Mothers of Invention: Girltank, A Sisterhood of Changemakers

12.24.12 5:00 AM ET

The idea for an innovative virtual community, known as girltank, is rooted in a story of two enterprising young American women. One is a former magazine editor and the other, a Yale University senior. They met and created a support system to give girls and women worldwide a chance to incubate entrepreneurial projects addressing global issues.

While still a teen, Bay Area-based activist Sejal Hathi founded the non-profit, Girls Helping Girls. Encouraging social change, the NGO raised money for scholarships, shared curricula across borders, and combated sex trafficking. In her short years, she’s also garnered a U.S. Presidential scholar award, addressed TED conferences and World Bank mem­bers, mingled with heads of state, and was dubbed one of CNN’s “Young People Who Rock” and one of Newsweek’s “150 Women Who Shake the World.”

For her part, Tara Roberts authored two critically acclaimed young adult books, What Your Mama Never Told You and Am I the Last Virgin? exploring social issues facing today’s black youth. And as an editor for the likes of Essence and CosmoGirl, one of her job responsibilities was to track down and nominate candidates for an annual magazine award acknowledging the outstanding social accomplishments of teens. That’s where Tara first connected with Sejal. Once print publishing began downsizing in 2008, Tara decided to take her considerable skills on the road and find “amazing girls doing amazing things” in places like Africa, Asia, and Europe whose stories she could chronicle. And thus the notion for girltank began to take shape.

Driving Change to Empower Girls

Coincidentally when Sejal and Tara applied for the same grant, the opportunity presented itself for the dynamic young women to join forces and work together. “Knowing there was another woman with a very similar vision was inspiring to me,” said Sejal, “and gave me hope.”

The life experience that inspired Girls Helping Girls eventually morphed into girltank, an online model intended to engage young entrepreneurs in various stages of their ventures—from the idea stage to the launch and scaling stages. “All around the world girls were starting promising projects,” said Sejal, “yet there was no infrastructure for them to sustain their work and be recognized as real innovators.” When she heard what Tara was doing, she imagined a way to take what she encountered and start a community that could source those doing exceptional things.

Girltank has three main components—connect, inspire, and fund. Girltank sets up a forum for girls interested in similar causes to find each other and collaborate, and is supported by a variety of workshops that encourage the exchange of ideas. For the second component, inspire, Tara produced an eclectic database of clips featuring girls and women both in the U.S. and abroad discussing vulnerabilities and issues they face with their respective projects. It’s an inspiring resource for anyone looking to get started. The third and all-important component is its crowd-funding platform poised to funnel financial support from its partners to the most promising ventures. To date, girltank’s community, comprised of women of all ages, represents more than 105 countries and every economic, racial, and religious background.

Shining a Light on Smart Innovators

Among the co-founders’ favorite girltankers are three exceptional college graduates from the Philippines. Noreen Bautista, Anne Mariposa, and Patricia Lalisan took a destructive weed, the water hyacinth lily, that their government spent much money trying to eliminate, and “leatherized” it in the name of fashion. Thanks to the trio’s ingenuity, the invasive aquatic species that was clogging the region’s water system is now being used to make stylish women’s handbags. Today the accessory, available in high-end Manila stores, has created jobs for many rural Filipino women, and a new brand, embodying game-changing values of sustainability.

Time For a New Paradigm

Drawing from her own travel experiences, Tara Roberts singles out violence, poverty, and socio-cultural factors as some of the toughest challenges facing women in developing countries, and ones which they seldom have control over. As they continue to hone girltank’s business model and look toward its promising future, Tara and Sejal’s hope is that in five years their pay-it-forward style social network can reach out to more innovators and visionaries who believe they can effect change. Within this timeframe it’s also their goal to have a girltank hub in every country, and within a couple of years they hope to have a dedicated office within each key community. “I believe it’s time for a woman-led movement to change the world,” said Tara, “focused on principals like compassion, cooperation, and empathy.” And, she asserted, “I think girltank can lead this charge.”