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Starfish » Her Infinite Impact

We believe in empowerment, equality, and opportunity for all. We are contributing to the global movement for gender equity and girls’ education by unlocking and maximizing the potential of young women to lead transformational change.



Our Mission

Starfish unlocks and maximizes the potential of young women to lead transformational change.


Learn more about Starfish:




Our Model



Our model is simple: we work with young women from low-income, traditionally marginalized communities who have the talent and desire to succeed but lack access to opportunity. Through an intentional, holistic program, we provide access to education, intensive support from peers and mentors, and a diverse knowledge base to ensure that each young woman can realize her full potential and create systemic change.

We call the young women in our program “Girl Pioneers” because they are truly trailblazers. As the first women in their families, and often their communities, to study past the second grade, they are on an unprecedented trajectory. Intensive mentoring is crucial for long-term success—the Girl Pioneers can look to their mentors (young indigenous women from the same circumstances) as examples of perseverance on an otherwise unknown journey.

The result: Starfish Girl Pioneers are overcoming previously insurmountable obstacles to earn an education and empower themselves as leaders in Guatemala and on the global stage, thereby unlocking the power of the “Girl Effect.”

At Starfish our goal is to innovate high-impact responses that equip each Girl Pioneer with the skills to blaze a new trail and become part of the first generation of female outliers. This is in stark contrast to traditional approaches to development.

The result? Our Girl Pioneers are far surpassing several generations of otherwise incremental change. We believe our approach will propel and inspire countless others to do the same.


Program elements are defined below:



At Starfish our goal is to innovate high-impact responses that equip each Girl Pioneer with the skills to blaze a new trail and become part of the first-generation female outliers. This approach is in stark contrast to traditional approaches to development.
girl-pioneer-icon-04The result? Our Girl Pioneers are far surpassing several generations of otherwise incremental change. And we believe our approach will propel and inspire countless others to do the same.







Starfish Impact School

For an indigenous young woman in rural Guatemala, accessing a quality education is a rare feat. According to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, only 44 percent of women in Guatemala are enrolled in secondary school. For indigenous women, this statistic is even more startling—only 10 percent of indigenous girls who live in rural communities are enrolled in secondary school, and less than one percent continue on to university.

The average Mayan teenage girl in Guatemala has obtained only 3.5 years of education, and the average Mayan adult only 2.5 years.

Since 2008, Starfish has operated a successful wraparound program—thus far, 130 Starfish Girl Pioneers have graduated from high school, with 57 percent of past graduates enrolled in university or taking classes and 85 percent employed outside the home. While graduates of our current program have reached incredible heights academically and socially, the implications of the severely substandard Guatemalan educational system are noticeable. Nationally, only 10 percent of high school graduates meet international standards of literacy, and only 8.5 percent reach the standards of math comprehension (Guatemalan Ministry of Education). Schools in rural Guatemala lack both quality and quantity. These debilitating factors severely impede each young woman’s ability to realize her full potential as a productive employee, social changemaker, and leader.

To address this issue, Starfish has embarked on a new journey to launch our first all-girl secondary school in January 2017. We believe that by combining our intentional, holistic program with highly trained educators and a rigorous academic model, our Girl Pioneers will have the opportunity to truly realize their infinite impact.

The Starfish Impact School will begin with a cohort of 40 carefully selected seventh-grade students from Sololá and will expand by one grade level each year, through 12th grade. Though our mission and measurable objectives will remain identical to those of our current wraparound program, we have identified seven core competencies that will serve as a Girl Pioneer’s passport to access the opportunities of the 21st century:

– Academic excellence

– Critical thinking

– Growth mindset

– Intercultural communication

– Resiliency

– Self-advocacy

– Vocal empowerment

To learn more about how you can engage with the development of the Starfish Impact School, please contact Jo French at


University Access

In the effort to answer the question “How far can she go?” and reach our goal of ensuring that each Girl Pioneer obtains 15+ years of education, Starfish provides support to every girl who wishes to pursue post-secondary educational opportunities.

Through the Quetzal Fund (QF), launched by Ted and Connie Ning in February 2015, Starfish provides full-ride university scholarships to many of the top 10 percent of Starfish graduates. The mission of this fund is to ensure that high-achieving Starfish students can pursue post-secondary education, regardless of their economic circumstances. We aim to prepare young women to become agents of change in their communities, their country, and our world.

In addition to the Quetzal Fund, we partner with a range of organizations—She’s the First, Progressa, and FEPMaya—to provide external university scholarships to all Starfish students who wish to pursue post-secondary educational opportunities. We employ a full-time staff member who works one on one with Girl Pioneers to navigate the complexity of scholarship applications and university enrollment.

In 2015, 15 Girl Pioneers received full-ride scholarships to attend university through the Quetzal Fund and our partner organizations. If you wish to make a direct contribution to our university scholarship program, please click here. If you prefer to send a check, please make a note that your donation is restricted to “university scholarships.” Thank you for your support!


Economic Participation

Starfish aims to ensure that our graduates find employment in the formal sector and earn more than the per capita annual income in Guatemala ($3,500/year) after graduating from high school. In order to reach these goals, we support our students and graduates through formal internships.

