In honor of Women's History Month, we are highlighting contemporary women who are breaking barriers and pushing for positive change through their work. One such woman worth our attention is Aria Finger, the CEO of DoSomething.org aka Do Something — a non-profit, with 5.5 million members across 131 countries, empowering young people to participate in campaigns creating social change.
Whether it's putting an end to bullying, saving the environment, or providing resources to sexual assault survivors, Do Something connects people with the issues they care about most, and shows them how they can make a real impact.
Aria Finger has been CEO of Do Something for a year and a half, but has been with the company since 2005. She's helped it grow from a startup of just six employees to 60, and from a platform with under 100,000 members to over 5.5 million. In 2013, Finger founded TMI Agency, a new business under Do Something that helps other brands reach young people through marketing, content strategy, and social change initiatives.
"I had always been someone who was super passionate about social change, but I didn't have just one area," she told A Plus. "I was really passionate about income inequality, discrimination, homelessness, cancer, and everything, and so it was really wonderful to be in an organization that sort of espoused all of these causes and gave young people a way to take action on all of them."
Finger has helped to launch many successful campaigns that have created a positive difference in the lives of people across the country.
"One of my favorites that I always talk about is a campaign that's focused on youth homelessness. We started it about nine years ago, and it was sort of premised on the fact that in the United States a third of all homeless people are under the age of 18," she said. "So, a third of all homeless people in this country are children, and they're often children of homeless adults or LGBT runaways in their teens who haven't been welcomed in their home."
After calling several shelters, the Do Something team found out the number one item homeless teens ask for is a pair of jeans. As a result, Finger helped launch the Teens For Jeans campaign which enables young people to run jean drives at places like their local high schools, colleges, and churches and then donate them to local homeless shelters.
"In just five weeks, we collected over one million pairs of jeans. We actually clothed half of all homeless children in the country," she said.
But Do Something isn't just breaking barriers. It's also making a difference for the people who participate in each campaign.
"We always say one of the ways we make an impact is on the issues themselves — on homelessness and discrimination and poverty. But the other way is on the young people themselves. We want to make history by having this be the most socially conscious, socially active generation that the world has ever seen. I think with all of the technological tools and availability and information, we have a real shot at making that a reality and that's pretty exciting."
Finger believes all people want to make their communities better and feel like they have a purpose, and Do Something gives them easy access to take action.
"Do Something isn't often fighting apathy, we're fighting inactivity and the way we do that is by making it really easy and accessible for young people to take action."
"We want to make sure we're never taking away that access from young people and that all young people, regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status, have the tools they need to change the world."
Finger, the second female CEO of Do Something, credits part of her success to the organization's former CEO, Nancy Lublin, who she describes as thoughtful and generous. After speaking with Finger, we have no doubt she was destined for success, but hearing how another woman helped empower her was inspiring.
"Nancy knows before you do that you'd be an amazing speaker at an event, or she pushes you on that thing that you thought you couldn't do. So, I credit a lot of my ability to lead the organization to her generosity in both teaching me everything she knows and putting me out there so that I was prepared to take over for her when she did decide to move on. The interesting thing is I really do feel like I was given the opportunity to co-create Do Something as I grew up in the organization. I was the COO in the five years previous to CEO and one of the great things about Nancy is she took my creative criticism. If I had an idea to change things, she would implement it. I didn't have to come in and make enormous change which was great."
One of the changes Finger has implemented during her time as CEO is creating more focus in the campaigns the organization launches. Because Do Something has the grand mission of "changing the world," it can be easy to say yes to every campaign for every worthy cause that's brought to the table.
"That might seem like the nice thing to do, but it's actually not the right thing to do," she explained. "You'll never be successful if you're all over the place. It's a work in progress, but we've really tried to focus our efforts so that we can make a greater and deeper impact on a few issues as opposed to a service level impact on so many."
Although she has to say no to some ideas that are brought to the table, Finger aims to encourage creativity at Do Something by making sure her employees know their voice will be heard.
"Creativity is stifled when you feel like no one is going to listen to your idea. Why put yourself out there? Why come up with a new idea or a new thought or a new campaign, if no one is going to take you seriously or listen to you?" she said. "We actually empower employees to make decisions and take risks and that leads to creativity because they feel empowered in their own job. I think that personal empowerment goes a long, long way into having people feel like they can make creative choices and take chances."
Finger has a grand vision for the future of Do Something — and it's exactly the kind of thing our country needs right now. She hopes to connect the diverse community of 5.5 million members the organization has built online to help people be more inclusive and challenge their biases.
"Our members are truly diverse. They live in every area code in the United States. They over-index people of color. They're Republicans and Democrats. Do Something members are more likely to go to church on Sunday than the average teenager. They're not that liberal, coastal elite that you might assume from a progressive non-profit in New York," she explained. "I think that's the biggest opportunity we have is in building our community and connecting our members to have connections with each other."
"If we can connect a wonderful Muslim woman living in New York, who cares about homelessness, with a really passionate white kid in Iowa, who also cares about homelessness, that's a wonderful first point of connection that they can build that relationship on."
Finger has some advice for girls and younger who hope to leaders, change-makers, or CEOs like her someday.
"I'm very lucky to be a fairly confident person, but I know the paralysis that some people have about being an imposter or not being confident enough to do it or not speaking up. I would just say, however you can, whatever you can do, just banish those doubts. It's those kinds of doubts that keep yourself back. Forget about them and you'll be all the better."
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