Female Founders: Marie-Rosa Jeudy, Cristine Alvarez, Barbara Stoykov & Lucia Gallo of St. Benedict’s Prep On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

Authority Magazine
Aug 24 · 10 min read

Trust in your team. Even if you’re a person who likes to do a lot of things by yourself, you have to be able to lean on others. Our Headmaster Fr. Ed says this all the time. “There’s two things you need to do to grow up. Admit that you’re wrong and ask for help.” Having trust in the people around you means that you can ask for help when anything goes wrong, and they are there to pick you back up. You also need to delegate. Don’t put all the pressure on yourself. As a leader there’s going to be a lot of eyes on you, and a lot of things you may not be able handle because you have your own life going on, too. As long as you share the work, you should be good.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marie-Rosa Jeudy, Cristine Alvarez, Barbara Stoykov and Lucia Gallo, high schoolers in charge of the Girls Prep Division at St. Benedict’s Prep.

For more than 150 years, the venerable St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J. was an all-male school. When their all-girls Catholic school closed in 2020, a determined group of students advocated for and started the Girls Prep Division at St. Benedict’s. Last year, the Senior Leadership Team — Rosa, Cristine, Barbara and Lucia — helped establish the Division during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now oversee everything — from establishing daily schedules (that teachers have to follow!), to setting the rules and ensuring that their classmates live up to their motto, “Whatever hurts my sister hurts me, and Whatever helps my sister helps me.”

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular path?

What started us on this path was the announcement of the closing of our former school, Benedictine Academy (BA) in early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic began. We had a community and sisterhood that we believed needed to continue. We had worked with the Boys Prep Division at St. Benedict’s for some time and started talking about establishing a Girls Prep Division at the School, one that would be co-institutional, not co-ed. Some people were skeptical or against the idea at first, but we didn’t give up.

We kept making our case to the Headmaster, Fr. Edwin Leahy, O.S.B. and then to the Board of Trustees, which is mostly men and has a lot of CEOs and business leaders on it. The board approved the Girls Prep Division on the condition we could get 60 girls to enroll. We got 85 the first year, and even though we were mostly virtual, we established our own leadership structure, and completed The Backpacking Project, a five-day hike on the Appalachian Trail that’s a requirement for graduation. The Division we’re running is now 120 girls this year, a 41% increase in enrollment, which tells us we’re doing a lot right, especially since a lot of Catholic high schools run by adults are losing students or closing.

Can you share the most amazing thing that happened to you since you began leading the Girls Prep Division?

We started school at the end of July because we operate on an 11-month year. We’re only in our third week of Summer Phase now, and what is most amazing is that the girls we’re leading really do look up to us. Yes, we have these titles, Senior Group Leader, Freshman Leader, Section Leader, but we have to stand by our titles. We have to lead by example. The student-leaders on our team are 15 and 17-years old. Seeing how much of an impact you can have on these girls who are the same age or a little younger is just amazing.

The connections we’re building are incredible, too. A few weeks ago, we were 120 girls who barely knew one another. Now we’ve established really strong bonds. A lot of us come from families filled with brothers. It’s just amazing to have sisters and a genuine connection forged during our first Overnight, a Benedict’s tradition the boys have done for almost 50 years. We spent five days and four nights together, welcoming the freshmen, learning the songs of St. Benedict’s and our affirmations, and doing a lot of physical challenges and community building. Each new day is harder than the last. It’s a tough, tough week, but it lets new students know it’s going to be a tough year. If you can get through the Overnight, you have everything it takes to be successful at St. Benedict’s.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are three people who helped us get to where we are now. They’re the cornerstone of the Girls Prep Division. Ms. Char-Lotte Searcy, our English teacher at BA and now at St. Benedict’s, encouraged us from the beginning. Ms. Analisa Branco was also with us at BA and was our Dean the first year — she put her trust in us, and without her, we don’t know where we would be right now. Dr. Glenn Cassidy, who is now Dean of the Girls Prep Division, has been so hands-on. He advised student-leaders in the Boys Prep Division for a long time, and he’s taken us under his wing. If you make a wrong decision, Dr. Cassidy will never say, “That’s not right.” Instead, he’ll show you how to correct a situation and guide you through. We’re lucky and honored to have these three teachers on our team.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies or enterprises like the Girls Prep Division. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding new enterprises?

