GirlDreamer: Empowering the next generation of women of colour
"I wanted to create a platform that celebrated and acknowledged women of colour for who they are, not what they should be."
Amna Akhtar, co-founder and CEO of GirlDreamer
GirlDreamer began in 2012 as a conversation between best friends Kiran Kaur and Amna Akhtar, who used their own experiences as a catalyst to envision a society where young women of colour had better representation and access to a wider range of opportunities in the UK.
Operating from their bedrooms and garden sheds, together they worked to establish a platform that could provide relatable role models to help unlock the potential and passions of those underrepresented in society.
Now a multi award-winning organisation that has been recognised by Creative England as one of the “top 50 most exciting, innovative and disruptive creative companies in England”, GirlDreamer supports women of colour across the country to fulfil their dreams of social change. The organisation provides unique programmes, civic opportunities and a wealth of resources for personal and professional development, so that young women of colour are empowered to do, be and achieve more.
Through their ‘Boarders Without Borders’ initiative, GirlDreamer are also setting out to redefine the sports narrative – an industry which severely lacks diversity and in which women of colour are significantly underrepresented. Their unique approach to social change and programming has seen them establish Europe’s first women of colour longboarding crew and the UK’s first women of colour surfing crew.
Support from QCT has allowed GirlDreamer to develop their overall business strategy and growth for Boarders Without Borders and empower young women of colour to try longboarding through six-week activity camps, developing their teamwork and leadership skills, and sense of identity. To allow ongoing programme delivery during the COVID-19 outbreak, QCT is further supporting GirlDreamer in aiding organisations led by young women and non-binary people of colour that have been particularly impacted by the pandemic, or who are working in response to the virus.
GirlDreamer’s lens and lived experience is lending its hand to creating a new path to leadership by leading by example. Their efforts have most recently been recognised as the “Most Influential Leadership Development Enterprise 2020 – UK.”
Continue reading to learn more about GirlDreamer, and hear from Amna and Kiran in the Q&A below.
GirlDreamer is working towards SDG 5 – Gender Equality.
Young women of colour are amongst the most marginalised in the UK, and often struggle to overcome the stereotypes and barriers they encounter, which leads to a lack of inclusion, representation and access to opportunities. Sport is a notable example: 31.4% of women in the UK are active participants in a sport, compared to over 40% of men, and for Asian women this percentage drops to 12.5%.
GirlDreamer creates and runs programmes that equip women of colour with the personal development they need to feel more mentally and emotionally confident in pursuing their paths and gaining the professional skills to navigate the world of leadership and social change. Their Borders Without Boarders initiative encourages women of colour to try their hand at extreme sports and upskills them to become coaches for future participants.
Since 2016, GirlDreamer’s has supported over 2,000 women of colour in person and over 10,000 digitally. In two years, Boarders Without Borders has supported over 100 individuals across 10 UK cities through longboarding and surfing activities and provided over 500 hours of training. GirlDreamer also created an award-winning in-house blog which serves to amplify the voices of women of colour through global guest blogging, and created a digital opportunities advertising board that leads to 100 external job, voluntary and freelance opportunities a year.
"Working with QCT has been a huge blessing to us. They came in at a time when hope was dwindling and injected so much energy and hope back into us through the way they championed our work and the way they were ready to support. It’s exactly what we needed at a time when we needed it most and since then, we have been continually supported through life-changing opportunities, financial support and truly the best “hype” squad any organisation could hope for. We always feel valued and equal with QCT and that means so much to us!"
Kiran Kaur, co-founder and Creative Director of GirlDreamer
"QCT for me, revolutionised how funding is accessed. I feel really proud to know that my organisation is believed in and backed by QCT, because they are true to their mission in supporting young leaders."
Amna Akhtar, co-founder and CEO of GirlDreamer
Getting to know Amna Akhtar and Kiran Kaur
Tell us a bit about yourself:
Amna: My name is Amna and I am co-founder and Creative Director of GirlDreamer. I have always been an introverted person and growing up, I naturally found it quite difficult to use my voice to stand up for my dreams and take control of my life. I found my power in my late teens by self-healing through different self-development courses and books, and by providing a platform for other women who may have known what they wanted out of life but needed a space and a community to believe in them. I consider my job my life, and it’s very much a huge part of who I am.
Away from GirlDreamer, I find tranquillity in natural environments such as being outdoors, listening to music, cooking and exercising. I keep an open mind and like to think outside the box. I take my authenticity with me wherever I go and stay true to myself, whatever situation I am faced with. I am a strong believer in people healing, being kind and leading a more intentional lifestyle in order to create a more harmonious world. In my private time, I also enjoy writing life learnings, quotes and learning about other people’s cultures and stories.
