The Real Life Of A Teenage CEO with Valerie Weisler
Valerie Weisler is the kind of girl you hear about in an article a friend shares on Facebook or watch on a TED talk (you can see hers here) and you are instantly fascinated by her. By day, she is a senior in high school, doing all the things regular high schoolers do–spending time with friends, taking a full course load. When the bell rings, Valerie takes on her other role: CEO of The Validation Project, an initiative to confirm people's thoughts of themselves and help the world make a difference as one. Valerie may seem like a rarity already, but we have a feeling she's just getting started.
All About Valerie
Name: Valerie Weisler
Location: New City, New York
Education: I graduate high school in June!
Current job: Founder and CEO, The Validation Project
What is your passion?
What really wakes me up in the morning is solving the problems others deem impossible. I love hearing, “You can’t do that,” calling up my friends and proving the world wrong.
The Validation Project’s story started your freshman year of high school. Can you elaborate on that?
My freshman year of high school was a dark, dark time for me. My parents had just separated and I was going to a new school. I was really shy–almost to the point of being mute. A group of girls targeted me for this. They’d make up rumors that I couldn’t speak and put notes in my locker telling me to kill myself. One day, I saw a boy getting bullied and I told him my story. He shared that he was planning to commit suicide that day. The realization that my words had such power changed my life.
Why do you think it is that inclines people to treat others so poorly, especially during their teens?
Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, “I’m going to be mean to people today!” Hatred comes from stuff going on in our lives. There is so much going on as a teenager; pressure to fit in but be different, get perfect grades but have a social life. Everybody is terrified of being the target, so finding the odd one out and putting the spotlight on them seems like the only choice.
Take us back to just when the idea for The Validation Project was just a flicker in your mind. How did you go from such an emotionally low point to thinking, “I’m going to start this movement”?
I was searching for any chance of hope during freshman year. After a while, the bullying started to poison me. I started thinking, “Is this even worth it? Will it ever end?” The idea of giving others a platform to share their struggles gave me the self-validation I so desperately prayed for. All of a sudden, I wasn’t the weird girl who didn’t talk. I was Valerie Weisler, CEO. When I saw how much traction it got so quickly, I knew I had to go big. I knew how much my generation needed it.
What do you mean when you say teens want to be validated?
Validation means to confirm something. As a teenager, everything is unknown. We’re discovering ourselves, our passions, our values. Validating a young person is crucial, because at a point where they are questioning everything they are, you’re tapping them on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, you are worth it. You are important. You are different and that is incredible.”
What was the first step you took once you realized you wanted to start The Validation Project?
I ran home from school and Googled how to make a website. I could barely snag 100 likes on an Instagram. I sat at my kitchen table that night and designed The Validation Project. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I was really deciding what my mission was as I created it.
What were those early days like?
I finally had a passion. People were interested. Teenagers were joining. The beauty of starting a movement at my lowest point was that it couldn’t really get any worse. I started to look at each day as an opportunity, instead of counting down the hours until I was home.
What does The Validation Project do now?
It’s an international organization that works with teenagers in 100 countries to turn skills into solutions for global issues. For example, if a kid from New York comes to us and says they love to cook, we’ll partner them with a five star chef in NYC. After a two month internship learning the ins and outs of the restaurant industry, that kid will be sent to a homeless shelter, where they’ll revamp the menu so the homeless customers feel like they are in a restaurants. It’s this cycle of validating the youth by proving to them that they have the capacity to make a positive mark.
How did you take it from an idea to having 6,000 globally participating teens?
What’s so unique about The Validation Project is that we are totally led by teenagers, for teenagers. I think it grew so quickly because we are living it as we are leading it. When schools started reaching out to me, I designed a ‘kindness curriculum’ for teachers to use to create an environment of inclusion and entrepreneurship in schools. Now, 970 schools teach our curriculum in substitution of government anti-bullying curriculum. That really catapulted the movement because The Validation Project had a presence in the place where teenagers usually hate going: school.
The Validation Project has a pay it forward aspect to its mentorship program. What have been some of your favorite pay it forward stories?
One of my favorites is Valeria. I got an email from her about a year ago. She’s 17 and she lives in a mountain village in Peru. She told me that the girls at her school were being told to go home and be housewives. Valeria had other dreams. She wanted to be a fashion designer. We partnered her with a women’s rights advocate in Peru and worked with Valeria to design #ThisIsForTheGirls, a global social media campaign that gave women the platform to share their struggles. Now, Valeria is enrolled to be a freshman at FIT and her school has a Validation Project chapter.
How can anyone implement pay it forward practices into their everyday lives?
The opportunity to kick ass with kindness is all around us. Before that meeting you’re super nervous for, pay for someone else’s coffee. Slip a note to your professor telling her how much you loved her lesson. Call your friend and tell them how much you love them. Look around you and think. Five seconds of your life could change (and even save) somebody else’s.
You traveled to seven countries this past summer to build The Validation Project. What did you take from that experience?
YES! That was the craziest experience of my life. I got a scholarship to go to Israel, Poland, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Australia. I met with teenagers working with The Validation Project and learned more about the issues they face. It was incredible to see the impact of what we do in person, but it also showed me how much more work needs to be done. If you have the chance to go abroad, do it. Spend a day doing the touristy stuff, sure, but then immerse yourself into the culture. Whether it was teaching English to girls in Vietnam or speaking with LGBT advocates in Australia, that experience invigorated me to keep going.