In our experience, three things can hold women back, especially young women starting and running their own high school division. Judgement is one. Sometimes women sit back because a guy’s opinion carries more weight whether that guy holds an important position or not. Lack of self-confidence is another. And intimidation. Coming to an all-boys school was intimidating for us in the beginning. We felt like we were walking on to their property and coming into their space.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Already we’re seeing that the leadership structure we’re creating can help overcome these obstacles. At St. Benedict’s, girls get to run the show. We set the schedule. We come up with the rules for the community, we decide where you can hang out, where you can’t hang out, and where you can use your devices so they’re not distracting others. Girls have responsibilities here that students don’t get at other schools. Who’s in charge of schedules in high school? Literally no student anywhere has a say on that, but we have a say here.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Honestly, younger women need role models in high positions. Even though we lead our own community here in Newark, girls still need to see more female founders, CEOs, and entrepreneurs they can look up to, as well.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

One thing we kept hearing when the Girls Prep Division started was this joke, “The girls are going to take over. The whole place is going to turn girlie.” And that’s happened to an extent in certain areas of the School. We added some candles and a little perfume, because we had to let the boys know, “We’re here. This is our mark.”

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder or leader? Can you explain what you mean?

We have many people at school who are leaders without a title. In class, in clubs, in sports, they are outstanding. You can literally see it in them. Although they’re not part of the Senior Leadership Team, students at St. Benedict’s can be a leader within themselves and in their class, and in their own personal life. Everyone has the potential be a leader, just in their own way.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Trust in your team. Even if you’re a person who likes to do a lot of things by yourself, you have to be able to lean on others. Our Headmaster Fr. Ed says this all the time. “There’s two things you need to do to grow up. Admit that you’re wrong and ask for help.” Having trust in the people around you means that you can ask for help when anything goes wrong, and they are there to pick you back up. You also need to delegate. Don’t put all the pressure on yourself. As a leader there’s going to be a lot of eyes on you, and a lot of things you may not be able handle because you have your own life going on, too. As long as you share the work, you should be good.

Sacrifice. Even if you delegate well, when you’re a student-leader with the kinds of responsibilities we carry, you still need to sacrifice. There will be times when you have to put others in front of yourself if the community is going to succeed. You need to be prepared to give up a lot of your free time for the betterment of others.

Take responsibility for mistakes. Dr. Cassidy wanted us to make a change to our morning

Convocation, which we’re holding outside on the field. That was on a Friday, and on Monday, the change hadn’t been made. When he asked about it, it would have been easy to blame the Group Leaders and say they didn’t follow directions. Rosa, our Senior Group Leader, decided, “Nah, I’m not going to do that.” Rosa owned up to it and told Dr. Cassidy she forgot talk to the Group Leaders about the change. It may be a small mistake, but if you make one, immediately own up to it.

Listen. Literally, the first word in the Rule of St. Benedict’s (the precepts that have guided

Benedictine monks since 516) is just to listen. It’s a big word that sums up everything you do as a student-leader. You have to listen before you can build trust in your team or delegate. You have to listen before you act, make a decision, or take accountability for something you did wrong.

Provide stability. Stability is a Benedictine value. The monks who run our School never left

Newark. They commit themselves to seeking God here. That’s a reminder to us that we are all here for a purpose, and we have to be a stable presence for the girls in our Division. We’re all here for each other, we’re all here for the community. Even if you’re having a bad day, you still have to give it your all.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

The girls we are leading, especially the freshmen, are gaining confidence at an extreme rate. We didn’t know they were going to pick up on it so fast, but they did. It’s pretty amazing to watch women lead in an all-boys school, because these girls are going to be able to take this confidence any place they go. No matter where life takes them, they’ll be ahead. They’ll already have a jump and already be accustomed to the responsibilities that will be thrown at them because of the foundation we’re building together at St. Benedict’s. Some of the girls have afterschool jobs, so they’re already taking the confidence and leadership to those jobs. They’ll take it to college. And what we’re building isn’t limited to North Jersey. We have girls from Bolivia, we have girls from Colombia. It’s going worldwide.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Rosa: President Barack Obama is a person I truly admire. I was in PreK when he was first elected president and I still remember that day. Our class had a project; we had to write a letter to anyone. I wrote to him, and I was the only one in the whole class to receive a letter back.

Cristine: Oprah Winfrey is the person I would most like to meet. Oprah impacted my childhood and life in many ways because seeing her talk show helped me learn English.

Lucia: Louis Zamperini, the late Olympic long-distance runner and World War II veteran who survived two POW camps in Japan as chronicled in the biography, Unbroken. The pure courage and toughness he had was unfathomable to me. He is the person I would most want to meet; I would just have to have that conversation in heaven.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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