Episode 034: Empowering Girls Through Storytelling with Laura Pena
Laura Peña is a Dominican-American filmmaker, storyteller and passionate champion of every girl. She is the founder of She is the Universe: a storytelling, mentorship and community building platform that supports girls around the world to stand in their power and pursue their dreams. For the past few years, Laura has traveled across the world interviewing girls about their hopes, dreams, passions and struggles – and sharing their unique stories through film.
In this inspiring episode, Laura talks about her current and upcoming projects with She is the Universe, the impact of her work on women and girls around the globe, her favorite stories from interviews on six continents, and her steadfast belief in the ability of girls to change the world (when given the right tools and support). Let’s dive in!
- What inspired Laura to dedicate her life to empowering girls through She is The Universe
- How Laura’s in-progress video series explores the question of what it means to be a girl today, by spotlighting the stories of 111 teenaged girls across six continents
- How an interview experience in Columbia prompted She is the Universe to start a scholarship fund that now sponsors education for five girls in the Philippines and Columbia
- How Laura measures impact as a storyteller – and how she’s seen her work affect the confidence and ambition of girls (and women!).
- The role of diversity, equity and inclusion in her projects
- Laura’s efforts to expand the scope of She Is the Universe to include leadership/mentorship programming, community building through girls’ support networks, and more school sponsorships – plus the funding challenges she faces on this journey
- How She Is the Universe has changed Laura’s personal life and is helping her heal her own inner child
- How you, the listener, can get involved with She is the Universe as a supporter, volunteer or by sharing the stories of girls with your network!
Youtube: She is the Universe
Laura Peña is a Dominican-American filmmaker, creative producer, motion designer, speaker, traveler, proud Latina and supporter of girls. As the founder of She is the Universe, a Global Movement for Girl’s Empowerment, Laura looks to inspire, and offer girls from around the world the support they need to stand in their own stories and to pursue their dreams, through storytelling, mentorship and community.
For the past few years, Laura has been traveling the world collecting stories of teenage girls on film. They share their dreams and struggles for a video series with stories of girls, told by girls. Laura encourages and supports girls to use their voice and change the world, using their own unique gifts. Originally from the Dominican Republic, she moved to the U.S. to attend Parsons School of Design in New York City in 2005. In 2014 she founded JelloMonsters, a creative Design Lab where she works with leading brands to create motion graphics. Her work has been featured in magazines, newspapers, and books globally.
Laura is also an international workshop leader and speaker who has shared her story at TEDx and Creative Mornings. She has been a digital nomad for about 6 years. Currently Laura spends most her time in the beach town of Cabarete, Dominican Republic, keeping the nomad lifestyle alive while building her dreams and weathering a global pandemic with patience.
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Jessica Williams 0:02
Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I’m your host, Jessica Williams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products and menstrual health education for all people with periods.
Today’s guest is Laura Pena. Laura is a Dominican American filmmaker, creative producer, motion designer, speaker and traveler. And she is a huge supporter of girls around the world. She is the founder of She Is The Universe, a global movement for girls empowerment. She goes around the world and she films the stories of teenage girls. And she supports them as they stand in their stories and pursue their dreams through storytelling, mentorship, and community. Laura and I go back several years, she’s kind of an old friend at this point…my, how time flies! So I’m really excited to share this conversation with you. Now let’s go on to the show.
Oh, my gosh, Laura, it is so great to have you on the Days for Girls Podcast. How are you today?
Laura Pena 1:24
I’m doing great. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast.
Jessica Williams 1:28
Absolutely. So you and I go back. I think now, with the pandemic, it feels like an eternity has passed. But we go back several years at this point, I think, to the day when you spoke at an event that I was running back when I had my own business. And so it’s a real pleasure to bring you into the work that I’m doing now at Days for Girls.
Laura Pena 1:52
Thank you. I’m very excited. When I got your email about this, I was like, yes, please! I would love to catch up and tell you more about what’s been happening since, you know, since we last saw each other. And just like know what you’re up to. And this is great. I love this.
