Carrie Cook grew up in Charlotte but has travelled the world, recently completing an incredible journey with her mom where they visited all seven continents. She is the founder of EmpowHERment, a Charlotte-based non-profit that empowers girls and women to lead through mentoring, talent development and advocacy. We’re excited to introduce you to today’s Charlotte FACE, Carrie Cook.
Where did the idea for EmpowHERment come from?
I benefited greatly from mentors and coaches who believed in me during difficult adolescent years. In some instances when I was a teenage girl, those mentoring relationships were a critical source of inspiration that kept me going. Remembering my days as a teenage girl, I was compelled to go back and volunteer at the schools I attended in Charlotte. However, as I visited those schools as an adult, I noticed many of the programs and resources that were there for me as a young girl no longer existed. Girls were grasping for someone to look up to and connect with authentically, and often many of the girls at the school would cling to me when I visited. In fact, I learned that over 60% of teen girls report no connection to a local woman leader outside of their family — so there is a significant gap we could bridge in making those connections to real women in their own backyard.
EmpowHERment was born. The need to create a safe space for girls to connect with local women leaders and better understand more about themselves, their community and their journey together as female leaders took shape.
You started with a summit — tell us about that.
In the summer of 2011, we hosted the first annual EmpowHERment Summit with about 60 girls and support of around 25 volunteers who were eager to connect with the girls. The summit is a high-impact leadership development experience connecting girls to local women leaders to build social capital, shared experiences, resources and a community of advocates. Last year, we hosted the Seventh Annual EmpowHERment Summit with more than 250 girls and 100 women volunteers – and the event continues to grow significantly each year. In 2013, we added the EmpowHERment Leadership Academy that pairs ninth grade girls with a one-on-one mentor for a comprehensive four-year mentoring relationship through their senior year of high school. To date, EmpowHERment has served more than 1,000 girls in Charlotte. We also have a collegiate program and are developing out more programs for women to connect with each other in peer mentoring environments.
The summit must get intense and emotional. Are there any powerful moments over the years that stand out to you?
The annual summit has moments that fill our girls and volunteers with laughter, tears and inspiration. I remember the very first summit when we began a tradition of “I am empowHERed because” reflections. We give girls the opportunity to stand up and share why they are empowered and how the summit has impacted their thoughts. One sixth grade girl stood up and took the microphone shyly. She began speaking and noted that she did not have girls who supported her, so this day was so important to her to know that girls and women can support and encourage each other. She spoke about being bullied and how that made her feel sad, but this summit changed her mood and gave her a chance to connect with girls and women in a positive, supportive environment.
The following year during our second annual summit, one of the girls who had previously attended the summit wanted to come back the next year and share her story. She talked with the girls about her struggle and journey to overcome anxiety and an eating disorder. She shared that story with about 100 girls, and then other girls started standing up, one by one, sharing their personal journey of overcoming things as well. It was a very powerful moment, as they cried, hugged and encouraged each other to lead authentically.
Last year at the summit, the country had just been rocked with major hurricanes. Our girls wrote letters to girls in the hurricane-affected areas and sent them empowHERment kits that included toiletries, essentials, snacks and encouragement. Reading the letters that our girls wrote to girls they did not know, but wanted to support, was an incredibly inspiring moment. The girls see themselves as citizens and leaders of not only their own community, but our country and world.
How has the #MeToo movement impacted what you’re doing?
It has emboldened a greater sense of transparency and vulnerability as our girls and women share with each other. We have held programs during our leadership academy to discuss red flags for assault and/or harassment and what girls and women can do. Most importantly, it has created a more collective advocacy of creating safety for girls and women, while enlisting male allies to speak out too.
What is the biggest challenge women leaders face?
Remaining authentic, setting boundaries and owning our power confidently. In the South, there are still many equity and cultural challenges with gender and race, so women – and particularly women of color – still face many obstacles in their leadership journey.
What are you most proud of?
Seeing our collective gifts and power in action through EmpowHERment. Taking a chance and putting in the work to build, learn, fail, grow and create impact in our community.
You’ve also recently started working with Greenlight. What is it all about and what are you most excited about in this new role?
GreenLight Fund is a national venture impact fund that transforms the lives of children and families in high poverty urban areas by filling critical gaps in communities. I love this work because I know that talent is universal, but opportunity is not. Creating opportunity for people to reach their full potential excites me, because we all have purpose, and we are all connected.
You have a love for travel. Where did that passion come from, and where are some of the favorite places you’ve been?
I’m naturally curious, but I think studying abroad in Sweden during undergrad really opened my eyes to being a citizen of the world. I’m curious about so much, and travel gives you an education and experience like nothing else.
I absolutely love traveling with my mom! We recently completed a journey to visit every continent together. That journey has taught me so much about my mom, myself, our family and cultures across the globe. In December, we went to Antarctica. Going on that journey together, as two black women, mother and daughter, was an unforgettable experience. My mom grew up without many financial resources as the baby of 10 kids in rural Warren County, NC. Traveling with her always reminds me that no matter who you are or where you live, anything is possible.
A few years ago my brother spent some time living in South Africa – visiting him there was one of my favorite travel memories as we spent time in a village called Khylitcha. I’ve loved exploring so many places, but my favorites are probably going on the safari and sleeping in a tent on the Masai Mara in Nairobi, Egypt, Brazil, London, Barcelona and Australia – because swimming in the Great Barrier Reef was absolutely incredible. There’s so much life form and color under the sea. God’s creation is amazing in every corner of the earth.
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What is your best advice when traveling? Best advice in general?
Be present, get with local folks to get the flavor and culture of a place, and try new things!
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what three things couldn’t you live without?
My internal peace, my dog August, and my partner Marc.
Thank you so much for your inspiring work, Carrie, and thank you for sharing a peek into your world with us today! To learn more about EmpowHERment, visit empowherment.com. And thank you to Piper Warlick Photography for the beautiful photos.
Charlotte is filled with amazing women. Find out about these inspiring people in our FACES archives HERE!