Gathering Female Forces
Nico Thom Interviewed by Carol de Lucca
Last year, we had the delightful assignment to work on the She Became rebrand. We were thrilled to be working with a non-profit, women-owned brand, all things we care about. But we didn’t know that we were about to meet such an inspiring, intelligent and kind person: the founder of She Became, Nico Thom. A few months after the project wrapped up, we reached out to her to chat about her personal journey and how the rebrand worked for her brand and the women and girls that are part of it.
Carol: Nico, you founded She Became in 2016 as an after-school program for third through fifth-grade girls run entirely by high school and college students. Tell us what drove you to take up this cause and how this idea started.
Nico: It started because I saw many of my very talented peers who are females, kind of limiting their own expectations. In 2016, it was the first time a woman had a serious run for the presidency, and she was treated horribly, mostly because she was a woman, not because of her political ideas. A lot of that just really blew me away. I hated it! In addition, as a sixteen-year-old, I had already experienced a lot of misogyny in my life, and I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to show other women that this is not normal and join forces to change it.
She Became is about creating this big sister atmosphere.
I’ve also always loved working with kids, and I had this idea: what if we did something that taught little girls about how to, you know, make tangible short-term and long-term goals? So, that’s kind of where the She Became concept started. I really liked the idea of young girls having a mentor: I’m an only child, I didn’t grow up with a big sister, but I noticed that many of my friends who had big sisters or older cousins had them as role models. So, She Became is about creating this big sister atmosphere.
I talked to my high school teacher and counselor about the idea, and they were super supportive of everything I did to make it happen. The program was originally going to be a lot about women’s history lessons. Then I realized that it wasn’t always tangible for small children to digest and really engage with the content. So I decided that every week there would be different guest speakers that came in and spoke to the girls about her career. Then, afterward, they would do arts and crafts activities because that’s what eight-year-olds love to do, right? At first, we thought they were just having fun (which was great, and we knew they had that female role model, which was already a tremendous tangible takeaway.) But we weren’t really sure how much of an impact we were leaving on them. And then, there was a professor who had a daughter that participated in the program. She came up to me at the end of it and said: “You know, it’s really remarkable how much my daughter and her friend talk about this program: they talk about all the professional women they’ve met, about how important it is to lift each other up instead of talking about others…” That’s when I realized how much significance She Became had in these girls’ lives.
C: What was the hardest part of the fight? Did you get any obstacles along this way?
N: Oh, my god. Yeah, I grew up in a super small town. I guess the best way to describe Fort Thomas is that it’s very much insular. Most people go to the same schools and colleges and have the same friends from high school through old age. It is a great community, but what you can lose in an environment is creative thinking and introducing new ideas. It can be a very traditional gender role type of environment.
I remember right around the time I started She Became, I was trying to become a babysitter, and I interviewed with a family at Starbucks. I talked to them about my experience with kids, and I told them how I run this after-school program for little girls. The family had two little girls, and they said, “That is not your job to teach them those things.” And I was like, “What things are you talking about?” and the dad was saying that it is the parents’ job to tell them what their daughters can and cannot pursue, etc. I was sixteen years old in this interview, and I just told them I didn’t want to work for them. They thought She Became was all about politics, but feminism shouldn’t be political; it’s about equal rights.
My concept didn’t seem popular at first. We started with eight girls, and now there’s a waiting list! All these girls will learn is: how to set goals, believe in themselves, and have fun.
She Became has always been open and free to everybody. Not charging money for the girls to be part of the program is a huge part of what I believe in. Anyone can make a donation they’re able to do, but it’s never been a requirement to be part of the program. It’s a big success story in the end, but I had to explain so many times that She Became was not political. All these girls will learn is: how to set goals, believe in themselves, and have fun.
C: A big success story for sure! So would you say there was more frustration than fear throughout those more challenging parts?
N: Oh, for sure! I was never discouraged. I was angrier than anything else that I had to go and tell all these men that it was safe for their child to join the program. It was never something that I was afraid to do. A part of it was because I knew all these people in the community, so it felt safe for me to get my ideas out there.
C: What are your following goals towards empowering the future of women with She Became?
N: I just graduated last May, which was a little scary, but it was also super exciting. And I have an incredible team of women who have helped me run this program. So we’re staying in all the schools that we’re in, and hopefully expand to a few more soon. We’re looking for more high-school mentors to help us out because we have more elementary schools interested in the program. And it is genuinely incredible how everybody has been so supportive, and whenever I tell anyone about the program, they express, “I’d like that at my daughter’s school. How can we do that?”
Last year, we encountered challenges because of COVID, but we’ve been adding schools even with the pandemic. We’ve been doing lots of virtual She Became sessions, and it’s going super well. As far as the following steps, even though I’ve graduated, I’m hoping I’m able to take the program with me and expand it to Chicago and probably Cincinnati as well. It is genuinely incredible how everybody has been so supportive, and whenever I tell anyone about the program, they express, “I’d like that at my daughter’s school. How can we do that?”
C: That’s so exciting! And tell me what it was like engaging with the other girls and women towards their leadership roles.