Jessica Williams 2:08
Me too! I know, I’m really excited. Your work is so perfect for this the show because you work with women and girls all over the world. And you tell their stories in such a beautiful way through film. And so I just obviously… like you were just a perfect fit. So yeah, I’m really excited to catch up and hear how things are going. So let’s just start off by like, you know, the pandemic’s happened. Last time I saw you was in Portland, Oregon. Where are you now?
Laura Pena 2:36
Yeah, so since we last saw each other… I was traveling the world interviewing girls for for our show. And then when the pandemic happened, I was in Southeast Asia. So I was doing my tour in Southeast Asia and a few countries around there and Australia. And then I am now in the Dominican Republic, which is where I am from. And so I figure that, you know, I couldn’t travel anymore, because it’s not so easy. And I was being very careful because I’m working with families and girls. And I just came back here, and I’ve been here since.
Jessica Williams 3:17
Awesome. I’m glad you’ve been able to spend this time with family. But we miss you. We miss you in Portland.
Laura Pena 3:22
I know, I miss Portland. I’ll be there soon. I think September I’ll be there for a bit. So good to see you in person.
Jessica Williams 3:32
Yeah, you have to check in with me when you get here. So let’s talk about your career. You know, there’s so many places I want to go. But I just want to first start out a little bit of like, a high level overview of how you got into filmmaking and why girls? Like, why She is the Universe? Let’s start there.
Laura Pena 3:52
Yeah, absolutely. So I have been working on videos, especially specifically doing animation motion graphics for companies, for over… I don’t know, I think almost 20 years. And in the past few years, I started wondering what is it that I came here to do? What’s my purpose in life? And that questioning, that kind of like changed my life. Because when you start you know, asking questions, the answers will come. And my answer was pretty clear. I kind of combined all the things that I really love. And the things that I was like, why are things like this? Why are they… you know, my biggest question was, why are there not more women in positions of leadership around the world? And that questioning brought me back actually to the town where I am right now, in the Dominican Republic, in the town called [inaudible]. And there is an organization here that works with girls. And it’s kind of like an after-school program, empowerment program. I just realized that girls have so much potential, but a lot of the times they don’t have the opportunities that they need. And there’s so many barriers for us to get to those places where we need, you know, we need girls and women the most. And so I decided that I wanted to tell their stories, because we have like these one-dimensional stories, like stories of what girls are. And I wanted to change that. And because I work in media, and that is what you know, my superpower is telling stories that really get to people’s hearts. I really wanted to use my superpowers and my talent to do something that I really do care about. I think we need we need more. Yeah, we need more of that.
Jessica Williams 5:52
Yeah, I agree. 100%. Tell us about the videos, the stories that you tell, for those who who maybe aren’t familiar with your work?
Laura Pena 6:02
Yeah. So I started with the goal of telling the stories of 111 girls, from all over the world. I wanted to cover every continent except Antarctica. And I wanted to have diverse stories of girls from all over the world. And I had a set of questions. But there were two main questions that I was asking: What is your dream? What do you need? What is it that you want to accomplish in life? Or, what kind of things do you want to create or be? And then I asked, What do you need from the world to get to where you want to be in life? And so far, I have interviewed 70 girls. And I’ve launched about – I think there are about seven to eight stories on YouTube. And so we’re still editing and we’re still sharing stories. And yeah, so that’s that, and it’s called She is the Universe video series.
Jessica Williams 7:00
So can you tell us about one of your favorite stories?
Laura Pena 7:04
There’s so many!
Jessica Williams 7:05
I know, it’s hard to choose.
Laura Pena 7:08
So many, so many. But there are… let’s see, you know, every story is also accompanied by the story of me and how I got to each one of them, the girls. But I think a favorite for me that’s coming to mind, is one of…her name is also Laura, or Laura in Spanish. And she is from Colombia. And I was obsessed with like, indigenous culture. Because I come from a country where we don’t – in theory, we don’t have more indigenous here. We are the descendants of the indigenous but we don’t have, you know, like other countries in South America. So I really wanted to share with the world that there are still indigenous communities. And so I was really trying to find someone where I could get access to a girl. And her story really touched my heart, because she lives in this very remote town where she doesn’t really have many opportunities. And just so you know, we tell stories of all kinds of girls, like all socioeconomic backgrounds. But this girl happens to be in a very remote community with no access to real education without actually having to travel really far.
