Collaboration over Competition at Global Girl Project

For this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show, I was joined by Julia Lynch who is the Founding Director of Global Girl Project. Julia spoke with me about feminist organisations, power and privilege in the workplace and the need to redefine leadership to be more inclusive.

Julia Lynch is the Founding Director of Global Girl Project. She sat down with me to talk about why she founded her organisation and what feminist organisations are all about. We also covered topics including power and privilege in the workplace, the need to redefine leadership to be more inclusive, and learned from Julia’s experience and expertise.

We started with Julia sharing some more about who she is, what she does, her background and why she does what she does.

‘It’s like the never-ending question of life. In the simplest form, I am a Canadian woman who grew up in a small suburban town in Southern Ontario, Canada, an all-white town. I am mixed heritage and grew up feeling quite different most of my life. I think that’s something that has guided me in the work that I’ve done throughout my career, and certainly in the founding of Global Girl Project. I live on a boat in the UK right now. I’m a boat woman and I teach and train capoeira, which is an Afro-Brazilian martial art. I like to live my life outside the box, find different ways of being, and the work with Global Girl Project is also an expression of that, of trying to find different ways to do international development. I’m a social worker by training. So, my work has always been with young people with teenagers. I love teenagers. They’re very interesting characters that are quite pliable but also have great ideas and passion and energy. I worked in Canada, in the US, and here in the UK with teenagers as a community worker, as a behaviour therapist, as a family therapist, and then founded Global Girl Project nine years ago now. It’s been a gradual process towards us becoming an organisation that is something that I’m able to live my life doing.

As well as working with teenagers, I’ve always worked within communities, and I have also done some exploring throughout the different countries within the global south. I was looking for the next challenge. I wanted to take my experience and knowledge and be able to offer it on a much larger platform. I just started by looking at what wasn’t being done, what wasn’t out there, trying to understand international development in the way that it functioned at the time and still, unfortunately, does quite a bit today, which is from a colonial patriarchal point of view, and really saw a space to try to do things differently, to try to work with people.

At Global Girl Project we work with teenage girls who wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to learn about leadership. We also use cross-cultural learning and experience for our girls to be able to see themselves in a different light and to form connections globally. I believe that is important for us to work together.

In my travels around the world and my living in different parts of the world, what I was very clear about is that we’re all the same really. We all want the same thing, which is to be loved, to be of use, and to be safe. To think that we’re so different is very damaging and it only serves those in power for us to be so separate. I wanted to do something that was a reflection of connection and network and bringing people together through different experiences.

Originally, we were an exchange programme and we’ve transformed since. We’ve been registered in the US as a charity since 2014 and we became registered here as a charity here in the UK in 2019. I’m the Founding Director. It’s just me and our programme manager. I run the day-to-day operations of Global Girl Project.’

Something that Julia has spoken about before is running a feminist organisation. One of my other clients is Plan in the UK, part of Plan International, a global NGO specialising in women’s and girls’ rights. They talk about feminist leadership principles and I was wondering if this has some similarity with feminist organisations. So, I asked Julia, ‘From your perspective, what do you mean by running a feminist organisation, and what does that kind of organisation look like?’

‘It’s a great question because it’s constantly evolving and we’re constantly learning about what that looks like, which in and of itself is an expression of feminism. As feminists, we should always be questioning our own power. We should always be questioning what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and how it impacts others. That’s part of my perspective of being a feminist and running a feminist organisation.

I’d say it’s been in the last couple of years that we’ve been focusing on it more and looking at it from different points of view. One of the big, big pieces that we do is that we work in collaboration. Feminist principles value collaboration over competition. Competition sets things up for us to fight against each other because it’s based on the idea of scarcity. It’s based on an idea of urgency and we really don’t believe that to be true. We have much more power when we collaborate. So, we work in partnership, and all of our work is done with partners. We don’t go into any country and set up shop. We find organisations who are in those countries who do amazing work, who have all the knowledge and the expertise to be able to implement our own programming and we work 100% in collaboration.

What happens a lot in development is there’s the Western organisation that has more power for many reasons, which we can’t go into today, but many reasons people will know. We try to come at it that both sides are bringing equal resources, equal ideas and both sides are able to voice within the programming that’s offered. So that’s one of the big things we do, which is important.

We try to find different ways for everybody in the organisation to have power and for everybody in the organisation to be a leader. In organisations, I would argue that everybody should be the leadership. If you’re doing it right, everybody in the organisation should be in a leadership position. There are a lot of different ways to try and facilitate that and we’re learning as we go.

For example, we have a 32-hour work week that we implemented just over a year ago. As a small charity that does not have enough resources really, it was difficult in the beginning, but it was important because part of what running a feminist organisation means is to support our team and having a balanced life. I want our team to come to the table, including me, full of energy and passion and ready to go. That means that I also want them to have a life outside of Global Girl Project that they have time to foster and enjoy.

