Penn Senior Katlyn Grasso Works to Empower Girls to Become Leaders

(This is the third in a series of features introducing the inaugural Penn President’s Engagement Prize winners.)

Through strong support and encouragement from her family, Katlyn Grasso always knew she’d become a leader.

“I grew up in an environment where I was conditioned to believe that girls can do anything,” says Grasso, a senior majoring in economics, with concentrations in finance and strategic globalization at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Now, she’s sharing her experience and knowledge to help girls across the nation develop the confidence and skills to become leaders as well.

In 2013, Grasso founded GenHERation, a female empowerment network for high school girls. 

“The ages of 11 to 17 are so critical in a young woman’s life, that you really have to make sure that you are forming healthy lifestyle habits and positive perceptions of your best self,” says Grasso.

GenHERation provides experiential learning for young women by giving them the opportunity to work with female executives at nonprofits and corporations to implement projects that will help them get into better colleges and expose them to fields that could lead to career paths.

In the summer of 2014, Grasso started in her hometown of Buffalo and traveled to New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles over seven days to host the first GenHERation Summer Leadership Series.  

Now staffed by 18 volunteers, GenHERation will be expanding the summer tour to 10 cities, thanks to Penn. Grasso is among five winners of the University’s inaugural President’s Engagement Prize. The award aims to spur students to use their talents to help do good locally, nationally or globally.

The President’s Engagement Prizes, the largest of their kind in higher education, provide undergraduate winners with as much as $100,000 to support project implementation and $50,000 for living expenses. Launched by Penn President Amy Gutmann, the awards are supported by Trustee Judith Bollinger and William G. Bollinger, Trustee Lee Spelman Doty and George E. Doty Jr. and Emeritus Trustee James S. Riepe and Gail Petty Riepe.

“This President’s Engagement Prize is going to be the catalyst that promotes expansive growth beyond my wildest dreams,” says Grasso.

Through the award, she plans to host conferences across the nation featuring talks, a negotiations workshop and skill-building activities, with the goal of reaching 15,000 girls.

Grasso became interested in empowering girls after doing some research about women leaders. She was surprised to learn that only about 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs and that even fewer women start their own businesses. That prompted her to found GenHERation the summer after her sophomore year.

“I realized that girls have to realize their leadership potential at a young age so that they gain the confidence to pursue those leadership positions later in their life,” says Grasso. “There’s a need for a market space to connect girls with companies in order to inspire girls to do good while honing and developing their leadership skills.’”

Grasso is providing opportunities for young women to meet other women in leadership positions.

“Seeing is believing,” says Grasso. “If you see a woman president or CEO you think, ‘I could be her one day.’”

One woman leader Grasso looks up to is Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the laboratory diagnostic company Theranos.

“I’m desperately trying to meet her. My role models are really disruptive people. I want to surround myself with people who are radical disrupters that promote seismic change,” says Grasso.

Grasso plans to work full-time on GenHERation after she graduates in May, as she continues to look into other opportunities to start her own business.

“I really love the media space, and I love the technology space,” says Grasso. “I think my next company will be in the technology sector.”

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