We Heart Our Readers: Cynthia Hellen, GIRLS WHO ROCK

These girls certainly rock too.

Take a passion for girls’ education, rope in New York’s technology, music, and design communities, and add a dose of rock ‘n roll. That’s the foundation of GIRLS WHO ROCK, an annual concert benefitting girls’ schools in the developing world through education non-profit She’s the First. Created by Cynthia Hellen and Tammy Tibbetts in 2010, the concert series has already raised more than $23,000 to sponsor girls’ schooling in Tanzania and Uganda. Pretty rocking, if you ask us. After their last concert in May, we caught up with Hellen to see what drives GWR… besides their love for EcoSalon, of course.

Tell us the premise of GIRLS WHO ROCK.

Simply put, GWR is an annual concert produced by a team of remarkable women and girls, connecting the tech, music, and design communities and helping others sponsor girls’ education through She’s the First. We use technology like social media to creatively produce an experience for all those who connect with our message, follow our moves, and are simply curious about how they can collaborate with us. In the last two years, the concert has raised more than $23,000 to sponsor 32 girls in Tanzania and Uganda. In addition, ten American girls recently completed our GWR GivesBack mentorship program, working with 20 older volunteer role models to help produce the concert.

How did you think up the idea for the concert, and why the emphasis on girls education?

In 2009, I collaborated with Internet Week and Angel Wish, a nonprofit that helps children with HIV/AIDS. I took that as a case study of how social media can be used as a tool to reach the masses and have people join a cause. Then a friend sent me a link about Tammy and She’s the First. She’s the First was three months old and not yet a registered non-profit, but it had a simple message about how girls should be the first in their families to graduate from high school. The message connected with me, but I wondered about others with different cultural experiences and backgrounds. That was it right there – I knew I wanted to address this. I reached out to Tammy, and on our second encounter I shared with her the idea of a GIRLS WHO ROCK concert, and how it would bring attention to girls’ education using all these elements, and how her organization would benefit as well. Two months later, GIRLS WHO ROCK launched during Internet Week 2010.

How are you working toward social change?

As a woman, I am perplexed by how, as humans, we can say we “care” but yet are not willing to do enough for issues affecting us. As a social entrepreneur, I live with a constant reminder of these ongoing issues, and I am led by my curiosity and a desire to utilize my skills to create a simpler and more sustainable solution for the problems we have today, rather than be naive or turn my head.

It’s easy to say, “If it’s not affecting me directly, why should I care or connect myself beyond feeling sadness or pity?” Perhaps I don’t like “easy,” which led me to co-create GIRLS WHO ROCK. GWR is run as a social media production and utilizes the power of music to connect us in a much deeper sense to those who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to think, dream, and do big things in life – in this case, receive an education.

What is your background, and how did you decide to make this your life’s work?

My background is one of the things in my life I am most humbled about and if anything, grateful for, especially the education I was given as a child. I did not go down “the typical path” that is expected in Western culture. I was simply led by my curiosity to learn, and as I went, I built, and I am still doing so. Music was the first skill set I acquired, then theater, production, and entrepreneurship. College years were TV journalism, PR/social media, and now law and technology. But music and the arts are still my first loves, and those are the foundation of GWR.

Images: Cynthia Hellen, Marc Hall

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.