And so her story really touched my heart because someone asked me after…you know, my role here is a filmmaker, I’m just telling their stories. That’s it. I come in, tell their stories, share it with the world. And people will be like, how can I help? And I was like, well, you can help me get to the girls. That didn’t feel like right…everybody was like, but how can we help this girl? And I was like, Well, I don’t really, you know, helping this one girl. I think it’s hard because I don’t want to, you know, it’s a touchy subject there. I’m not selling these stories. I’m not selling them. But I felt like I needed to do something. And so her story really help me understand that I really needed to do something and because of her, we started a scholarship fund. And we already this year started that, and we’ve been supporting five girls to go to university from different countries. And so I think that there’s so many amazing stories, but I think that her story kind of propelled us to go to the next level.
Jessica Williams 9:30
Wow. Okay, so wait a minute – back up. You are sending five girls to university?
Laura Pena 9:35
Yeah, so two girls in the Philippines and then three girls here, one of them is still in high school. So actually two to university in the Philippines and two to university here in the Dominican Republic, and no one going through high school.
Jessica Williams 9:50
Wow, that’s so cool. Oh my goodness. So that kind of cues me up, because one of my questions is… I’ve interviewed several documentary filmmakers who do similar work to you on the on the podcast. And I always ask this question. What is the impact that you feel like telling the stories is doing, or making, for these young girls or these women? Like, how is it making a difference in their lives?
Laura Pena 10:19
Yeah, that’s a really great question. And the question that I think about a lot, because sometimes it’s really hard to measure that as you’re telling stories. But it’s something that we really, really are sure of – that media really transform societies and really transforms people’s minds and changes how you think about something. And so something that I do is everywhere I where I go, I host a screening, and this is with adults, and also with girls and kids. So just seeing how people…one thing is seeing people crying, watching some of these stories, and really seeing how they’re like, wow, that got me in touch with my own…with my own dreams. What was I dreaming when I was that age? What was I doing? And why am I not doing that? So that is a big thing. Because I think that we all were pursuing the things that we really, you know, came here to do. I really believe that we all have gifts that we need to give. If we were doing that, things will really shift for the better.
So just like changing people’s minds, I think is really big. And there’s a lot of this impact that I will probably never know. I know from the stories that I heard, that people reach out back to me, and they tell me about this. But now something that we’re doing is more building community. And so in this, we have really seen a big difference, right. Like, that we can really measure and with the scholarships as well, like that’s a big impact also. But then we’ve seen girls now start their own journeys of activism, for example, through the events that we host and through the films when they watch., They’re like, Oh my God, that’s great. I can do that. I didn’t know I could do that. So I think that that’s also a big thing, but just like changing people’s minds, it’s I think huge and we underestimate that and I think we shouldn’t. Because this is really how, you know, Hollywood is changing our minds all the time. So using using those same things to something that’s like so important right now, I think it’s really powerful.
Jessica Williams 12:25
Do you see some of the impact on the fact that, like, some of these women and girls are being seen in a way that maybe they haven’t been seen before?
Laura Pena 12:35
Yeah, so for example, when I was at your event, something really interesting happened and now I try to replicate that everywhere I go. But the the fact that the girls – so sometimes when I go to an event, I will bring some of the girls that have been part of the films. And at your event, they were celebrities, everybody wanted to talk to them. You know, after these other films, they were like, Oh my God, you’re so incredible. And they will go up to them and even on social media, how people are sharing. And they’re like, Oh, this impacted me so much, this is so great. So it gives them also like that boost and that helps build their confidence, which is something that we’re really lacking in this in this world as well. Women that are confident to pursue the things that they want to do. And so yeah, that’s where I’ve seen that. Increasingly, we host an event here where we did a screening, the first screening in a very long time. And so we had I think about six girls that were part of the film here. And they were really celebrities and everybody, you know, at the end, they were like flying out of this event. And so you can see the impact right there, of how they themselves start shifting how they see themselves once they see themselves through, you know, the eyes of everybody else.
