It was March 30, 2019, and Nicole Bruno was at SWSG Pittsburgh’s annual Jump into Spring Celebration. She watched elementary-school girls write and draw with markers on boxes wrapped in colorful construction paper. They were memorializing the challenges and barriers they’ve faced in their lives – “You can’t play because you’re a girl.” and “Somebody said I was ugly.”
Nicole stacked up the boxes. She and the girls held hands as they chanted the SWSG Cheer: “I am STRONG! I am PROUD! And I’m not afraid to SHOUT IT OUT LOUD!” Together, they ran through the wall of boxes, smashing them to the ground. The moment was fun, inspirational, and uplifting.
But the feeling Nicole was left with afterward was even more impactful.
“The things these 8-year-old girls wrote – they weren’t put into their head, they were things they actually experienced. It’s a powerful message to the world that we need to change, that we’re not going to take this.”
Nicole began as a mentor with SWSG while she was a student at Duquesne University. That’s also when she met her Strong Leader mentor, Meredith Klein. As a mentor-mentee pair in SWSG’s three-tiered mentorship program, the two found they had quite a bit in common, starting with their reason for getting involved in the first place.
“When I was five years old, a little girl told me I couldn’t play on the playground because I was black,” said Nicole. “Here I am 19 years later, and I remember that moment as if it was yesterday.”
Nicole couldn’t live with the fact that other girls are facing similar gender and cultural barriers, so she had to make a change. She became a college woman mentor, and she still strives to break down those barriers for girls. At the same time, however, she’s found that those barriers don’t disappear with time and age. She found herself still struggling, after college, to figure out her best self in the professional world. That’s where Meredith came in.
Meredith’s journey as a Strong Leader began for a reason similar to Nicole’s – she’d found being a girl or woman comes with challenges that start early. She was just a preschooler when her first teacher called her parents to tell them she was being “bossy” with other kids in her class and that they needed to have a conversation with her about it.
“My dad looked at my teacher and said, ‘If she was a boy, that would be called leadership skills. I’m not going to tell her to change,’” said Meredith. “My parents have been a fundamental part of my success, never limiting me or what I thought I could do or was capable of. But I realized not every girl is afforded that same experience, and I wanted to create that opportunity.”
She felt a connection to SWSG’s mission of mentorship and wanted to foster a safe environment for women and girls to become the next generation of leaders. When she became a Strong Leader, Meredith’s first mentee was Nicole. Together, they took on Nicole’s dreams and made them a reality. They were united in their chosen field – Meredith, director of public relations and brand engagement at Brunner, was able to help Nicole break into the communications and PR industry.
“I had this idea of who I was supposed to be [after college] and was putting a lot of pressure on myself to have everything together,” said Nicole. “Meredith really helped me to be okay with the fact that your path doesn’t have to be the way you planned. She walked me through resume building, connected me to events, and really got me involved.”
Today, Nicole works for A to Z Communications in Pittsburgh and is committed to advancing other women and girls the way Meredith and the SWSG community have for her. But neither Nicole nor Meredith’s SWSG journey is over – in fact, they’re more involved than ever.
After she graduated from college, Nicole became a professional woman mentor in the Strong Leaders program herself. She joined SWSG’s pilot program, Role Models in Residence, in Spring 2019 and is now in her second semester of connecting with both girls and college women by leading lessons at elementary school program sites.
“It’s so important for me to be involved, because these kids are our future. I can’t stand by and let another kid feel the way that I felt,” said Nicole.
At the same time, Meredith has built upon her role to become a member of SWSG’s Communications Committee and, beginning in 2019, a member of the Regional Board of Directors.
“‘Leave things better than I found them’ – that’s my personal and professional ethos inspired by my dad,” said Meredith. “I want to be part of the positive progress within SWSG and connect people to an organization I believe is changing leadership in Pittsburgh.”
Both women are continuing to pursue change in Pittsburgh and everywhere. For Nicole, that means supporting groups who advocate for women and girls – like grlpwrpgh and Vote Like a Girl – and getting others involved, in addition to mentoring both girls and college women with SWSG.
“It really is a circle – as much as we give back to the kids, they give back to us tenfold,” said Nicole. “And the same with the college women. Everyone who has planted a seed in me and who’s changed my life, I’ve given all of that to someone else.”
For Meredith, change means awareness for diversity and inclusion everywhere, from her agency to organizations she serves like the Public Relations Society of America – Pittsburgh and as a member of the Pittsburgh Women’s Alliance Board of Directors.
“I encourage everyone to step in and step up. It doesn’t have to be a heavy lift, but if the mission of SWSG speaks to you, find a way,” said Meredith. “It’s too important to pass up.”