As a high school student in Kitchener, Ont., Aminka Belvitt was often the only person of colour in her class. She wanted to attend student leadership conferences, but she had to go looking for those opportunities herself.
"They were never given to the black students in my school," she said. "I'd have to search for things online, take it to my principal and [ask] 'Hey can you support me?'"
Belvitt was steered away from taking pre-university courses, too, but once she realized that, she steered herself back towards them, winning scholarships and graduating from universities in Ottawa and Montreal.
The struggle she had as a teen to be regarded as a future leader is what drove Belvitt to create For Us Girls — programs to empower marginalized young women and help them learn leadership skills.
"I never wanted another girl to go through that, having to fight," she said.
Non-binary teens and those in transition are welcome and have participated in her programs, too.
Belvitt was recently recognized by the Women's Y Foundation of Montreal, which presented her with an award for entrepreneurship. It recognizes her for her work as founder of the Montreal-based non-profit, For Us Girls, as well as her own start-up, WofemTech Solutions, and A New Reality — a tech summit for girls in New York City.
"Aminka is an amazing, dedicated woman," said Rachel Biberian of the Women's Y Foundation. "She has a strong will. She has a big heart. She launched many initiatives to empower women."
'Her confidence is contagious'
Rachel Campbell first learned about For Us Girls when she was 16. A teacher at her high school distributed pamphlets about a project called C for Coding, a weekend club organized by For Us Girls where girls learn computer programming skills.
After years of enduring bullying and racist remarks in elementary school, Rachel was in a high school where she no longer stood out from the crowd — but she felt lost.
Belvitt radiated confidence, and meeting her through C for Coding was a turning point for Campbell.
"That confidence was so contagious that I felt comfortable just being who I am," she said.
At another For Us Girls program, a seven-week leadership and entrepreneurship training course for young women of colour, Campbell developed a plan for her own start-up — a clothing company that caters to anyone who feels excluded, for any reason.
"I'm not skinny, so I definitely want to [offer] the plus sizes or even the extra, extra small sizes so everybody could feel included," she said.
That program, called Young Global Leaders, encourages participants to be social entrepreneurs whose work reflects at least one of the United Nations' sustainable development goals.
With that in mind, Campbell drafted a business plan that includes offering youth workshops on body image and donating 10 percent of profits to a suicide prevention program.
She says the mentoring she received from Belvitt taught her about branding and how to target markets. But more importantly, Campbell, now 18, has learned to love herself.
"I'm grateful, very grateful," she said.
'I want to be her'
Tingxuan Echo Jiang, another graduate of the Young Global Leaders program, has been inspired by Belvitt and how much she has done for girls and young women.
"I want to be her in 10 years, 20 years," says Jiang, an international student from China, who came to Canada on her own at 15 and is now in her second year at Dawson College.
"I had zero connections in Montreal," she said. "Everything was new."
She discovered For Us Girls Foundation when she was assigned to do an internship there during her first year at Dawson.
Later, when she became a participant in the entrepreneurship program, Jiang created a business plan for an app that monitors the expiry dates of food in your fridge, suggests recipes using that food, and minimizes waste.
Jiang said she is determined to make that plan a reality and now sees herself as more than "just a student."
"I could really change the world. I could be a global leader," she said.
Coming up with a plan
Danielle Cayabyab, another participant, has no plans of becoming an entrepreneur, but she says the skills she learned in the program still changed her life.
She moved to Montreal from the Philippines last year and was still adjusting to life here when a friend told her about the Young Global Leaders program.
Cayabyab was studying nursing and wanted to transfer into a psychology program, but she was afraid to tell her parents, who expected her to eventually study medicine.
Danielle says using the skills she learned at For Us Girls, she prepared an education plan with a timeline and presented it to her parents. To her surprise, her parents have been very supportive.
For Belvitt, any time a young woman grows in confidence equals success.
She is now going back to the town she grew up in, taking For Us Girls back to Kitchener, and setting up the same programs there that she established in Montreal.
She takes her inspiration from the words of Barack and Michelle Obama: "When you get through the door, make sure you go back and bring others along with you."