Kiran: I’m Kiran - the other co-founder and CEO of GirlDreamer. When I’m not here (which is rare!), I like to spend my time working on my own self-development so that I can be a better role model and example to the women and community I’m dedicated to supporting. In the spare time I do have, I like to do things like study Eastern Mindfulness and Meditation, Ayurvedic health, dabble in archery, fold tonnes of paper with Origami and now want to try my hand at getting more involved in tech. I like to keep myself active; I love learning and utilising as many resources as I can to improve my skills. I strongly believe in a holistic approach to life and that it should be thoroughly enjoyed – after all, it’s a big blessing! I also do other ‘formal’ things outside of GirlDreamer, like consulting for companies, and I’m a Trustee at NCVO (National Council for Voluntary Organisations).
Why did you decide to work in this area?
Amna: Growing up as a first-generation immigrant and attending an all-girls secondary school for five years, I experienced first-hand how women are spoken to, taught and brought up, and how damaging it can be to their self-esteem and confidence. After mentoring teenage girls for a year, I soon realised that women of colour had different needs compared to other women. We needed to see more representation of ourselves and have relatable role models that we could learn and seek inspiration from. It wasn’t enough that there were already bigger and more established charities and social enterprises existing; I saw a specific gap for young women who looked like me. I understood that the barriers and challenges they faced were unique compared to the ones mainstream statistics and research talked about: women of colour always had to chop and change themselves to fit into society and I wanted to create a platform that celebrated and acknowledged women of colour for who they are, not what they should be.
Kiran: I’ve been passionate (and slightly obsessed) about supporting women of colour to take charge of their lives and make their dreams come true since mentoring my first group of teenage girls during my voluntary days in secondary schools. After a year of spending time with girls who were going to be the future of their community and society and realising the gaps and challenges they would face to get there, it sparked that moment for me when I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to continue to support these brilliant minds in believing in themselves and aspire to change the world around them. I didn’t realise at the time that it could be a business, but after some exploring, I realised the two were very much possible and simply haven’t looked back since.
What were your first steps to get the project off the ground?
Our first steps were a bit random and we definitely didn’t do things in the order you’re “supposed” to! We essentially had a big conversation about what we truly wanted to bring to the world, as going to university or taking a regular 9-5 job didn’t seem to be cutting it. We knew about social enterprises and had just completed a couple of amazing years volunteering in the social sector; mentoring young women of colour and feeling inspired to make this our life’s mission. So, we Googled how to start a company, read up about lots of different types of companies, decided on what was best and registered GirlDreamer. After that, we used Google and YouTube to digest resources on what it involved to take an idea, bring it to fruition and make our dreams a reality. It’s been a long journey of self-learning and self-motivation, but pretty much all the information was available out there, so we utilised it! We also met amazing people and asked them a LOT of questions. People are truly the best resource.
What challenges have you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?
Kiran: My biggest challenge has definitely been imposter syndrome. Battling my own confidence issues around being able to do this work and not letting my community and team down have been so real throughout my journey! Having to realise my own power whilst encouraging others to believe in theirs has been somewhat of a rollercoaster. To overcome this, I took to turning to my own personal practices (i.e meditation and mindfulness) and created a routine that worked for me. This involved lots of self-talk, sitting with myself, reflecting, writing things down and essentially re-wiring my brain to let go of previous self-limiting beliefs and adopt a whole new set of empowering ones. Organisationally, we’ve also faced challenges with funding and getting people who aren’t our community to really understand the value in our work, as a lot of it involves disrupting the current system and not everyone welcomes that.
Amna: Yes, definitely agree with the organisational challenge there! One of the many challenges I have faced personally has been the inability to detach from my work. I always felt like if I wasn’t working or being productive, I wasn’t getting closer to my goals or I wasn’t being there for our community. What this actually did was make me burn out, leaving me without ideas, killing my creativity, leaving me fatigued, suffering from stress, insomnia and depression. I overcame this feeling by unplugging and going on a spiritual retreat. It wasn’t anywhere fancy or expensive, it was in my own home. I needed to step away from everything that I knew as my reality and I turned inwards, gaining perspective on the bigger picture of life, questioning what my purpose was and my role as a human being, and acknowledging that I could do anything but not everything.
What has been your proudest moment within this work?
Amna: My proudest moment is when I have 1:1 mentoring sessions and conversations with members of our community. When women reach out to me and ask me for advice, support or guidance for a specific area in their life, it makes me feel content and emotional knowing that they have the access to resources that I didn’t growing up. I didn’t know where to go, who to turn to and how to ask for help. Being acknowledged as a leader in my community makes me feel as though I am an enabler, a beacon of hope for other women.
