“I’ll teach you how to sew.”
My Girl Scout troop leader, Val (short for Valentine), couldn’t have known it at the time, 1989, but her offer was about to change my life.
I was nine years old and it was my first year as a Brownie. I had just spent all my birthday money ($50) at Goodwill on a 1948 Singer sewing machine. Other than a few cross-stitch samplers, I had never sewn anything, not even a pillowcase. But I wanted to learn to make my own clothes and when I saw the machine, I bought it without hesitation.
When I told Val a few days later how excited I was about my new purchase, she was just as thrilled as I was. We spent a sunny October afternoon shortly thereafter on my porch in Tucson, Arizona, making a pair of (totally ghastly bright floral Hawaiian print drawstring) shorts. She taught me how to read a pattern, cut the material, thread and set the machine, and sew an even seam. That was my first and only sewing lesson.
In retrospect, those two hours were possibly the most pivotal of my childhood. From then on, sewing became not just a hobby but an obsession. By my freshman year in high school, I had decided I wanted to become a costume designer. My school organized a Renaissance festival that year, and I offered to make costumes for some of the history students. I was featured prominently in the local Tucson daily paper—a clipping I included with my application to Stanford University a few years later.
After graduating from Stanford in 2003 with a major in medieval history, sewing grew into my medium of self-expression. I made gifts—quilts, wall hangings, clothing—with themes that reflected the interests of the receiver: Shakespeare, cycling, medieval history, mathematics. And so one day, when my friend Rebecca asked me, “Have you ever wondered why there aren’t any dresses with dinosaurs on them? Girls love dinosaurs and trains and science experiments,” I immediately said, “Yes! That is a brilliant idea! And it’s something girls deserve. Let’s make dresses with dinosaurs.”
Rebecca and I founded our girls’ clothing line, Princess Awesome, in 2013, with the mission to make girls’ clothes that reflect the full range of their interests. If a girl wants to wear a dress and also loves dinosaurs, she should be able to find a dress with a dinosaur on it. Both girls and boys like many different kinds of things, so it doesn’t make sense to segregate certain themes to one gender or the other.
I sewed our first products for Princess Awesome on that same 1948 Singer sewing machine that I had bought when I was nine. Today, our company is known worldwide for bridging the gap between girls’ interests and what they wear, and we owe much of our success to the early encouragement Girl Scouts gave me.
Being in Girl Scouts taught me that the skills women have traditionally cultivated—like sewing— are valuable and worthwhile to learn. Blending those traditional skills with new ones, Girl Scouts taught me to stand up for girls, listen to my inner creative voice, value femininity, and do good in the world. And fortunately for my troop, Val was the embodiment of those values.
Articulate, polite, well-educated, confident, and elegant: Val was an outstanding role model for young women. Having grown up in a diplomat family, she had lived abroad in a variety of cultures. Val was dedicated to the idea that women’s knowledge and skills are valuable, and that we can use those skills to make the world a better place. And even though she had to stop volunteering, and our troop broke up because we couldn’t find another leader, the year she gave made a huge difference to us girls, especially to me.
Looking back on the time my Girl Scout leader gave me when she taught me to sew, I recognize now what a sacrifice it must have been for her. She had two young children—a seven-year-old son with severe autism and a two-year-old daughter. Her life was filled with challenges that taxed her energy and sanity. Yet she had the generosity of spirit to lead our Brownie troop that year, and even to give an extra afternoon that changed the course of my life.
It really doesn’t take much to make an enormous impact on a child’s life. Just share the skills you have when you can, because you never know how they’ll be used in the future. A small gift of time and knowledge can multiply exponentially just like it did for me, all because of the kindness of an amazing Girl Scout volunteer. That’s the lesson Val taught me, and one that I am now happy to pay forward to the Girl Scouts in my life. I just can’t wait to become a troop leader when my daughter enters Daisies in a few short years.
Girl Scouts speaks to girls about leadership and goal setting in a way that is accessible to them, and those lessons stick. Participating in Girl Scouts is so impactful. Except for Girl Scouts, I had had no exposure to women-run business, not even in college. Girl Scouts gives girls the confidence, skills, and practice to create and run their own businesses, their way. Girl Scouts also taught me that business can be a force for good and for change—a force for creating a better world—and that’s exactly what my business partner and I are doing with Princess Awesome.
Thank you, Val, and thank you, Girl Scouts—for everything!