Illana Raia, a Jersey Shore mom of two grown children who raised her kids in Saddle River, was a successful corporate lawyer in New York City when one day it dawned on her that her daughter didn’t know anything about how she spent her work day.
“More than that, she didn’t know what any of my friends did, and they had some of the coolest jobs ever! Surgeons, CEOs, writers and Wall Street wizards – she didn’t see them in their element,” says Raia. “So when she was in middle school I started taking her to see where they worked, and she loved it. The whole time we were doing this, I kept thinking girls everywhere should be doing this.”
Enter Être, which in French means “to be.” Raia’s experience with her own daughter inspired her to launch the powerful mentorship platform in 2016 to help girls `figure out who they want to be. Fast forward to 2020 and Être has 90 middle and high school board members in 15 states and 10 Club Être chapters founded and run by Être girls, six of which are right here in New Jersey.
As Être grows and pivots to more virtual meetups during the pandemic, its mission remains the same: to keep girls confidently raising their hands by introducing them to female role models early. Être hosts after-school clubs, Lunch & Learns at companies and a Board made up entirely of tween and teen girls.
We asked Raia to tell us how our daughters can get involved.
NJF: How were you able to get Être off the ground?
IR: I launched the website in 2016, and wanted it to be a free resource site for girls in middle school to access curated links and quotes from inspirational women. I started sending cold emails each week to women I didn’t know but with whom I thought Être might resonate, letting them know about the mission and asking for their wise words. When Arianna Huffington wrote back six weeks later saying she loved the site and wanted me to write for The Huffington Post, everything changed.
NJF: How did your daughter influence the way Être came to be?
IR: When I saw my daughter fearlessly asking questions to my friends about their jobs, something clicked. Her confidence, sparked by her curiosity and the way grown women took her seriously, was a turning point. Those early experiences with my daughter showed me that there was real value in putting girls directly in front of accomplished women and telling them – ask anything.
NJF: What is the mission and how has it evolved since you launched 4 years ago?
IR: The original mission remains our mission today – to keep girls confidently raising their hands by introducing them to female role models…early. In fact, we are organized as a B-corporation specifically so that our mission is written directly into our charter – we are dedicated to closing the confidence gap through mentorship.
We have certainly grown faster than I could have imagined, though, and that is due to our girls. Their ideas and their energy led us to start after-school clubs, launch in-person Lunch & Learns at companies and bring Être with them to college campuses. Our Board – made up entirely of tween and teen girls – drives everything we do.
NJF: How and at what age can girls get involved?
IR: There are so many ways for girls to get involved with Être, and we’re always excited to think up new variations! I’ll give you three:
Join the Board! An organization is only as good as the ideas it hears, and being on our Board means your voice gets heard! Our Board members are all over the country, diverse and highly engaged. Email us at email@example.com, tell us a little about yourself (name, age, school, interests), and, if accepted, you’ll get a monthly Board email with info about upcoming events (like our company Lunch & Learns) and 5-10 questions about what we should do next. Those answers are everything to us…plus, being on a Board is good practice for later.
Start a club! Always thought of yourself as a founder? Here’s your chance! Learn all about Club Être at etregirls.com/club-etre and see how easy it is to start, how flexible it can be and the scope of the impact you can have. Just fill out the form on the Club Être page, tell us where you are and we’ll help you every step of the way.
Être members visited Spotify headquarters before the pandemic.
NJF: You have school clubs. How does that work and what do the clubs do?
IR: Think of Club Être as a club-in-a-box: easy to start, flexible enough to meet any school’s needs and a light enough lift to fit busy student schedules. Club Être exists to help older girls mentor younger girls while spotlighting female role models. The clubs highlight school moms with interesting jobs, reach out to luminaries selected by the girls and think up fresh community service ideas. A few schools have even joined us on company Lunch & Learns.
A girl who wants to start a club reaches out to us with this form, and we help her figure out what she wants the club to focus on & how often she wants it to meet. All she needs is a faculty advisor and a place to meet on campus. The club can draw from all 10 pages of the Être website with a new topic every month, or it could meet only a few times a year and stick with a single idea (financial literacy, young entrepreneurship, philanthropy, athlete role models…you name it). BONUS: Because Club Être chapters are created and run specifically by a student for her school, we happily write college recommendation letters for our high school founders. We’ve watched them become innovators in their school communities and we’re too proud to keep quiet.
NJF: Être is all about mentorship and how that can change the course of a girl’s life. Can you share an inspiring example with us?
IR: I remember a Lunch & Learn when we were boarding the bus to head into NYC and one mother pulled me aside to confide that her daughter was tremendously shy. She’s dying to visit Spotify, she whispered, but she probably won’t talk. I hope it’s ok if she doesn’t ask a question. I assured her it was fine, but then remember being struck by that girl’s animation once on the visit. Her hand was up in every session, and she asked smart questions in an energized voice. She didn’t know anyone else on the trip, but every executive at the company took her seriously and she dove in, owning the day.
NJF: Être is also about service. Can you share examples of girls going above and beyond to give back during the pandemic?
IR: I have been repeatedly impressed by girls’ responses to COVID-19 – both our members and girls we have interviewed. From the Cornell freshman who, armed with a 3D printer and a list of friends, prints 20,000 units of PPE a week to New Jersey high school girls who are starting home businesses, leading tutoring teams during remote learning or raising money for COVID orgs in need through art, today’s girls are meting this pandemic challenge in remarkable ways.
NJF: You ask the question, Girls WHO do you want to be rather than what do you want to be? This is also the title of your book. Can you tell us about the book?
IR: The book Être: Girls Who Do You Want to Be? is a compilation of articles I have written for outlets like The Huffington Post and Thrive Global, alongside quotes and interviews from 40 luminary women we’ve met. Organized in 10 chapters that key off the Être website (#BeStrong, #BeInnovative, #BeWi$e, #BeConnected…), the book is a magazine-style encapsulation of the Être mission. My favorite part, though, is that we included quotes from 50 girls from across the country. Their words, appearing next to those of a CEO or Olympic athlete, are the heart of the book.
NJF: What is your biggest piece of advice for moms of girls who are dealing with confidence issues and girl drama among friends?
IR: Remember what it feels like. All of us, I don’t care how old we get, remember what it’s like to wear those high tops and stand in those halls. So call up those memories, look your girl straight in the eye and listen with acres of empathy. Then, ask what her favorite activity is right now and help her lean into it. Maybe it’s a lifelong love of music or a newfound passion for soccer. Maybe it’s DIY crafts, reading or ice-hockey. Whatever brings a spark to her eye at that point is the thing to put her shoulder into…because that’s where new moments of confidence and new friends await.
NJF: What is a quote you love that inspires your members?
IR: “Raise your hand instead of lowering your standards.” I say it to them too often, but I mean it every time.
NJF: What’s next for Être in the coming year?
IR: We’re thinking about another book, we’re venturing into new cities and we’re meeting new role models every day. But our main focus, if I had to pick one, is to bring Club Être into more schools. It’s the most authentic way to connect girls to female role models and embed mentorship in a school community. Because, here’s the thing – middle school is not too young to find a mentor or be one yourself. And high school is the perfect time to build on new role model relationships and meet your goals. Être turned four in May and, even amid a global pandemic, we are growing up with our girls. We can’t wait to see what our next year has in store!