When Jenny Raymond ran for class president, she approached it like the diligent student she was by delivering a serious, prepared speech on her plan to improve the school. She was so desperate to be taken seriously that she says she probably even lowered her voice an octave.
Then, her competitor, a guy friend of hers, took his turn. He came prepared, but in a different way. While playing the theme song to “Star Trek,” he took the floor, made a peace sign, said “vote for me”—and that was it.
After the year we’ve had, you can probably guess how this ends. “He was elected,” Raymond says. “And I did all the work as VP for the next three years.”
Fast forward 30 years, and Raymond is the executive director of the Harnisch Foundation, a nonprofit that works to boost women and girls into leadership positions. Their newest initiative, Funny Girls, is doing that for girls in grades three through six in an unconventional way. Instead of teaching girls about business or civics or public speaking, it teaches them how to do improv comedy.
Despite its name, Funny Girls isn’t grooming girls to become comic geniuses—think less Amy Schumer, more Hillary Clinton. Raymond doesn’t think she lost that election because she didn’t have the same stunning comic abilities of her competition. She thinks it’s because as she desperately tried to imitate her vision of a serious politician, she forgot to act like herself. There’s a well-documented confidence gap between men and women, which means women are less likely to dream big and take the kind of chances that help them land a leadership role.
There are a ton of female leadership programs out there, and most of them—whether they’re working with middle schoolers or middle management—focus on skills like self-awareness, agility, collaboration, empathy, and resiliency. But these also happen to be skills that are at work during improv comedy. “We should call these ‘soft skills’ the ‘hard skills’ because they are the hardest to learn and master,” Raymond says. “And we think that they’re actually critical to success.”
The idea behind Funny Girls is to immerse girls in a specially designed improv curriculum to help them hone those skills, and because one of the central tenets of improv is acceptance, it acts as a safe space for self-conscious students. In one improv game, one student becomes a dolphin, and another becomes a dolphin trainer who’s trying to teach her dolphin a new trick. The catch is that they have to conduct this training session without using words (because of that tricky dolphin-human language barrier), so the dolphin has to keep trying out new things—jumping on one leg, spinning around in a circle, shaking both hips back and forth—while the trainer wordlessly guides her to the right answer. It can take an exasperatingly long time to crack the code and finish the game, but by the end, the girls are beginning to understand how to pivot when something isn’t working to find a creative new strategy that just might. That’s an important skill for an improv comedian—or a dolphin trainer, for that matter—but it’s also critical for CEOs, politicians, and just about every leadership position there is.
Funny Girls started with a pilot program in three New York City-area programs, and this fall the Harnisch Foundation trained coaches at five new locations in the Funny Girls curriculum. They plan to continue expanding it over the next three years.
Research has shown that girls begin to lose confidence in themselves by age 6, and that by the time they emerge from puberty they tend to believe in themselves far less than boys do. But in improv, everyone acts ridiculous, and everyone accepts that, providing an opening to teach girls important lessons that they’ll need later in life and boosting their confidence in the process.
“In improv, there’s no right or wrong,” Raymond says. “It allows girls to try these skills on without social repercussions or failing. The added benefit is that spontaneous things happen, and humor happens, and it’s fun—all in this incredible net of support and collaboration.”