Female Strong and Booth Book Club Empower Young Women Readers
We kick off Women’s History Month by catching up with alumna Shelby Wenner, ‘19.
As the volunteer leader of the Chicago Booth Book Club's partnership with organization Female Strong, Shelby harnessed the power of literature to explore female empowerment with a group of young women.
How have you remained involved with Booth as an alumna?
I was a member of Chicago Booth’s Book Club as a student, but I have also stayed on its Slack channel. I’ve been involved with the Chicago Booth community since graduation. I’m still on the Admissions Committee, and because of the way things have changed due to Covid, I have had a chance to stay more connected. When I first moved back to DC after graduation in the fall of 2019, I felt a little sad because everything seemed so far away. Now that things are virtual, I can stay connected and take opportunities like running this book club with Female Strong.
What is Female Strong?
Female Strong is an organization that offers hands-on programs, mentorship, and experiences that build confidence in middle and high school girls. Jody LaVoie, the CEO of Female Strong, has developed some really awesome programming for young women—mostly geared towards entrepreneurship, teaching young women how to seed and grow their ideas for business, and showing them what resources are available as their ideas mature. Female Strong typically supports women in the Chicago area, but since they went virtual, their programming has also been able to spread across the country. That’s how I came across them—through the Chicago Booth Book club. Running a book club is new for them, and we were in charge of running their third session last fall. The partnership went so well that they’ve already asked us to help out again this summer with two more sessions.
How are books for the club selected?
The through line for books is generally around female empowerment and creating space for conversation about women being able to grow, evolve, and learn. The books should be relatable to girls of this age, allowing them to feel empowered to get through their own obstacles.
Tell us about the session you ran.
I had five girls based in Chicago and New York City, ranging from 6th to 8th grade, join me regularly for six weeks. Book clubs are meant for open discussion, however, not knowing these girls, I had to wait and see to figure out how much open dialogue they would want. With younger people, structure helps move the conversation along. I pulled out themes for each week, prepped discussion questions for us to talk about, and invited guest speakers to join us. We also opened each session with an ice breaker so we could get to know each other, build trust, and set the tone to talk about some potentially sensitive topics.
Our book was called Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined by Danielle Younge-Ullman. The book is about a girl who is getting ready to start her last year of high school, but is forced to attend a wilderness camp. These are places where teens who are struggling with the law, school or emotions can immerse themselves in a wilderness experience and ideally come out on the other side with insights or wisdom, although the practice is sometimes controversial.
Guest speakers were an important part of our discussions. We had a wilderness camp instructor and participant join us to give us background for this type of experience. In the third week when our theme was unexpected leadership, Booth alumna Colleen Bradley, ‘20, spoke about her experience in chemical engineering, working in a male dominated company and sector, and leading the charge to start a women’s leadership group within her company. For the final session, the author herself was able to join us virtually from Canada, so we briefly became an international book club!
What were your takeaways from this experience?
I really enjoyed the presence of these silly, intelligent, kind young people; it’s not my typical day-to-day. Sometimes that felt scary when trying to lead them through a conversation, but I really enjoyed our time together and they brought a levity to a time that was difficult.
The young women I met through this book club are thirsty for connection to others like them and not like them. They were eager to talk about the book and their lives together, and saw me as a friend that came to meet them every Thursday. I can’t overemphasize how important it is for us to do what we can to connect with young people and find ways to support them as they grow into this crazy world of ours—and especially during this time of national crisis.
"The Booth Women Advance experience was absolutely one of the most unique leadership programs at Booth that I participated in that I would recommend to any student. I learned as much from my fellow classmates as I did from the formal programming about how to be a woman navigating her career, family, and everything in between."
— Shelby Wenner
Who is an inspirational woman that you look up to?
I realize this answer might be cheating, but I look up to so many women on a daily basis that I couldn’t possibly list just one. The women I try to surround myself with (both in real time and through the books I read) are resilient, inspiring, innovative, and loving—if I can be just a little bit more like them each day, that’s a win for me.
Were there any moments in your Booth experience, where you specifically felt empowered as a woman or part of a community of like-minded women?
The Booth Women Advance experience was absolutely one of the most unique leadership programs at Booth that I participated in that I would recommend to any student. I learned as much from my fellow classmates as I did from the formal programming about how to be a woman navigating her career, family, and everything in between. I am also especially proud of an event I organized for Graduate Women in Business in Spring 2019 that brought in current and aspiring elected officials, campaign managers, and nonprofit leaders to inspire women pursuing an MBA to run for elected office. This was a passion project of mine, as I see the deep value in business-minded people wanting to do good work in all levels of the public sector.