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Women We Love: Jenni Luke of Step Up

PEOPLE

step up ceo jenni luke with signs

In April 2019, we launched The Power of Good Fund by bareMinerals, which supports women’s empowerment in the areas of education, mentorship and entrepreneurialism. In this series, we’re putting the spotlight on one female leader from each organization. Today, we’re proud to share the story of Jenni Luke, the CEO of Step Up, a non-profit that uses a unique mentorship model to inspire teen girls in under-invested neighborhoods to achieve their full potential.

It’s 5 PM, a block from New York’s Penn Station, and there’s a constant, multilingual flow of conversation and stress overrunning the Gregorys Coffee where Jenni Luke is sitting easily on a window bench, having a tea before a college basketball game. It will be her first visit to Madison Square Garden, with a friend who works for Major League Baseball and secured such excellent March Madness tickets that Jenni will feel she can never go back. As people and luggage wedge around her, Jenni mentions another event — Barbie’s 60th birthday party, which she recently attended. It made her feel optimistic, seeing how the doll, once shorthand for body dysmorphia and objectification, has now had over 200 careers, from beekeeper to robotics engineer. Other things that make Jenni hopeful right now? Young people-led movements, like Everytown for Gun Safety, and the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, which connects victims of sexual misconduct with legal and PR assistance. Jenni’s sister, who has a young son, can’t find a single thing for him to watch on TV that isn’t fully gendered. So there’s a long way to go. But if Barbie can be president? Well, that’s something.

As CEO of Step Up, a non-profit mentoring organization, Jenni thinks a lot about how girls figure out what’s possible for them. Step Up’s work is driven by the belief that all girls should have the opportunity to fulfill their potential. They activate on that by running afterschool and weekend mentoring programs for high school girls who are living or going to school in under-resourced communities in New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago, and supporting them as they graduate high school, ready to become the next generation of professional women. The organization was founded in 1998 by Kaye Kramer, then a well-connected young talent agent, when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She looked around and realized that she and her friends had access to a lot of money, reach and power. So she gathered a few in a living room to discuss how to use their massive social capital for good. “The theme that’s stayed consistent all the way through is: how do you leverage resources that you have on behalf of people who may not have them?” Jenni explains. “It’s like: if you’re a mentor and you’re part of a group who has access to something, you have a responsibility to open doors to people who may not have access — and they don’t have access for anything that they’ve done wrong. It’s just the structures that are in place to keep them from having access — how can we create a pathway through those structures?” Many of the girls they work with are the first in their family to graduate high school, and go on to become the first to attend college, too. When alumnae gathered last year for Step Up’s 20th anniversary celebrations, many were teaching and doing social work, giving back to the communities they’re from.

Mentoring has been directly linked to success, especially for young women, yet only 54% of women have access to senior female leaders who can act as mentors, and less than 5% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women. And for teenage girls? It’s invaluable for them to see examples of the women they can grow up to be. But a key challenge that most mentoring programs face is ensuring that matches stick. “One-to-one long-term mentorship is really proven … but it’s also proven that if you get a mentor and the mentor relationship fails, it’s more damaging to the young person than if they had never gotten in it to begin with,” Jenni explains. Step Up’s model is different, in that every meeting a girl has is with someone new, introducing them to a large pool of “possibility models,” as the program calls the mentors. This is partly to protect against match failure, partly because of Step Up’s firm belief in the power of having a network. Also, they hear from the girls that, Interacting with one person? That’s so boring.

When Jenni Luke was about 7 years old, growing up in an upper middle class neighborhood outside Los Angeles, she started noticing that she had more opportunities than most people did. Going to the grocery store, she understood that the checker behind the counter had a very different experience than she was going to have. Some of it was language, some of it was watching how people interacted with them, but she became obsessed with equal opportunity. At around 14, she was sitting on the floor of her living room watching the Democratic National Convention when Jesse Jackson delivered his famous Rainbow Coalition speech. She felt like she was watching what needed to happen in the world, and started to cry. Determined to affect civil rights, Jenni’s law school dreams were cemented before she’d even finished high school.

Jenni attended law school at the University of Colorado, loved it, got the right internships, did the right clerkships during school — all the right things. Then she got a job and realized: in no way did she enjoy practicing law. The monotony made her understand why people felt driven to drink. She was devastated, and she was embarrassed.

At no point did Jenni have a mentor who could gently ask whether her childhood dream matched her maturing personality, or point out the difference in day-to-day experiences between learning and practice. “I was embarrassed because I really felt like I had failed in such a big way.” she recalls. “It was my dream, I paid for it. I really was only failing myself, but at the same time I was so thrown by it … that’s partly why I say to young women: it’s important to get that network of support early, because I think back and I wonder, would I have made a different choice to stick with it? Or just different areas of practice? Or done something differently?”