N: It’s been really fantastic! Watching little girls grow through the three years of the program is incredible. They grow up to be so confident and friends with each other. It’s also lovely to watch the girls my age leading and helping conduct these after-school programs. Some of them want to be teachers, so it’s a really great practice for them. Others want to be politicians or policymakers so that they acquire some technical educational experiences. So yeah, it’s just been so great seeing many different ages of women coming together and learning from each other. The professional women love coming to speak and talking to the girls about their careers, sharing what they’ve learned throughout their professional years. And they get a LOT of questions from the girls!
C: Yeah, She Became fosters growth for all of the parts engaging the program, right?
N: Yes! We definitely have a better understanding of how it impacts each group as time goes on. It was our fifth anniversary recently, and it’s so noticeable how the little girls grow and become role models to the younger ones. The program also allowed them to continue their connection virtually. I can’t imagine missing out on their age because of COVID, so it was a great way to have this outlet with their peers.
For mentors and leadership, She Became is a really great opportunity to engage with children and practice leadership. It teaches them a lot about adaptability. And on the professional women’s side, we’ve had a lot of them say, “I have forgotten what it feels like to be a little girl, and it’s been so great to see the future generation excited to learn and engage with each other.”
C: What advice would you give for girls who are striving to be leaders in their communities?
N: Get involved! And if people tell you something discouraging, do it anyway. You’ll be great. I would also try to find a mentor who can help guide you through all of the challenges and issues that may arise. Because things will probably go wrong, that’s like a part of starting anything important, and it’s ok. It will just be part of the process. And find something you’re passionate about. There are so many diverse topic options, racial justice, climate protest, feminism, animals… Whatever you’re passionate about and will enjoy the process.
After choosing the topic, you want to work with, try to come up with an intervention. For example, with She Became, I saw inequity for women, and the intervention that I came up with was the after-school program.
C: That’s excellent advice! Don’t you think society often stereotypes a woman with a strong voice as bossy? What advice do you have to push back against that? As long as you are an empathetic leader with clear goals and passions, then you’re doing a great job guiding others.
Yes, we talked about this a lot in our program. I’ve been called bossy my whole life. When women are called bossy frequently, it doesn’t mean they are; they’re just being labeled as such because society doesn’t see them as the type of person who would be in charge of a group. As long as you are an empathetic leader with clear goals and passions, then you’re doing a great job guiding others.
C: If a girl asked for advice on her career path, what do you recommend to feel encouraged and empowered?
N: Your job takes up a lot of time in your life, as you know, so it’s crucial to find a path that you’re interested in. If you care about what you’re doing, you’re making an impact in the world. And it is something you should continue to ask yourself your whole life, so many people have significant and unexpected career changes later in life.
C: I think it’s so symbolic that Jess and I (the women on the Zmmr team) were the creatives on this project. Working together makes us so powerful. Did you find that true in She Became?
N: Yeah, it is a different experience working on teams with all women than teams with predominantly men. I think working in an environment with all women is fantastic and something that is not super common. My professional environment —public health— is also women-dominated. I really enjoy approaching team dynamics from an equity standpoint and ensuring that all voices are heard.
C: Now, speaking more about the She Became design rebrand, what project elements have been most beneficial for you?
N: Sure. The rebrand has been incredibly helpful. It just looks so much more legit than it was before! We look so much more professional now, so I can really start reaching out to larger companies for more considerable donations. We have a super awesome website that you made that I am incredibly thankful for. And the little girls love the student portal, where they can get in and access all the videos and content. Our website is using a ton more inquiries from mentors and potential schools than it was before. It has just been great for our program!
C: That’s so great to hear. How can other people support you and your work with She Became?
N: The form on our website is the best way of reaching out if you want to be part of our program! If you are a student, teacher, or parent, definitely reach out via our website, and we’re happy to speak with anyone at your school. If you’re a parent who wants to be an advocate, that’s an option too. We’re always looking for mentors to join us.
And donations are always beneficial, especially during these COVID times. We haven’t been able to do any of our crafts because of many logistic problems that really boils down to money. We would really like to, you know, come back with a bang in the fall and do some really cool things because the girls missed out on a lot in the past year. We want to make sure that She Became is enriching and fun like ever before! I would love to bring in the zoo person animal type of thing and do all kinds of fun things that we maybe have never done before.
C: What is next for you in your personal career?
N: Yeah, my personal career is in public health. Although She Became is obviously an education intervention, it’s also a big-time public health intervention because we’re talking about women’s confidence and equity in the workplace. I moved to Chicago last May 1st —where I’ve been working at Cigna in their Medicare department and the government business sector. The company is very philanthropic-minded, we have paid volunteer hours and all kinds of fantastic opportunities, and people have been really interested in it. So yeah, I’m thrilled that I have the support in my endeavors with She Became at Cigna, and I’m excited about the next steps with that as well!
C: That’s so exciting, Nico! Thank you so much for your time and for sharing more about your wonderful path.
Images No.1 and No.3 credits:
Photographer: Joshua Jean-Marie