and even in governance.

Then he said something that shocked me. He said, “I have to commend you. The population you are advocating for is the ‘disposable’ population.”

Although I knew he was right, it was still heartbreaking to hear those words. Girls were disposable—killed, sold, raped—because we do not value them. Isn’t that why we throw things away—because they have no value to us?

This was my ‘a-ha’ moment. We had to transform mindsets—from seeing and treating girls in poor countries as disposable human trash to powerful human resource, tomorrow’s leaders. We must value and invest in future leaders.

4GGL’s vision and mission became clear.

How does religion or faith fit into your work?

Whether we realize it or not, we, in global development, are driven by faith. Faith is our mission. We also have faith that our world can be better. It’s why we take action.

For me, faith and spirituality are at the core of who I am. It has been my north star in my leadership journey. I would have never started an organization if I didn’t have faith—faith in a brighter vision for the world’s girls, in girls, in myself and foremost, in a greater higher power, call it God, love, the source of all being. And it is this source that brings me with one with the girls.

There’s an African word that beautifully describes this sentiment: ubuntu. I cannot be all that I can be if you cannot be all that you can be. This is 4GGL, for every girl everywhere.

4GGL recently completed a global survey measuring young women’s empowerment. Please tell me more about this.

4GGL today focuses on two main actions to amplify a powerful movement for girls. First, we collect and use data to create critical social change. Second, we showcase girl power. The survey is the first of these actions.

For more than two decades, I have been studying and working in this space—gender equality and women’s empowerment. I realized that most of what we know and do is in equality, or more accurately in inequality. This means numbers—the number of women vs. men, girls vs. boys. Furthermore rather than ‘the sky is the limit,’ the gold standard and aspirations are at the level of men and boys.

Now women have made progress in equality, and the progress in some areas truly is great. For example, in the United States, women today outnumber men in higher education. And yet, as I speak and lecture across the U.S., young women reveal to me—sometimes quietly as if they’re ashamed, other times, loudly as if they’re frustrated—that they are not empowered.

Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Trained in empowerment since I was eight and realizing that it is a necessary tool for change—it’s the agency the change-agent needs—I knew we needed data.

‘Coincidentally,’ I was invited to be in the inaugural class of women leaders at the Omega Institute. A co-participant, Holly Baker, came up to me after we had all shared our visions, and noted that I needed an army. Jin’s Army, she called it. Then she volunteered to join the Army and together, we took action.

Holly Baker’s expertise—gift—is research, including qualitative research. So we created and launched the first-ever global women’s empowerment survey. Our focus was the millennials but we were inclusive. We have responses from young men, as well as older women.

I’m thrilled to announce that soon, we will unveil our findings! It’s taking longer because for all of us at 4GGL, our time and action is a labor of love. We do not get paid, including me. So finding time is a challenge.

Also the young women requested it in languages other than English, especially in Arabic. In the end, the survey was in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, and Spanish.

4GGL also launched an online magazine. How did this start and how do you gather the stories?

Einstein also said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them."

Showcasing girl power is our other action. To change mindsets (the mission of 4GGL) I knew we needed to present girls and young women as leaders, the solution, rather than the problem, victims of issues. In the same Omega Class where I met Holly, I met the person with this gift.

Jennifer Blue writes stories for corporations and businesses for pay. When she shared with me that she wanted to write a fictional book on girls, I asked, “Why not real stories of real girls?” 

Voila! 4GGL online magazine, the first-ever global platform showcasing the power of girls and young women as changemakers and leaders.

Girls and young women are creating and leading change, right now. We simply collect and showcase their powerful stories. 4GGL is a reservoir, a hub. In fact, our vision at first was four issues per year, for every season. The day we launched our very first issue, our gift to world’s girls on Giving Tuesday last year, Jennifer wrote me a heartbreak letter that she already had enough stories for the next issue. So now, we are expanding our vision.

Jennifer also noted something that awakened me. She said, “I wish I was getting paid to do this work, where my heart is." Imagine that! Getting paid for our labor of love.

4GGL is about visioning greatness for girls, in girls. I’m announcing right here, right now, our vision of $1 million dollars for our labor of love. I have faith 4GGL will receive this gift.

Where do you see your work focusing in the future?

The resurgence of violence and extremism like ISIS and Boka Haram isn’t an accident. We have the largest number of young people on our planet today. Ninety percent are in the developing world. In fact, the majority of the Middle East, Africa and South Asia are young people.

So imagine, one half of this enormous group—that’s nearly one billion girls and young women—are denied rights and their potential is wasted. The other half—boys and young men—are the recruiting force for extremism. Why are we surprised about the violence?

Girls and young women bear the brunt of this violence. To the survey question, “What is the most important issue to you and young women in your society?” from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, and the United States in between, the resounding answer was violence. More specifically, in the United States, it was sexual assault on campus. In India and Pakistan, rape and honor killing. In Morocco, sexual harassment. In Nepal, domestic servitude and abuse. 

Therefore my strategy is to focus on this half of the youth population. Einstein said the solution will not be at the level of the problem—violence. So I am intentionally taking action for peace, to ignite an army of empowered future women leaders in peacebuilding. I envision thousands of them, future Nobel Peace Prize winners!

You’ve mentioned your health. How has it further shaped your work through 4GGL?

Immediately after launching 4GGL, I received an overwhelming number of partnership requests. It’s like the world was just waiting for a better vision for girls. So to think that I can change the trajectory of 500,000 girls, just the way Barbara did for me. I made girls my life’s priority. I worked nonstop, in fact, exceeding the 10,000 hours people equate with expertise. I forwent my own basic needs like rest and health care. In essence, I became a martyr to the cause.

I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism with a thyroid tumor as the cause. I received this voicemail from the doctor ironically exactly when I was delivering a keynote at a global health conference. At first, I was in denial. Action and energy were my strengths. I seem to be running out of energy.

It wasn’t until the Omega Institute, being with other women leaders who openly and honestly shared their weaknesses and challenges, that I awakened to my reality. I’ve become one with the world’s girls. I am the girl I’m championing.

And profoundly, my body has become the GPS of what exactly needs to be done for girls. When I was diagnosed with a thyroid tumor, I focused on voice and choice. We launched our ground-breaking global survey to hear the voices of young women around the globe. As we closed the survey end of last year, my doctor updated me. The thyroid tumor seems to have miraculously decreased. Now she believes the cause is a brain tumor.

I wasn’t surprised. I knew the brain—the mind—was my next focus for girls. To change attitudes and behaviors, I knew it must begin in the mind. It’s why 4GGL’s mission is to change mindsets.

I wholeheartedly believe I will heal when we heal the world’s girls. I also know life is a powerful teacher and this illness has taught me two profound lessons. First, what doesn’t kill you will truly make you stronger. Now more than ever, my mission and action is crystal clear.

Second, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others. This is my invitation to you and the world—a call to action—to join the army and give the gift of empowerment to the world’s girls.

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