From Shy Girl to CEO: Meet Valerie Weisler, Founder of The Validation Project
In ninth grade, Valerie Weisler was bullied for being shy. Other students called her “mute,” and when she spoke, they pretended they couldn’t hear her. Desperate for a change, Val reached out to other victims of bullying in her school and bonded with them. As her life improved, she wanted to help build a support system for other victims of bullying around the world. She sat down one night and taught herself how to build a website. That website became The Validation Project. Now 17, Val spoke to Like a Boss Girls about what her organizations does, and why it’s so important for students to give back to their communities.
What is The Validation Project?
The Validation Project is an international movement that spans a hundred countries, and currently works with 5500 teenagers. They come to us with their unique skills, which could be anything from dancing to sports to art to writing—whatever they want to do. We partner them with a mentor with the same skillset, and they get to intern with that mentor. Then, they’re assigned a community service action according to what they learned. So a kid who’s interested in cooking might get to intern with a chef and then volunteer at a soup kitchen. Then, they come to us with a problem that they saw when they volunteered—for example, if homeless people at the soup kitchen don’t have enough coats. We’ll work with them to design an international campaign to solve that problem. That’s the basis of what we do, and in addition to that, we also have curriculum that I designed that’s called Proactive Kindness curriculum. Instead of teaching anti-bullying, which is what I was taught in school, and wasn’t at all effective, we teach how to be proactive, and how to actually accept other people and make them feel welcome. It’s taught in 900 schools.
What happens when someone signs up with The Validation Project?
If they’re a teenager, they’re partnered with a mentor, so we get to talk with them, and we figure out where they’re at, what their skills are and what they want to be when they grow up. We partner them with a mentor in their area, and they go through the process of community service and doing a campaign with us.
If you’re an adult, you have the option of becoming a mentor, overseeing a campaign, or doing a quick presentation at one of our chapters—something like that. I think one of the most important things is that when you sign up for the Validation Project, it’s not like a competition. Everybody makes it, because we believe and know that everyone has something valuable to bring to the table.
Do you have a mentor?
Yes, I do. It wasn’t from the Validation Project that I was partnered with her; I was actually at a convention for my youth group when she saw a video about The Validation Project. I was being honored and she was the keynote speaker at the convention. Her name is Jessica Avo. She’s a NY1 news anchor and an actress, and she just started her own YouTube channel. She taught me how to be confident and how to be professional, but also to make sure I’m not changing myself for other people. She’s like a big sister to me. She’s a mentor, but also like a best friend, and a part of my family.
How do you get kids excited about community service?
A lot of kids my age think—and I’ll admit, I thought this too—that there is a specific mold for who you had to be to volunteer. When we would go with my school, or when we would go as part of a community day, or something like that, it was always that we were all going to the soup kitchen, or we were all volunteering with special needs teenagers. There was no individualizing what we were doing. There might be two or three people that like to cook, or that like to hang out with special needs teenagers, but the rest of those people are thinking they don’t like to volunteer. They’ve never been given the opportunity to do what they love to do while helping other people. That’s where I came up with the idea to combine community service with teenagers’ skills. I think it’s really important, because it’s a very big self-esteem booster, but also to show people that you don’t have to be a specific person to do something nice—you just have to take what’s inside your heart and help other people with it.
You’ve been doing this for a couple of years. How is it going, overall?
Our two year anniversary was January 16, 2015, and it was just so weird. I’m still not used to it. Every single day, there’s something else that happens, whether it’s that a new country found out about us and wants to start a chapter or that the United Nations just approached the group about me being an ambassador One day, a Fortune 500 company approaches us to partner with it for a campaign, and another day a Catholic school, that would’ve never been pro-LGBT or pro-women’s rights, is now leading our women’s rights movement curriculum and teaching how to have pride in who you are.
I always try to make sure that I’m going back to where it started, no matter how big it’s getting. I make sure that I’m going back to “How did this get started? Why am I doing this?”
