Good Guys: Marjorie Kaufman and the Whole-Girl Approach to Education

February 29, 2016   Danielle Beurteaux

The Barington Capital Group partner works with the Young Women’s Leadership Network to help disadvantaged young women earn college degrees.

   Marjorie Kaufman

Marjorie Kaufman considers herself fortunate to have been raised in an environment where gender wasn’t an obstacle to her ambitions. She wants to let girls know that with determination, hard work and support they can achieve anything. "You should never let somebody tell you, 'Oh no, you can’t do it because you’re a girl,’" says Kaufman, a partner and head of marketing and investor relations at New York–based activist hedge fund firm Barington Capital Group. "Any time I’ve heard that in my life, I’ve always said, 'That’s just ridiculous.’"

So in 2007, Kaufman joined the board of the Young Women’s Leadership Network. YWLN began in 1996 with one girls-only school in East Harlem. The organization now runs five Young Women’s Leadership Schools (TYWLS), all part of New York City’s public school system. There are also 12 affiliated schools around the U.S., including seven in Texas. YWLN also runs the coed CollegeBound Initiative (CBI), which will be in 35 New York City public schools by next year.

YWLN students come from environments where a college education for men or women is far from a given. Many are low-income, immigrants or first-generation Americans and the first in their families to go to college. Their parents are often unfamiliar with the bureaucracy of college admittance and unaware of available scholarships.

"We’re going to put you on the path to college," says Kaufman, 54. "Once you get to college and get a degree, you’re going to have opportunities that wouldn’t be available to you otherwise."

The schools begin with the sixth grade. Students apply to the program, and parents must sign statements committing to support their daughters while they are enrolled in a TYWLS. The schools reflect the city’s population, says Kaufman. Their students aren’t necessarily high achievers, but they share the desire to attend college. TYWLS and CBI graduates have gone on to a range of colleges, including several Ivies. YWLN counselors know which schools have support systems that will help their students succeed. They also lean on their own alumni network and match freshman YWLN students with enrolled students who act as guides through the obstacles of college life.

To create resilient young women, TYWLS institutions practice holistic academic and personal development they call the whole-girl approach. Kaufman says girls-only schools allow students to become leaders and have their voices heard in a supportive setting: "I think it’s important to inspire them early on and give them an environment where they can flourish without all those subtle and sometimes not so subtle forms of discouragement."

The schools also host semiannual "Cool Women, Hot Jobs" days, when professional women from a broad range of industries talk about what they do. At "Brag Day" events girls learn how to talk about their achievements without "feeling self-conscious and self-­undermining," says Kaufman.

The CBI program grew out of YWLN’s college admissions success rate. The group was approached by city agencies and nonprofits that wanted to replicate its methods. CBI funds (along with the New York City Department of Education) a separate, trained counselor in select high schools who focuses on creating relationships with students and getting them into college. "What was working with our program was the fact that there was a person who was involved one-on-one with each kid," Kaufman says. "That’s really the magic there."

Ann Rubenstein Tisch, YWLN’s founder and president, calls Kaufman a wonderful listener who gives excellent advice, makes YWLN a high priority and has been generous in connecting the organization with her network: "Marjorie is a team player and has been a great friend to this organization and an important part of it."

Kaufman is also a founding board member and chair of Hilltop Cares, a nonprofit begun two years ago that provides funding for therapy to Horace Mann alumni who were victims of sexual abuse at the school. Kaufman was part of the first girls’ class to be admitted to the previously boys-only private school, a place for which she still has fond memories. Hilltop Cares’ founders saw a need for financial and psychological support for those who have been dealing with the aftermath of abuse their entire adult lives. The group hopes to expand their reach to help more people, including the victims’ families. "It’s been the beginning of a healing process, to be doing something good and helpful in the face of a lot of harm," Kaufman says.

Meanwhile, helping YWLN girls fulfill their promise is one of the best things she does, says Kaufman: "I love this organization. It touches the lives of so many girls, and it’s so meaningful."

At a Glance: Young Women’s Leadership Network
Date founded:1996
Annual operating budget: $9.4 million
Current student enrollment: 2,300 (15,000 including CBI)
States with affiliate schools: Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Texas

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