As a first-generation American with a Persian background, Camelia Khalvati endured a childhood and adolescence of feeling different. She ate kabobs during school lunch and had what she refers to as “big hair” and a “chubby physique.”
“I never felt like I belonged. I never fit in. I didn’t look like everyone else and always felt like I wasn’t pretty or smart enough to speak out,” she explains.
That is, until college when she serendipitously stumbled upon a lecture by Alexis Jones, co-founder of the empowering, supportive and educational non-profit called I Am That Girl. That experience ignited a spark that would change her life forever. “It changed me as a girl, a person, a leader,” she says. “Soon, I was taking on leadership positions at my school and my family [was] saying, ‘This is the Camelia we’ve always loved and knew was still inside.”
And that exact sentiment is the organization’s mission.
I Am That Girl began when Jones invited her future co-founder and CEO Emily Greener to a party in 2008. Greener’s dreams of being an actress went out the door in an instant. “We were best friends at first sight,” Greener says. “Our conversation changed my life. We shared our life stories and it wasn’t the version that was wrapped up in a pretty bow; it was the messy parts, too.”
Both women quickly realized that if they shared similar struggles, then there must be a need for a like-minded community to serve as a safe space for “people to be who they are instead of who they’re expected to be.”
“I felt this fire in the pit of my stomach: passion,” Greener shares. “I knew I needed to do something.”
Jones and Greener’s instincts were confirmed within days after they submitted an ad on Craigslist, seeking interns for the impending launch of their interactive online magazine titled, I Am That Girl. Three hundred applicants were vying for 23 intern positions. This outpouring of interest led to their fist organized local meeting where women could immerse themselves in the raw, vulnerable conversations that so often go unsaid.
“We knew we were onto something and decided to travel the country for the next three years, speaking to over 300,000 girls,” Greener explains. “We heard the spectrum of stories, from drug abuse to suicide and pregnancy, and one common thread was that everyone felt they had this unmet potential.”
To date, the organization holds 172 chapters and engages over 250,000 girls a day to reinforce their message that, “mental, emotional and physical well-being is rooted in our self-worth.” Greener says the idea is that the curriculum takes a holistic approach: “We cover all aspects of ourselves,” she explains. “It’s a system that’s based on what it means to be a girl in the 21st century — everything from career and relationships to sex and health.”
For Khalvati, who once felt that she “had everything right on paper, but inside experienced so much pain,” now loves that she is “imperfect” and remains a devoted member of the organization. She began an internship with I Am That Girl in 2012 and was later hired to be the director of a local chapter, where an average of 70 girls attend each meeting. She mentions that guys are also welcome. “We need their love and support, too,” she says.
Greener and Jones consider that inclusive mindset the core of their overall mission. “We’re the epitome of what’s possible when two girls come together,” Greener says. “This process hasn’t been without struggle and flaws, but what we could have done alone is nothing compared to what we’ve done together.”