Can you talk about some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way?
One of the biggest challenges I faced was my age. In the beginning, I was 14. When I was meeting with people and identifying myself as the CEO, and starting to do public speaking when I was still pretty shy, I thought that I had to change who I was and make myself appear older and more professional in order to to get my messages across. I think the beauty of The Validation Project is that it was started by a teenager, and that it’s run by teenagers. So when I started to think I had to wear a pantsuit to be professional, that’s when I was like “Wait, no. My age is not a disadvantage, it’s something I need to shine the light on.”
The other challenge was learning how to balance it all. When it really got big, which was probably June of last year, when I won the Jefferson Award of Public Service, we got all these connections, and I went away for the summer to a sleepaway camp for entrepreneurs. Everything was going so fast. Learning how to balance school and family and friends, but also leading this organization, was definitely one of my biggest struggles. Now when I go home, I usually put my phone upstairs so I can spend time with my family. When I’m out with my friends, I make sure I’m not bringing the Validation Project with me. I need to make sure I’m still Val.
How do you balance it all?
One of the things I’ve found that helps is to figure out what your five top things are that you love. For me, it’s my family, my friends, my project, myself, and my future. I ask myself, “How can I put those all together to be sure I’m focusing on each one, and how can one of them play into the others? How can my friends hang out with me when I’m doing a program? How can my family support me by letting me practice my speech for them?” But I’m still making sure that I’m just a kid. I want to make sure I don’t grow up too fast, so that’s definitely been one of the challenges. But I think the challenges of my age, and balancing, have also taught me a lot of lessons that I wouldn’t have learned if they hadn’t come up as obstacles.
What advice would you give another young person who’s starting their own organization?
If I could go back and tell myself, I’d say: Take risks. Don’t be afraid. If you have an idea, don’t be logical, because when you’re logical you’re thinking about the money that goes into it, and the time, and the possibility of it becoming a reality when it’s one of your dreams. Take yourself back to “I’m watching Disney movies in my pajamas on Christmas morning”—that kind of world—and tell yourself, “You can do this.”
Don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Find your number one fear and use it as your biggest success. For me, my fear was being shy, so I taught myself to be a public speaker. If your fear is getting on that computer and starting that website, do it. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. In the beginning, I was scared to approach people about being on my team, because I didn’t even know what my team was supposed to do. Don’t be afraid to use the resources you already have. You don’t have to reach out to people who are miles away. Reach out to your mom, your sister, your best friends. They’re gonna catch you when you fall. Also, know that it’s OK to fall.
Where do you hope for things to go in the future with the Validation Project?
This summer, I’m going to be traveling to Southeast Asia and Australia on a service trip with Rustic Pathways, which is a youth travel program. One of my dreams that I’ve had for The Validations Project is going to get fulfilled. We’re going to all these countries, and I’m bringing my video camera and starting to make a documentary about what it’s like to be a teenager in different countries and different situations. One of my goals for the Validation Project is to continue that project. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I want to be able to walk out of 2015 with a documentary.
Another goal for the Validation project is to be able to continue my work with it in an office setting. I want it to the reason I’m making coffee and putting on my clothes and brushing my teeth in the morning to be that I get to go to an actual office that’s the Validation Project. As much as I love focusing on going to school, I would love for this job to be what I wake up and do every single morning.
What else can people do to get involved?
In addition to working with the Validation Project individually, you can also start a chapter at your school or company. We can design unique programming for whatever you’re interested in. We do programming for different religions, different grades, different subjects—all that sort of stuff.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to Like A Boss Girls?
I know that every girl reading this is a boss. Sometimes, especially when you’re a girl and you’re starting your own business, you’re going to get a lot of haters, but don’t try to hide your gender. Just know that the fact that you’re doing this means that you rock. You have the community from The Validation Project and Like A Boss Girls to support you. Take hold of who you are, and what your dreams are, and know that the fact that you’re a girl makes it even more awesome.