Jessica Williams 13:52
Yeah, I remember that. They were absolutely celebrities and yeah, your films are so captivating. It’s really stellar filmmaking and you have just a really great way of like, capturing their emotions and their facial expressions and the landscape where you are. And they’re short, right? They’re like, what’s the average length of one of your films?
Laura Pena 14:24
Yeah, so they’re from like, three to five minutes, but I have content from each one of those girls…like hours of content because I really spent a lot of time with them. This is why I feel like I can capture like, the essence of who they are in that moment in time. Because I sometimes go and I stay with their families, I will just really spend a lot of time with them. Even before I turn on my camera, like we get to really know each other. I got to really understand what is it that they, you know, who are they at that moment in time. You know, people change a lot.
Jessica Williams 14:58
I met you, I mean gosh, it was 2018, 2019. You and I first connected and then you were at the event in 2019, then the pandemic hit. We’re like two years later, you know, a lot of time has passed. And there’s a lot of focus right now on – which I think is great – on diversity, equity and inclusion. And I know that that’s a big focus of yours as well. Can you talk about some of the the efforts you’re taking to really advance that conversation and lead others into that work?
Laura Pena 15:32
Yeah, absolutely. So one thing that we’ve been doing this past year is we’re hosting an event every other month, where we talk about issues that we should be talking about. And these are hosted by…we’re collaborating with two amazing girls, one from the US and one from the Netherlands. And then, with [names], they both have projects in the climate change space and the kindness space. And [name] who works with women in the Amazon jungle, and then me. And we touch on like, you know, different things. Like the first event was just a general event where we were talking about what we’re going to do; with the second event, people are choosing what the themes are. We have a list, and they choose the order. The first one was mental health. So it was really, the difference between the numbers, they really wanted to talk about that. So you can tell, right, like how much they’re affected, especially now with the pandemic. And so the next one that we have now, this month, is actually about diversity and inclusion.
And so we have a few incredible guest speakers that are just talking about what this means. And this is a very big topic, and we have one hour and a half. And we’ve been struggling because I was like, Oh my god, you know, we’re brainstorming, like, all the minorities. Let’s talk about all the minorities that we want to talk about. Because when we think of inclusion, and diversity, sometimes we only think of race, but there’s so many things that we can talk about. And, you know, we were talking about how there’s just so many to name. But this is something that we take very seriously, diversity and inclusion, equality, equity, in how girls learn. You know, teaching the girls about all these things that are really, right now, things that we need to be addressing. For us, this is why we want to include voices from all over the world. And not only very US-centric, but we want to really expand it. And it’s very hard sometimes because we you could think, oh, but there’s so many different problems happening around the world, like how can you touch on all? But there’s things that are really affecting everybody. And this is what we’re focusing on.
Jessica Williams 17:58
How do you get your funding like your supporters? Talk about a little bit about that.
Laura Pena 18:06
Yeah. So when I started this, and it was the films basically, I opened like a GoFundMe, and then that kind of got me started. And I could see that there’s some potential, and that people actually care about this. So it was my, you know, I self-funded. And then plus the people that were helping that way. And then we got a small grant from an organization called World Domination Summit in in Portland. And then we got some grants, right, we got another grant now for the World Changers event. And that happened this year. And so something that we also have is a Patreon page for people who want to support the girls who we are supporting to go to school. So that happened through that. And now we are in the process of turning this into a nonprofit. And so this is how we hope to continue this, because we want it to be sustainable. Right now, it’s been very volunteer based, like everybody – because we’re online too, it makes it easier. But we really want to take this to the next level. And we’re working on that and for that we need more funding. So people are helping, but now, we have so many ideas of things that we want to create. And donations is a big one, a big part of it. But one thing that we’re super clear on is that we’re creating a lot of programming, we create masterminds, we have mostly girl circles, we have our own platform – kind of like our own social network called The Galaxy – and so for a lot of those things, we really need funding. And this is where we’re kind of just organizing ourselves so we can continue doing this work.