Nothing informs career direction more than firsthand experience. However, Girl Pioneers come from families that lack both experience in the formal job sector and the networks to support their daughter’s job search. Starfish coaches address this need by matching Girl Pioneers with paid three- to six-month internships with other social impact organizations. Partner organizations with larger organizational capacity often cover the cost of the entire internship salary (typically $125/month). When Starfish works with partner organizations that have smaller budgets, we will often cover half or all of the cost of the internship wage.

Of the 30 internships completed by high school students and graduates in 2015, roughly 85 percent were carried out in local NGOs, schools, or health clinics. Several high school graduates who completed internships in 2015 were invited to extend their internships or accept formal salaried positions.

Also, through our New Horizons program, Starfish graduates who wish to launch their own businesses have access to trainings and guidance from our full-time small business consultant. The Starfish consultant guides graduates through every step of the process and connects them with opportunities for seed funding. To date, Starfish graduates have opened and continue to operate seven small businesses, several of which focus primarily on social entrepreneurship.

We look forward to assisting graduates as they continue to find formal employment in 2016!






What is the meaning of Starfish?

The name Starfish is inspired by the parable of the starfish, stemming from our belief in the importance of helping the individual. But, our mission isn’t to help just one “starfish” – it’s to help many, and therefore improve the lives of an entire population. To us, that is true impact.

Why did you drop “One-by-One”?

While we started our mission with focus on the girls of Starfish, we quickly realized that our impact was far greater than helping just these individuals. Our impact would and should effect their families and their communities. As we’ve grown as an organization, we realized “one-by-one” was too limiting for our mission and superfluous to our name.

When was the organization founded?

Starfish was founded in 2007 by Ted and Connie Ning and Mimi Schlumberger. In the relatively short time of our operations, we have seen substantial and positive changes occur for our girls, their families, and their communities.

Why Girls?
By educating and empowering girls in rural communities, the impact to their communities is undeniable. Global data of the “girl effect” supports this time and again. Indicators pertaining to the health, education, economic development, environment and civic population all improve when young women have sustained access to and success in school.

Starfish is singularly focused on unlocking the girl potential for communities in Guatemala. We believe that by changing the lives of the indigenous girl population of this generation, we will create catalysts for reverse to the embedded cycle of poverty for generations to come.

Why Guatemala?
Naturally stunning and culturally rich, the economic and social indicators of extreme poverty, illiteracy, gender equality and disease within Guatemala are among the worst in the hemisphere. The contrast of beauty and struggle are striking.

Among half of the 14 million Guatemalan people are Mayan – a traditional culture that has endured civil war, extreme poverty and desolate living conditions for generations. Mayans, especially women and girls, are at the bottom of the social ladder. It is arguably the hardest place to unlock the Girl Effect in the hemisphere, but we are showing it is possible. Starfish believes that with access to the right educational resources and support, Mayan women will lead the way out of this state of poverty.

What are your key strategies?
Since 2008, Starfish has employed the use of an intensive wrap-around program that supports a Girl Pioneer as she goes to, through and beyond secondary school. A full-time mentor is the linchpin of this intervention, and she stewards the empowerment and education of 15 Girl Pioneers and their families. This strategy has worked: annually 95 percent of Girl Pioneers are academically successful.

Yet the shortcomings of Guatemala’s schools – particularly those in rural areas – cannot be ignored. Frustrated by our limited ability to influence systemic reform (but incredibly inspired by powerful models of innovation elsewhere), Starfish is now in the intensive planning phase of launching the first of what will be a network of all-girl secondary schools that will open in 2017.

Where can I find information about Starfish Impact?
We measure the impact of our program in a variety of ways – for the girls, their families and their communities. For the girls, we have created a customized Monitoring & Evaluation system that allows us to track their progress, successes and future opportunities. Our overarching goal is to empower her to empower. On an ongoing basis, we review our progress towards our four organizational goals that demonstrate this. We realize that we are at the beginning of our journey and confident that our list of achievements will be ever-growing.

What results best show your success?
We believe that the data on our 3 graduating classes (2011-2013) demonstrate that the Starfish girls are on a different trajectory than previous generations:
-Over 50% are enrolled in university (versus less than 1% nationally)
-Over 90% are employed outside the home (versus 0% among their mothers)
-Average years schooling is 12+ (versus less than 2 among their mothers)
-Average age when graduates marry cannot yet be calculated because none have married (versus age 18 among their mothers)

By the end of 2015, we will have 140 graduates.

What is next for Starfish?
On our immediate horizon is a bold initiative that goes right to the question “How far could she go?” Guatemala’s lackluster education system is no secret, especially to us. Starfish is currently in the design phase of its own secondary school that would fuse the core elements of Academics, Community and Culture in a uniquely engaging environment. Start date for our first group of 7th graders is 2017. Stay tuned.

How can I get involved?
Your involvement is important to us and there are many ways that you can help – monetarily, in-kind donations, volunteering, learning more. You can contribute directly via our website under the Get Involved section. Or, if it’s easier, please email us at We’d love to hear from you.

What is the most useful non-financial contribution I can make?
We accept a range of non-financial contributions – in-kind donations, workplace matching donations, stock donations, frequent flier miles, life insurance, vehicle donations and volunteering to name a few. Please contact us at to discuss your specific interests.

Do you accept in-kind donations?
Yes, definitely. Please email to discuss.

Who can I contact about traveling to Guatemala?
We love when our supporters are interested in a hands-on experience with our program. Please email to discuss upcoming trips.

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