Being a 17 year old CEO isn’t easy. What does your daily life look like?
At 5AM, my Beyonce alarm goes off and I get ready for school. I’ll admit I definitely have a case of senioritis, but it took me so long to get to the point of loving school–having a solid group of friends, not being scared to speak up in class–that I’m still in the honeymoon phase. Leading an organization while being a high school student definitely isn’t easy, but I love it. At lunch, you can find me in the library making phone calls to our chapters and updating the website. In between classes, my friends make fun of me because I’ll be like, “Be right back, I just have to call the State Department about Malaysia.” After school, I grab coffee with my friends and do homework. Then, it’s either off to New York City for meetings with mentors or to bed to Skype with a teenager. On the weekends, I try my best to just be Val. I’m lucky enough to have such an incredible support system of friends and family who love me for who I am, not just what I do.
Starting an organization and continuing to build it comes with a slew of challenges. How have you learned how to lead The Validation Project?
I think time management and self-love are the two crucial things. I’ve had to teach myself how to balance Val and Validation. Dinner with my family is just as important as a meeting at the United Nations. And self-love: it’s a big process, but it is so important to remind yourself that you aren’t perfect. Knowing I have and will make mistakes helps me just enjoy the moment I’m in, instead of stressing about what’s going to happen next.
You are a Youth Advisor for the White House and U.S State Department–titles that have an interesting story behind it. Can you tell us more about how your role at the White House and State Department came to be?
I received the National Jefferson Award of Peace/Justice in my sophomore year of high school. It’s led me to do some pretty crazy stuff (one time I got to meet Prince William and Kate Middleton!). At the award ceremony, I met a woman, Rachel Gerrol. She’s a total powerhouse and has become a mentor for me. She introduced me to her friends who are Youth Supervisors at the White House and State Department. In October, I met them and everything clicked. It’s been a whirlwind getting to work with my role models.
You have done incredible work inside and outside of The Validation Project in a seemingly short period of time. How have you made such monumental moves?
I’m really persistent. One time, I emailed 600 staff members at a company in Australia until one finally said they’d meet with me. I chase people down. I mail holiday cards and letters to the people I look up to. I also don’t put on a mask for anybody. I’m a kid, so yes, I’ll have a meeting with you and be very professional. But by the end, I promise you we’ll have a handshake and 10 inside jokes. Being personable is so much more memorable than being ‘normal’.
The Validation Project no doubt takes up a great deal of time and you still have high school on top of it. What are your top three time management tips for someone with big ambitions who is struggling with time restrictions?
- Make the calendar your best friend. Plan out things in advance and leave room to mess up or just take a breath.
- Say it with me: it is okay if it doesn’t get done today. Don’t be so hard on yourself. The world won’t end if your to-do list isn’t finished by tonight.
- Be proactive. If you have the opportunity to do work early or schedule a meeting early, do it. That leaves you with time to devote yourself to your passions.
You have been on The Meredith Vieira Show, worked with Justin Timberlake, and traveled the country speaking on behalf of The Validation Project and the Human Rights Campaign. How do you remain calm and collected, no matter the game changing opportunity?
I try to devote my whole self to each moment. I got to this point by being me, so in each experience I show the world who Val is. On the Meredith Vieira Show, I looked pretty calm. But backstage, I was dancing with my best friend. When I met Prince William, we high-fived. The people we idolize the most wake up scared to be themselves. I love breaking that ice so we can both be real.
No one can go it alone. How have you created your circle of influence and support?
I include my friends and family in what I do; that way it’s not living two separate lives, but kind of meshing them together. I took a group of my friends to the United Nations for the premiere of Malala’s documentary and even for this shoot for Spire & Co, I brought my best friend David! It’s so much more enjoyable to lead the CEO life when my squad is by my side.
If you could go back to your freshman year self, what would you tell her?
The darkness you are drowning in right now is not your death sentence. It is going to get SO much better. Keep your chin up and pull through. You are not the names you are called in the hallway. One day, you are going to wake up grinning and loving life.
Behind the Scenes
What does your typical day look like?
I go to school at 7AM, answering calls and emails in between classes. I spend lunch in the library–the teachers call it ‘Val’s Headquarters’. After school, I either hop on a train to NYC for a meeting or hop into bed to Skype with a Validation Project chapter. On the weekends, I am either giving a speech and traveling or pausing work and just being Val!
How do you refuel when you feel burnt out?
I get positive energy off of other people’s happiness. I love raw, organic moments of utter joy. When I’m burnt out, I’ll call up one of my friends and grab coffee or go for a walk. Sometimes stepping away from a job for a bit helps get that passion back.
What are your favorite websites, blogs, or magazines to read?
Well, aside from Spire & Co, I am addicted to Buzzfeed, Femsplain and Kicker.
What do you do when you have free time?
Netflix is bookmarked on my laptop 24/7, to say the least. But, I also really love being with my friends. We make up games where we get in the car with no plan at all and see where we end up; a concert, a new cafe, a SoulCycle class. I also love writing for the hell of it.
Who do you think is the ultimate #girlboss?
Amy Poehler has and always will be my #1 love. From her book to Parks & Rec, she's such a powerhouse and also so hilarious. I love how she is 100% her even at awards shows and with the press.