Libby Ludlow ’06 is a scholar-athlete in the truest sense of the term. She deftly balanced the academic rigor of her Dartmouth experience with the athletic rigor of training and competing with the U.S. Ski Team – ultimately in the 2006 Torino Winter Games. The alpine skier describes her Dartmouth experience as “a really great counterbalance” for her athletic pursuits and an opportunity that allowed her to maintain “really strong, great friends” despite her unusual schedule.
It is no surprise that Ludlow’s path after Dartmouth has been just as unconventional. After retiring from racing and finishing her degree in 2009, she took a year off to teach yoga before enrolling at the University of Washington Law School. Partway through her program, however, she felt restless. Hoping to give back and reconnect with her athletic roots, she started a free pilot program called ZGiRLS aimed at building the confidence of young female athletes, which Ludlow says at the time felt “totally unrelated to any career ambitions.”
An entrepreneurship class and strong, positive response to the project showed Ludlow the possibility of turning ZGiRLS into a business startup. Ludlow, along with fellow ski racer Jilyne Higgins, created a business plan and entered into a competition held by the University of Washington’s business school. The pair placed second out of 92 teams, which Ludlow says “gave us some seed funding, some connections, and the confidence to pursue ZGiRLS full time.”
Ludlow’s program was motivated by the challenges faced by young women in society as well as her own experiences as a teenage athlete.
“There is a lot of conversation about leaning in and closing the confidence gap,” she explains, “and I thought we could deal with these difficulties at their source, in adolescence. Adolescence is a challenging and tumultuous time for girls – they’re under a lot of pressure and trying to figure out who they are. I’m grateful for the fact that I was able to navigate that time with my self-worth and ambition intact, but I know that is not the case for all girls. If we can help girls navigate that time in their life, when they graduate to adulthood we won’t need to have a conversation about closing that confidence gap, because they will already be there.”
Ludlow decided to instill those lessons through the best medium she knew – sports. “Sports are a proven way for girls to build confidence, for them to build self-esteem, and learn to make better decisions,” she says, but notes that by age 14 girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys. “We saw a need for someone to help encourage girls to continue in sports and layer on top of that a really robust sense of support and mentorship.”
The ZGiRLS model is simple –girls in sports ages 11-16 can start a “Circle” led by a “Circle Captain” (usually a parent or coach) – a similar structure to the Girl Scouts. ZGiRLS then matches each circle with a volunteer mentor, who is either a current or former athlete. Mentors are trained by the organization and undergo background checks. Each mentor then meets (or “huddles” in ZGiRLS parlance) with her circle once a month for eight months to teach the ZGiRLS curriculum, which covers topics like sports nutrition, body image, and communication skills. Circle members and their parents receive workbooks and activities to complete between huddles.
“Originally the curriculum was based on reflections from my 10-year career on the U.S. Ski Team,” says Ludlow. “I couldn’t help but think that if I had learned these lessons at a younger age I would have been much more successful. From that point on, I applied those same principles and concepts but pulled in experts from sports psychologists and mental health counselors to curriculum development experts.”
Asked to identify the most important lesson she’d learned from her athletic career, Ludlow says, “Looking back, I see how many times I beat myself up and was unnecessarily tough on myself, to the point of being counterproductive.” She sees this as a trait more common among girls.“We internalize and ruminate over mistakes and failures more than boys do.” This realization lead Ludlow to focus part of the ZGiRLS curriculum on positive self-talk and methods of avoiding damaging thought patterns, which she says many surveyed participants report as the most important takeaway from the program.
For the last three years, ZGiRLS has been based in Seattle, but just in June Ludlow and Higgins took the leap to make their program national with an IndieGoGo campaign aimed at spreading the word, raising money and recruiting volunteers. They expect to see circles across the country start up this October. “We have a huge vision for ZGiRLS.”
That vision includes Ludlow’s hope that Dartmouth alumnae will become involved as mentors. “I know Dartmouth women, and I know that so many of them would be a great fit for this role,” says Ludlow.