Jessica Williams 19:48
Yeah, if people want to learn more about how to support you, do you have a Patreon page or anything?
Laura Pena 19:54
Yes. So if people go to sheistheuniverse.org, they can find all the information there. There’s a donate page that explains everything. And so that’s the best way to do that. Also, people can find us on Instagram, and you know, directly talk to us there. And that’s @sheistheuniverseproject.
Jessica Williams 20:18
Great, awesome. And you said you’ve got some projects that you are hoping to work on in the future? Can you tell us about it?
Laura Pena 20:25
Yeah. So something that we’ve been really focused is on building community, right? Like, we had all these girls that were following our Instagram account. And now we’re like, Okay, what can we create for them? Especially with the pandemic, right? Like, how can we build community? How can we support them through this time in history? And so that’s when we started our girl circles. That’s a big part of what we do. Which, every month, we gather and talk about different themes that we care about, and we check in with each other and we, you know, we celebrate each other. We talk about our struggles. We also have – we do masterminds for the girls that have projects that they need support with, because a lot of the girls have their own things. Like they started some businesses, some movement, some girls are just teaching what they know. So we’re supporting them in that part as well.
And we have many ideas for things that we want to create, that have to do with helping them advancing the things that they want to learn, right. Like, we have in our platform, we have about I think 80 girls in our platform right now, that apply to be in this platform. It’s a very beautiful process of learning about themselves as they apply for this. And so in that, we ask them, What is it that they need? So we have a lot of data about what kind of things they are interested in. And you know, a lot of it is leadership, they want to learn, they all want to learn so much. So we’re working with our own communities and finding who can teach them these things that they want to learn from our own neck, we’re starting there. And so we’re always looking also for people to teach different things.
Lately, they’ve been talking a lot about financial literacy. They’re like, how come nobody taught me this? So we’re finding all kinds of like, you know, looking for all kinds of teachers and people who want to come in and offer this to them. And this is all, you know, we don’t charge girls. Some of the girls, of course, they can pay for it. But we wanted this to be free for the girls, always. So this is why we also need to find other ways to make this sustainable. But this is, you know, so many projects we’re working on behind the scenes. Another thing that we started doing this year is having the girls take more leadership in different roles in the organization. And so the girls are leading the circles. Now we have this new project that’s called Te La Presento, which is “Let me introduce you to…” which is an Instagram Live of the girls interviewing each other. Girls that have projects that we should know about, businesses that we should know about. So yeah, many, many things in the works, and many things happening. So yeah, it’s great. It’s so much fun.
Jessica Williams 23:19
That’s awesome. Yeah. So I’m curious how this work has impacted your own life. You’ve been doing this for how long now?
Laura Pena 23:28
Yeah, so full time. Full time. I’ve been doing this for the past three years, I started working on it in 2016 but really full-on three years ago. Yeah, it’s changed my entire life. I don’t even know who I was before this. This is what I think about all the time. This is what I dream about doing. You know, I think that I’m healing my own 13 year old, little Laura that probably didn’t feel heard or seen, that felt that she was invisible, that she didn’t exist, and nobody cared about what she had to say. And I think that by giving them a platform, so they can use their voice – because they do have a voice, so I’m not giving them anything. They do have it, but by creating this for them, I’m also creating it for myself. You know, for myself in the past that really needed this. So yeah, it’s changed my entire life.
Jessica Williams 24:30
You know, I did a TEDx talk, like a salon talk back in 2016 or something. And that was exactly what my talk was about. Which was that our creative work, or our entrepreneurial endeavors, can heal ourselves. It can be healing, and it certainly sounds like this has been that for you.
