16-year-old Merrill Keating is a rising star in the activist and STEM worlds. In October 2020, she founded The Power of 100 Girls, “an organization of 100 Founding Circle members who have harnessed their power and joined forces to make a difference in the lives of others.” In addition to creating this organization during a pandemic no less (!!!), she also is involved with TedxBainbridgeIslandWomen, GirlUp, Husky Robotics at the University of Washington, and numerous other projects and initiatives. This “STEMinist” and change maker is only just getting started.

Photo from Merrill Keating’s website.

1. Tell me about the Power of 100 Girls, as it sounds like you’ve been thinking of it for years. Where did your initial idea for the organization come from?

I have belonged to many affinity groups or participated in initiatives over the years. Because I’m an introvert, I witnessed a few things happen. First, if you didn’t get in there and hustle by applying for numerous scholarships, awards, or competitions, especially because you didn’t know many people who could provide an authentic recommendation, your chances and opportunities were diminished. Second, if you didn’t qualify for needs-based awards the opportunities were harder to find. And third, some initiatives or organizations were accustomed to dealing with and showcasing the same subgroup of girls, so if you weren’t in that inner circle it was hard to break through or gain traction. I observed many other girls like me who were engaged and passionate about causes and projects and I started thinking it would be a great idea to attract 100 of them so we could inspire and invest in the future of other girls, particularly if those girls were also outliers who could use an uplifting base and boost.

2. What was it like to have this organization take shape during a pandemic? Tell us about your process.

I knew I didn’t want to go through the time and expense of starting a 501©(3), so I reached out to and interviewed a few potential fiscal sponsors. Eventually, I decided on Hack+ because they really get youth leaders and their onboarding and suite of tools were seamless and perfect for my needs. Another option involved being connected with my parents, but I wanted to do this independently. Interestingly, by the time I’d decided to officially launch, that we were in a pandemic hadn’t quite registered as a possible mitigating factor in my success. My thought was that many people weren’t working and probably experiencing financial difficulty, making the environment ripe for helping girls, young women, or related organizations. As I’ve gotten more deeply into outreach and recruitment efforts, the reality of how many candidates are unable to afford the $100 pledge has really hit home. I’ve started to adapt the model by expanding on ways they can raise the money and extending the timeline to help them accomplish that. Most of the girls we are hearing from are those who want to know when we’re opening up the scholarship application process, not how they can join the Founders Circle. That’s been a wake-up call.

3. Describe the process of getting Power of 100 Girls up and running — what was your strategy for assembling an advisory council and getting sponsors?

My initial plan wasn’t to form an Advisory Council but to first recruit the Founders Circle and build a board and leadership from within those ranks. Then I realized I wanted a small group of advisors to occasionally discuss ideas. I recruited Senator Rolfes because I’ve known of her in my community my entire life, and she was a trusted champion for girls, women, and education. I’d developed a connection with Professor Kelly Knight on Instagram and valued her as a woman of color who’d achieved STEM success, but loved how she authentically addressed us about her fears, battle with cancer, and the challenges of her work. Peter Drury is a family friend and strong male ally with deep nonprofit and philanthropy experience. It’s possible I’ll add more advisors down the road, but the priority now is to build the 100-member Founders Circle.

As for sponsors, I’ve registered for Kitsap Great Give but haven’t ramped up beyond that to recruit sponsors, grants, or donations. I’m still trying to balance a desire for a member and youth-investor ethos versus the standard nonprofit route of aggregating external resources. Future steps will depend on how it all looks over the next month. 

4. How does your Funding Circle work? Members chip in $100, the money gets invested, and is used for charitable purposes? 

The vision is for an annual call for applications, which can be from individuals and organizations. We’d have a scored review process, ideally with a subcommittee, and finalists would be submitted to the entire Founders Circle for selection. We’d then have an event with speakers and a presentation of funds to the winners. The money can be used as a grant or scholarship and can go towards whatever is described in the application – whether it’s education, a passion project, or something else. The goal is to remain open and connected to that person’s story.

5. Where do you see Power of 100 Girls in the next 5 years? 10 years?

In the next 5 years I’d like to see us with several chapters. In 10, we are not only a fund but an incubator and resource for youth-owned initiatives, organizations, or businesses.

6. What is your favorite part of being a philanthropist and an activist?

Empowering others to change the world around them, and bringing as many with me as humanly possible.

7. Do you have any advice for girls in STEM and/or budding philanthropists?

Believe. Get back up each time you fall. Value the work being done in every step, even if it sometimes feels hopeless or as if you’re running in place. Draw healthy boundaries and take rest when you need it. Don’t give to get, but to inspire others to give. It’s challenging because there are so many conflicting messages. On the one hand, we are told as youth that we need to step forward because we are the future, but there are adults who ridicule or try to diminish us when we lead or stand up to them, and we are then told to essentially know our place. Find the true champions and mentors, and grow with them.

8. What do you like to do in your free time? Tell us about the last book you read.

I don’t have a lot of free time these days, but when I do I like to spend it with my parents. I also read, write, dance, or just blow off a little steam in gaming. “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini was the last book I read. He also wrote “The Kite Runner.”

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