• March 2014

Living Vicky: Sheila Berry Empowers Young Women by Giving Them Keys to the World

Living Vicky, a nonprofit that provides online and in-person focused mentoring, prepares young women transitioning from high school to whatever comes next.

“Our curriculum includes a variety of practical life courses designed to build self-confidence and critical-thinking skills, using free travel to incentivize active participation,” explains founder Sheila Berry, whose goal is to empower young women in overcoming negative Millennial stereotypes in the workplace through soft skills, mentoring, and training in critical thinking.

“We consider this a journey for everyone involved, so our participants are Travelers, our mentors are Journey Guides, and we refer to our syllabus as an Itinerary,” says Berry, noting that Travelers earn “frequent flier” points towards free trips to expand their horizons, and to show mastery of their newly acquired skills.

To ensure mastery of essential skills, the program uses a student-centered, collaborative style, with frequent feedback and opportunities for improvement, perfectly suited for Millennial participants.

Incorporated as a nonprofit last year, Living Vicky’s 2014 Pilot Program includes working with 30 women aged 18-20 from the DC metro area. At the end of the three-month pilot, participants who have successfully completed their initial courses earn an excursion to New York City.

Helping Millennials overcome challenges specific to their generation is Berry’s motivation.

“Nearly half of all Americans age 18–29 earn under the poverty line, and college graduates have more debt than ever,” she explains. “The recession hit Millennials the hardest—they report losing more jobs than any other generation because of the economic downturn. And it’s only worse for young women. The gap between men and women with full-time employment is largest at this age, and those women who are employed are earning less than their male counterparts.”

Furthermore, Berry realizes that human resources professionals also perceive Millennials as entitled and unprofessional. “The public generally believes that Millennials have a weaker work ethic and poorer moral values than their older peers,” she adds. “Employers commonly complain that prospective hires lack soft skills.”

In her day-job, Berry provides business analysis services as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, and she has worked in industries ranging from television with the National Geographic Channel, to developing public policy issues on Capitol Hill. In each position, she says she was fortunate to have mentors who did more than act as cheerleaders. “They gave me meaningful advice. They helped me grow as a person, a planner, and as an entrepreneur. Intrinsic in their guidance was to pay it forward—always pay it forward.”

Case in point is the late Patricia Hanahan Engman, an exec at the Business Roundtable, with whom Berry worked for four years. “She regaled me with stories about being on the road with the ‘Walkin’ Lawton’ Chiles campaign during his successful bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 1970.

“She shared stories about being humble enough to do menial jobs, but was so passionate about loyalty and team spirit that it made a lasting impression on the whole team,” Berry says. “She was a living role model on how to look, and act, every inch the lady while holding her own in a roomful of powerful CEOs—all men, of course. She taught me more about strategic negotiations, politics, and reputation than anyone before or since.”

Engman’s admonishments are rules Berry has incorporated into her training of young women at Living Vicky, including:

  • Keep at least the equivalent of six months of salary in untouched savings, so that you can afford to lose or change a job, and then take your time finding the next best thing;
  • Trade up and never sell yourself short;
  • Use empirical and not emotional reasoning during salary and other negotiations.

“Pat always had my back, so when I heard the media regularly condemning the Millennial generation as being entitled and lazy—I couldn’t sit around and see an entire generation of young people being painted with the same broad and negative brush. It is already hard enough on women in the workplace, and this hasn’t helped,” Berry observes. “I decided to take comedian Lily Tomlin’s approach, since she once said, I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.”

Berry is also determined to develop an internal culture where volunteers lead initiatives, not just work on the ideas of others.

“Everyone who joins us is asked to watch Dan Pink’s video, Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which speaks about autonomy, mastery, and purpose. All of which we consider important to empower our team and participants.

Other organizations have been happy to support Berry’s efforts, including the Alexandria/Arlington Workforce Investment Board, which offers scholarship opportunities for young women, and opportunities to learn about creating careers in even unconventional industries such as energy and construction. Leadership Arlington, and InPower Women also provide learning opportunities and coaching.

In addition to in-person courses, Living Vicky is also partnering with TidWit, an online social learning platform, to sell its transformational training. ChangeCause is also working to connect her to corporate sponsors with brand-building microdonations.

“We’ve received great success stories about course enrollment, tangible career-goal achievements, and applied lessons learned,” Berry adds. “My favorite is when a workshop attendee wrote me to say that after seven years, she had her first meaningful meeting with her supervisor. Ever.”

Berry says she’s most proud of making something out of nothing. “I’ve never built a company from scratch. It was scary, and daunting, and I was only able to do it by joining forces with smart, hardworking teammates.”

She admits that “our budget is currently miniscule and comes mostly from my own pocket. The good news is that we have generous supporters who have sponsored event costs, spread the word about our efforts, and provided free counsel, when needed. We apply for grants, and encourage individual donations, but our preferred method is to deliver for-fee training programs.”

What’s the one thing Berry wants Be Inkandescent readers to know about her brainchild?

“Living Vicky can help every young woman find the keys to her own her career success,” she insists. “In fact, research suggests that women who have mentors are much more likely to find managerial positions. Living Vicky matches program participants with mentors to help with their development and to overcome the disadvantages they face. Women who have been mentored are also more likely to become mentors in turn, ensuring Living Vicky’s long-term sustainability.

“Since employers are demanding soft skills, Living Vicky’s programming focuses heavily on areas such as interpersonal communication, professional conduct, ethics, teamwork, leadership, and more,” Berry concludes. “These skills help participants set themselves apart in their job search and overcome any negative preconceptions they encounter.”

Learn more at www.LivingVicky.org.