Deeply confused and unsure of a next step, having followed one path for so long, Jenni asked herself: What do lawyers do when they don’t want to practice law anymore, and want to do something more interesting, creative. She moved back to Los Angeles, to family — and the entertainment industry. “My career has been a nonlinear equation,” she says. “My mother would call it circuitous.”

Jenni worked her way up, becoming an agent representing writers and directors for film and television, until the 2004 presidential elections pushed her back towards civil rights — the reason she went to law school in the first place. She went to a talk by Lindsay Rachelefsy of the ACLU of Southern California. “I obviously knew the ACLU within a legal perspective. But she was the Director of Development, so she did fundraising and community engagement. I didn’t know that that job existed, because I had been so focused on law, so when I heard her speak, I was like, Oh my God — I want her job,” Jenni recalls. “She and I became friends. Eventually, I did get her job.”

After the talk, Jenni told the agency she wasn’t renewing her contract. Her boss asked about her plans, offered to make some calls on her behalf, and Jenni’s next role was Development Director for the Alliance for Children’s Rights, a legal services non-profit. “We did really good services for kids in foster care in LA, and it was fundraising from within the entertainment community, so it was a really perfect marriage of backgrounds and interests and everything,” she explains. “And I really loved it. It was just such a good fit for me, because all you do, pretty much all day, is talk about what you care about with people that want to listen, and then you take what they’re excited about and say: Give me money for it and convert that into impact. Which is super cool.” After 3 happy years, Lindsay called, told her she’d be leaving the ACLU, and asked if Jenni be interested in the position. “So then I did work for the ACLU, just not as a lawyer. So it was poetic — and fantastic. Loved it.” It was her network again that led her to Step Up after that; when the CEO role opened, numerous people sent it her way, saying it had her name written all over it. “And you know, here we are.”

On a recent Wednesday, Jenni woke up in her Brooklyn apartment, took her Cockapoo puppy, Cocoa, to daycare (he loves it there, and is hopelessly distracting), did follow-up on a Step Up Board of Directors meeting to work through some high-level strategy and governance decisions, then organized her notes for a keynote at the United Nations that she was delivering 2 days later, during the UN’s 63rd Commission on the Status of Women. She was in the midst of a travel lull; after 5 years based in LA with Step Up, Jenni and the organization’s headquarters moved to New York in 2014. Last fall, as they expanded to Dallas, she traveled there once a month. “I’ve basically lived off my laptop and wherever I can plug it in for the last 5 years,” she says. When in New York, she works out of the apartment, amidst work from creative friends, from large-scale paintings to a sequined notebook that, when brushed, shifts messages from “Get it done” to “Get shit done.”

Step Up’s budget has tripled under Jenni’s leadership. The numbers of teens enrolled, partner schools and mentors have all experienced double- and triple-digit percentage growth since she took over. Simultaneously, she has narrowed the organization’s focus, honing in on mentorship and social emotional learning. As they approach the end of their current strategic plan, the board is refocusing on how to go deeper in the communities they’re in, and how to expand their reach while staying focused. One consideration is a tiered approach. “If you use a retail model, it’s like the brick and mortar luxury version is what we’re doing. Is there an online delivery system where people might get the programming, the social emotional learning components? They don’t necessarily get the classroom environment, but they get access to the concepts. They may not get access to the network of mentors — and does that sell it short? I don’t know. How do we grow the reach, while not necessarily sacrificing what it is?” And, of course, there’s the question of new communities, and which cities are right for their model.

There’s also the question of succession planning. In May of 2019, Jenni announced her resignation from Step Up after 10 years of service. She calls it a graduation of sorts, which she’ll celebrate with vacations in Mexico and Central America. Her next chapter, still unannounced, will continue her focus on social justice and equal opportunity.

In the meantime, she is supporting the search for a new CEO and preparing the transition. It’s clear that Jenni’s legacy will shape the growth of the organization for years to come, and the girls she’s met will continue to shape her. She raves about their growth, their perspectives, and how much they teach their mentors. At an anniversary event Jenni overheard two alumnae of the program speaking to a younger girl, who was still in high school. One alum, who was fortunate enough to have attended a college-focused charter school, explained that yes, Step Up was valuable in high school — she’d even secured herself an internship after attending a prospective Step Up board member breakfast with Jenni. But the real value, the alum said, came later. Comparing herself to the girls she graduated high school with just a few years ago, she was already further, way faster than any of them. And she was further than she ever thought she’d be.

Learn more about Step Up and The Power of Good Fund by bareMinerals.