So, we have a 32-hour work week. We work flexibly, I work from a place of trust and each of our team members has agency over their own work. There are a lot of different pieces that we do in that policy way. We’re working on the pay side, but we’re a small charity, so that’s a challenge, but the charity sector people are hugely underpaid. My goal is not to get our team to a market rate, because the market rate is wrong, do you know what I mean? It’s just because it’s a field dominated by women. So, the charitable sector is usually underpaid except for the people at the top who typically are men. We want to get past that, but again, we’ve got a little ways to go in terms of fundraising for that, but still.’

Julia covered a lot there and shared some great principles like leadership at all levels, empowering people to have their own agency and collaboration over competition. Typically, the people that listen to this podcast work in HR, they are heads of HR, chief people officers, Diversity and Inclusion leaders and those kinds of roles. I asked Julia, ‘If the person listening to us right now wants to take some of the principles that you’ve just talked about and apply them within their own organisation, which could be within the corporate or the commercial sector, what do you think their starting point should be?’

‘The starting point has to be the people with the perceived power. I say perceived because it is all a matter of perception. But it has to come, if you’re going to use a hierarchical point of view, it has to come from the top down. It cannot be something that comes from just the women, or just the people of colour. It has to come from everybody. And that’s not easy. But I think one of the things, like say when we look at the 32-hour work week, do your research. All the research shows that having a 32-hour work week proves that teams are far more productive, businesses make much more money, staff teams are much, much happier and they feel much more connected to their work and to the organisation.

I would also say, talk to organisations that are doing some of these things. It’s difficult because what we’re doing is challenging an environment that we exist within. It’s very difficult to do something different when you’re in an environment that’s wanting you to do something else. We are also doing this because the girls that we work with all want to lead. They’re essentially wanting to fill roles that their societies have told them are not for them. If our girls are going to be living their lives differently within a certain environment, then we need to be doing the same sort of thing.

I was doing a talk recently about feminist leadership, and I was saying that feminist leadership doesn’t just have to do with being a woman. Firstly, anybody can be a feminist, this isn’t about gender. Being a feminist is having a belief that everybody is equal because women are everything except for men. So, women are of colour, have differently able bodies, are different ages, different sexual orientations, different socio-economic status, women are all those things. If you’re fighting as a feminist, you are fighting for equality for everybody. And if you’re a man, you may not be a woman, but you’re probably a bunch of those other things. If you can redefine what it means to be a feminist, what feminist leadership means, then you’d probably be hard-pressed to find somebody who’s like, Actually, I don’t believe in equality.” Do you know what I mean?

There are a few people, but they wouldn’t say it out loud anyways. So, I think that’s also the piece to reframe that, that this isn’t about being a woman.’

Julia has already touched on the dynamics of power and it was at this point I brought in the topic of privilege. This is something that I talk about in some of the training that I do and sometimes I meet with some defensiveness when we talk about privilege. Some people will say, “Well, I had to work really hard to get to university and get a good job,” and so on and so forth. I tend to pass on to them how privilege was explained to me because I find it quite useful to think about the difference between privileges that we’re born into and privileges that we’ve earned. So, I often say to people in the training that one of the privileges that I was born into was the fact that I was born in the UK, and as a result, that meant that I’d got free access to healthcare because of the NHS. The NHS has saved my life on more than one occasion and it does a good job of sustaining my life so the NHS has played an important role in my life.

I often compare my experience to the experiences that some of my friends who’ve got the same disability as I do. Luis on my team has got the same disability as me, but he grew up in South Africa, and he just didn’t have the same type of access to healthcare that I’ve had. So, I’m setting that out as a bit of a backdrop to the next question I put to Julia which was how does she discuss privilege with people in her line of work?

‘It’s interesting for us because our target service users, to use that term, are what you would consider to be the most marginalised girls in the Global South, and the Global South is, for those who don’t know, would be what we used to call developing countries. We’re working in the poorest countries with the poorest girls. People might perceive them as not having privilege. I believe that we all have privilege, and it’s not a bad thing. If you had to work for it, that’s not a bad thing. But the question is, what are you going to do with it?

We work with our girls to be like, “The privilege that you have is you’ve been chosen to do this programme, perhaps. The privilege that you have is that you have a father that’s going to let you come to this class every week.” We all have some sort of privilege, and for me, is always about, “So how are you going to use it to help other people?” That’s the conversation that we have about privilege.

I think the other thing to say is that you’re right, people get defensive. I think that’s based on the scarcity mindset, that again, it’s based on this idea of not enough. We’re talking about your privilege and then you’re afraid that something is going to be taken away from you if we try to give other people privilege. What I would argue is that there’s more than enough to go around, and the people who tell us that there isn’t are the people who are in power, who feel they stand to lose something by people all having privilege and people all being supported to live their best lives.