Laura Pena 24:53
Absolutely. It’s been great. I mean, just meeting all of the girls. It’s incredible. One of the things that we also, is for the World Changers, we have mini grants. So we award $100 for girls to start their own projects. And it’s been incredible. Just learning about all of these things that girls want to do. That is, you know, it gives me a lot of hope. And it gives me even more desire to continue doing this. So yeah, it can heal.
Jessica Williams 25:27
It absolutely can. So do you think you’re gonna stay in the Dominican Republic for a while longer?
Laura Pena 25:33
Yeah, I think so. You know, at the moment, I still – even though people are traveling, I don’t think I can travel with the project right now. And we want to continue, you know, getting the community stronger, continuing having the girls to take more ownership on everything that we’re doing. And so I think that staying in one place for longer, it’s a good idea. And I love Portland, but because of the pandemic, I think being close to family is what I feel called to do and I love this town. This is a tiny town on the beach, like right now I’m looking at the ocean while I’m talking to you. And the community is great, there’s so much happening here. And yeah, I think I’m gonna stay here. I’ll come back for the youth to the US. Like I’m going to be in the US for the next two months. And so, you know, I still have a lot of people in Portland, in New York. So I’ll come back and forth. But this is now where – my luggage leaves in a closet here. Which is great. It’s great to have the same bed for a while.
Jessica Williams 26:41
Oh, yeah, I know how that is. So Laura, you how many videos have you done now?
Laura Pena 26:52
Um, so I think about eight or more for the stories. I’ve done a lot of videos that are just for different events. But yeah, so something that’s also in the back of my mind – there’s so much content that I’m also working on a documentary, that’s going to take more time. But there’s so much that I want to talk about from all of the things that I’ve seen from the girls. But yeah, so film, we have 70 stories. And the only continent that we haven’t been to is Africa. That was supposed to be last year.
Jessica Williams 27:33
Do you think you’re gonna make it to Africa?
Laura Pena 27:34
Oh, yes. A lot of a lot of the girls from our community now are in different countries in Africa, and they’re very excited. I’m sure that I will go and visit them. I will start there.
Jessica Williams 27:43
Yeah. Well, if we can help connect you to anyone, we have a large presence there.
Laura Pena 27:49
Yes, that would be amazing.
Jessica Williams 27:51
For people who want to watch your videos, where do they go to do that?
Laura Pena 27:55
Yeah, they can go to – we have a YouTube channel. So people can just go to YouTube and look for She is the Universe. They’ll find all the videos there.
Jessica Williams 28:06
Okay, great. And we’ll put that in the in the show notes. And if people want to connect with you, what’s your website address?
Laura Pena 28:12
Yeah, so for She is the Universe, it’s just sheistheuniverse.org. And then people on Instagram, it’s @sheistheuniverseproject.
Jessica Williams 28:23
Awesome, very cool. And I am just going to give a quick shout out. Like, you are an amazing, you have an amazing stage presence. And showing these videos is a really compelling multimedia thing to do at an event. They’re gorgeous. And then the stories are really inspiring. And so if you’re listening, and you have an event, and you want to share those stories, contact Laura. Because they’re amazing, they’re so nice.
Laura Pena 28:52
Please do. One of my favorite things is to come and speak to people about the stories. There’s so many. And also show like, I’m looking also to show more of the stories at school. So I have a film of all of them together. If people want to do that, if they want to bring this to their own places, they can do that, too. They can bring me too, but they can also bring the storie,s too.
Jessica Williams 29:16
Awesome. Very cool. Laura, thanks so much for your time and coming on the show.
Laura Pena 29:21
Yeah, thank you so much for this. This has been a lot of fun, thanks!
Jessica Williams 29:25
The Days for Girls Podcast is produced by Days for Girls International. For show notes and resources mentioned in this episode, visit daysforgirls.org/podcast. If you’d like to support the work we do on the show, leave a rating or a review wherever you listen, subscribe to the show, and share our episodes on social media or with your friends. To learn more about Days for Girls and to join our global movement, please visit daysforgirls.org. Thank you for listening. See you next time.