In high school, Valerie Weisler saved another student’s life. That day marked a significant change in her life and identity: she went from bullying survivor to a CEO, youth advocate and social justice crusader. Karma has been good to Valerie, though: shortly after launching her youth empowerment organization, she connected with an older female mentor who reinforced in her a strong belief that all it takes is one person to change another’s life. Now, Valerie has made it her life’s mission to help others find mentors and give back to their communities. Talk about coming full circle!
What is The Validation Project?
The Validation Project is a global youth empowerment organization reaching more than 6,000 students in 105 countries. Students can work with us individually by partnering with a mentor in the field of their career interest and then completing a social justice assignment according to that interest. For example, if a student works with a chef, we’ll have them revamp the menu of a local homeless shelter. Students can also work with us through our kindness curriculum, which is taught in nearly 1,000 K-12 schools. Our kindness curriculum teaches educators how to work with their students to solve issues in the community. Ninety percent of schools teaching our curriculum say that within four months of implementing it, bullying decreases immensely, cliques diminish and students have a greater sense of self-worth and interest in activism.
Why did you decide to create The Validation Project?
My freshman year of high school, I was bullied brutally for being shy. I truly did not believe it would get better. A group of girls would put notes in my locker telling me I should never come back to school and spread rumors that I was mute. One day, I saw another student being bullied and told him, "You matter." He started to cry and shared that he was planning to die by suicide that day—but someone coming up to him really "validated" him. This moment woke me up. I went home from school that day, searched how to make a website, and sat at my kitchen table for six hours designing The Validation Project. Over the next few months, The Validation Project transformed from a lunch-time meetup group for outsiders into an international movement elevating the ideas of young people.
What were some of the challenges you faced in growing an international organization like The Validation Project?
After starting The Validation Project at 14 years old, I would frequently meet with company executives and other leaders to secure partners and mentors. Many times, male executives dismissed me because I was “just a little girl.” I heard, “No,” many times before I got a “Yes!” But I learned quickly that my young age is an asset, not a setback. Time management is still something I struggle with, and I think it’s important not to glamorize being busy. There’s no formula for this balancing act (if there is, please send it to me), but I try my best to check in with myself and value my work as much as I value writing a killer essay for class or going out to ice cream with my friends.
Mentorship has such an important role within the organization. How has mentorship changed your life, either learning from a mentor or being a mentor yourself?
When I was sixteen, I heard award-winning journalist and philanthropist Jessica Abo speak at a youth conference. I went up to her after her talk and she invited me to get coffee with her in NYC. We immediately clicked. Jessica has now been my mentor personally and professionally for the past four years. She’s helped me with everything from making The Validation Project into a 501(c)3 non-profit to getting me through a bad break-up. Having Jessica in my life gave me a female entrepreneur to look up to and learn from. Access to mentors is vital for young people to have the support needed to elevate their passions.
How has creating and running The Validation Project impacted your life?
I truly think that The Validation Project saved my life. When I pressed “publish” on the website, I was in a dark place. I did not want to wake up the next morning, and I did not see life as worth living. Leading this movement showed me my own potential, and gave me a platform to fight for something bigger than myself. The Validation Project also led me to what I am currently studying. I self-designed a major in education advocacy at my school, so what I am studying directly relates to my activism. I get to dig deeper into the education issues our world faces every day, and transfer that knowledge into the platforms The Validation Project is creating for young people to solve these issues.
What major impact do you wish your organization to have on teenagers today?
Through leading The Validation Project, I’ve seen the systemic gaps in our education system, specifically in the transition from high school to higher education. For teenagers from marginalized backgrounds, access to conversations about college, financial aid, and just knowing how to answer, “What do you want to do?” are rare. As a lower-income student, I did not think I’d be able to afford college. It was with the help of my mentor that I learned how to navigate the financial aid process and make my dream of college a reality. That’s why I am launching Trailblazers, The Validation Project’s newest campaign, to provide career field trips, women-led workshops and female mentoring opportunities for high school women from marginalized backgrounds. Trailblazers is launching at L’Oreal Paris in NYC this fall, and I am currently working with other companies nationwide to host students for Trailblazers events in various fields.
What is something you wish you knew when you founded your organization at 14?
I wish I knew that I did not have to split myself into two people -- the CEO and the student. For so much of high school, I thought I had to approach my activism with this Hannah Montana looking glass, never letting these two parts of me become one. It wasn’t until college, where I found an incredible group of friends, that I learned that I am actively growing, and all parts of me can exist happily together. I’ll have movie nights at my house where we are giggling to High School Musical, and then five minutes later we’re having a serious chat about privilege. Letting all parts of myself be present has made me into a better leader, and a happier person.
What advice do you have for other college women who are looking to start their own organizations that tackle some of the challenges teenagers face today?
Do the damn thing! Nothing starts and is immediately global, or viral. Start small -- just start. Asking for help is not a sign of failure; it’s a sign of future success. Every great movement has a team behind it, and most of the time, it’s the people already in your corner. Activate the resources you already have. Be annoyingly persistent. Look at the people who inspire you and ask them how they got to where they are. You got this.
How would describe yourself in five words?
Ambitious. Creative. Collaborative. Persistent. Excited.
Carissa Dunlap is a Her Campus News X Social Intern for Summer 2018. She is a current Publishing major and Journalism minor at Emerson College (Class of 2020). When she isn't perusing the YA bookshelf at the bookstore, she can be found watching dog videos on Facebook, at her favorite coffee shops, or relaxing on the beach. Follow her on Instagram @dunlapcarissa or Twitter @Caridunlap.