Kiran: My proudest moment was probably our surfing programme, which was part of our Boarders Without Borders sports empowerment initiative. After a really hard year and an extremely intense Crowdfunder that we ran just before the programme was about to begin, I was completely overwhelmed with taking on a massive new project that entailed organising a group of unacquainted young women from across the UK on a 5-hour trip down the country to Newquay, to take on a new sport we’d never done before. It truly seemed like an impossible task and was all coordinated within a matter of weeks. However, the first night when we all sat around the table to run our first group session and the laughing and connecting began, I realised how special this surfing project was and in fact, how special GirlDreamer is and how all the hard work and challenges are worth it when historical moments like this are created from your passion and perseverance.
What is the most important thing you’ve learnt?
Amna: The art of balance and to not lose sight of life. When you’re working tirelessly to get a tiny start-up off the ground, it’s so easy to do things such as skip meals, not sleep well, avoid socialising or stop making an effort with people and things that once made you feel good. Our world is so fast-paced and instant that this added pressure makes you feel major FOMO - ‘fear of missing out’. However, over the years I’ve come to learn that creating space between yourself and your work is a great thing and in fact JOMO - the ‘joy of missing out’ is the new term for this.
Kiran: To just be yourself. That is the greatest gift you can give to yourself and the world around you. I’ve spent far too long on this journey trying to mould myself to fit the way I thought our organisation needed to be but now, I navigate these spaces by bringing all my unique thoughts and lived experience to the table and it’s honestly a life-changing feeling when you wake up in the morning.
What are your future goals for your project?
Kiran: Ooh, exciting question! Without giving too much of our top secret plans away, our future goals revolve around making our work more digitally accessible so that our community from around the world can feel connected to the work we do and we can further our support. We’re in the middle of creating a super cool space to host this, so although it will be all digital, community spirit will remain at the heart. We’ve also got a new wave of programming coming that really utilises our personal skills outside of GirlDreamer, along with our experience in certain life disciplines (emotional intelligence, NLP, mediation, etc). We’re going to bring it into the new wave of how we work and it’s about to get deep and really transformational!
Why do you think it’s important for young people to be equal partners in driving change in the world?
Kiran: Young people are the future. It’s as simple as that in my opinion. I think young people should have a major influence in shaping what that future looks like. In just 5 years, millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce. Millennials and Gen Z have a completely different way of looking at the world, all parts of society and seeing things from a more unifying perspective. We’re very much trying to pave a more equal and just world – it’s almost engrained in our generation to be this way! We’re not afraid to roll up our sleeves and do it for the betterment of humanity; however, in order to do so, we need to be treated equally and for our potential, passion and lived experience to be valued highly.
Amna: If young people aren’t considered as equal partners or they’re not present in decision-making spaces that involve them, they will constantly be at the receiving end of ideas that aren’t suited to or inclusive of them. I think young people are an integral part of society; their fresh and creative outlook on life is a driving force for change and their unique abilities to problem solve, deal with challenges and implement ideas is something the world needs more of.
What are your top 3 tips for young people who have a great idea, but are wondering how to get started?
1. Ask Questions. Ask LOTS of questions and don’t be afraid of how silly they may sound. When you’ve all got the passion and the ideas are overflowing, sometimes not knowing how to connect the dots is daunting and puts you off getting started. The best way to combat this is to approach those you feel safe asking, requesting some time with them, planning out the things you need support with and ask away!
2. Community. Turn to your community for help when you have an idea. There are definitely going to be people who can help with moral support and even practical support too. It’ll feel more comfortable, more organic and when you do eventually start, you’ll already have a community behind you.
3. Self-belief. We have always maintained our belief in GirlDreamer. Even when we’d throw a big idea out there or have no idea how to get from point A to B, we’d keep believing in it and that things would begin to align in order to make it happen. Doubts creep up when you’re just starting out but be stubborn in your idea and believe that you CAN and you WILL make it happen. Make that a non-negotiable value of yours and it’ll provide the motivation you need.
What does working with QCT mean to you?
Kiran: Working with QCT has been a huge blessing to us. They came in at a time when hope was dwindling and injected so much energy and hope back into us through the way they championed our work and the way they were ready to support. It’s exactly what we needed at a time when we needed it most and since then, we have been continually supported through life-changing opportunities, financial support and truly the best “hype” squad any organisation could hope for. We always feel valued and equal with QCT and that means so much to us!
Amna: QCT for me, revolutionised how funding is accessed. My first interaction with the organisation was a phone call and it honestly felt like I was talking to a friend. They humanised the process so much and didn’t bring up any finance talk until they got to know me and my organisation first, which gave me the opportunity to explain my passion for GirlDreamer. I have never had a conversation like this with any funder before QCT and I feel really proud to know that my organisation is believed in and backed by QCT, because they are true to their mission in supporting young leaders.
Article updated: October 2020
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