I think the other piece around that is around competition. If we change the mindset away from competition and towards collaboration, then it’s great that you have privilege. That’s wonderful. It’s not a competition. And then what are you going to do with it? That’s the piece. And I think that sometimes when people have had to work really, really hard for stuff, which I certainly have in my life, there’s a fear of losing it. I think it’s having those conversations so people understand that there’s enough for everybody.’

I really liked Julia’s thoughts on that. It’s almost as if we could all do an exercise where we do a stock check on what privileges we have and then think about how to use those to empower people in their organisation, perhaps.

Julia said, ‘I grew up with a mom who worked in charity. I think it’s also part of my personality just as a person, but I believe we’re all here to be of service to each other. And if you’re not, then what are you doing? Right? Like, what are you doing if you’re not here helping other people?

I know not everybody has that perspective, but again, it’s based on a very patriarchal view of things, “What’s mine is mine and that’s it.” I think that it is really about, “Yes, take a look. Take a look at the pieces that you have, be grateful for them and then ask how you can use them and share them with other people.”

There will be things that you don’t have that somebody else can share with you. If you approach things from that mindset, everything shifts. Everything changes. It’s like they say, “If you have a little bit of money, spend it. Don’t hold on to it. If you hold on to your money, then the energy is like more is not coming.” I’m not saying be reckless and just spend, but sometimes, because I know I do, I get scared and I’m like, “I don’t have enough money.” And then I’m like, “You know what? No.” So when the homeless man asks me for a pound, I give him a pound. Maybe I really wanted that pound, but you know what, it’s okay. We have to be a little less fearful.’

Julia has got lots of experience not only in setting up Global Girl Project but around leadership too. I asked her how she would like to redefine leadership, and why she thinks leadership has to be redefined.

‘If you ask many of our girls, “Who’s an example of a leader?” First of all, they say a man, and then they might say, including in the UK, “It’s just a bunch of corrupt politicians, isn’t it?” The work that we do is trying to look at the actual characteristics a leader should have and then looking at who actually has those characteristics. Where we get to is that each of our girls is already a leader. That’s the work that we do.

A lot of the time what happens, especially in the Western world, is about, “If you take this five-year course, then you too can be a leader. If you spend this money or you just do this, you too can also be a leader…” Whatever it is. If we said that to our girls, then they don’t have that opportunity, and so they would never see themselves as leaders. So, for us, it’s asking, “Well, what actually is a leader?” If a leader is somebody who comes from behind, who lifts people up, who lives by example, who shares what they have with others, who listens, who advocates, then you already are a leader, and your job is just to teach that to other people. That’s how you lead.

I think we need to redefine what we think leadership is and I would argue to use a feminist perspective when we do that. Again, it’s those principles that we’ve talked about. If somebody is embodying those principles, they’re much more likely to be a leader than what we currently look at: people who are out for themselves, who value competition over collaboration, who tell us that there’s not enough and who constantly make decisions that are only good for a few. I would argue that none of those traits would be what I would use to define somebody that’s a leader.’

I asked Julia ‘Who was one of the best leaders you’ve worked with and how did they make you feel?’

‘For me, it’s the girls. They blow me away all the time because they live in situations where they’re not supposed to be in these roles. But they fight and they push and they fight, and they stand up and they find their voice and then they use their voice. For me, it’s the girls, it’s not any famous person or anything like that. Right now, we’re working in Peru, Bolivia and Haiti. Haiti is an amazing country to work in. We’ve got girls who live in situations that seem quite desperate but are still able to step up and lead. We work in India, Cambodia, South Africa, and Jordan. We’re going to be in Iraq and Zimbabwe, Uganda and all these places where you might think that a teenage girl doesn’t have any sort of power agency, but by the end of our programme, they have found some of that. They’ve started on their journey. So, it’s definitely my girls.’

I asked Julia, ‘If one of the girls that you worked with was to spend a day with a chief executive in the UK and could teach that chief executive one crucial leadership skill or competency, what would you hope she would teach them?’

‘Ooh, that’s a good question. I would say be the most determined person in every room. Never ever, ever give up. Never give up. It’s not an option.’

To find out more about Global Girl Project or offer some support by becoming a monthly donor to the organisation there are a number of ways to do this. You can visit the Global Girl Project website and follow them on Instagram and LinkedIn. As a small charity, it’s important to grow their network and increase the number of people who are aware of the work.

Global Girl Project doesn’t have any government grants. They operate with a couple of small foundation grants and the rest of it is dependent on amazing supporters who sign up to be monthly donors. If reading this has inspired you, please sign up. Julia emphasised that even £5 a month makes a huge difference.

For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to the website, at

Collaboration over Competition at Global Girl Project - Mildon