Amy Brenengen does not play princess. "Princesses are just waiting around for a prince to rescue them," she said. "My daughter knows how I feel."

"We talk about princesses and Barbie all the time," she continued. "Alice even tells people, 'My mom doesn't like princesses.'"

But just because her mom doesn't like them, 5-year-old Alice doesn't see anything wrong with royalty. A few weeks ago, Brenengen said, she and Alice were in the car. Alice was playing princess in the back seat when Brenengen stepped in with her tagline: You know how I feel about princesses.

"Yes, Mom," Alice sassed. "But in case you haven't noticed, there're aren't any princes around." Telling the story, Brenengen laughed before turning serious. "Alice is more able to say 'This is just play,' whereas I'm always saying, 'Remember about princesses. Remember about Barbie.'"

"Anyone can lead"
Even though she is relieved to know that Alice can differentiate between make-believe and reality, Brenengen isn't likely to let down her princess guard anytime soon. For Brenengen, it's not enough that Alice, a new kindergartner, and 3-year-old son, Andrew, grow up knowing they can pursue whichever career they choose. She wants to teach them they have what it takes to be leaders.

Brenengen can trace her passion for leadership education to the spring of 1991. At the time, she was a senior at the College of Saint Benedict. The school organized a panel discussion on student leadership. Because she was student body vice president, Brenengen was one of the speakers. "We were supposed to talk about what it was like to be a student leader," she explained. "One of my fellow students asked me a question. She said, 'Why are you there and I'm here? What is the difference between us?'"

"Nothing," Brenengen answered. The encounter, however, put Brenengen onto a path that would soon become her passion. "Here was this young woman," Brenengen said, "that for some reason didn't get the message, 'You can do whatever you want.' I became really frustrated with women's issues, gender stuff, lack of self-esteem, lack of empowerment. Actually, it started pissing me off. That's when I became really interested in teaching leadership to girls."

After collecting her diploma, Brenengen enrolled in Hamline University's Graduate of Liberal Studies program. The Individual and Society degree emphasis was a perfect fit for Brenengen, allowing her the freedom to set her focus of study. Brenengen's focus? How to use leadership to build self-esteem in adolescent girls.

Girls and careers
While working on her graduate degree, she accepted a job with the YWCA of St. Paul in the Career Action Program. "The program was supposed to expose girls to leadership and career options," Brenengen said. "There was all this material for girls and sports and [for] girls and science, but there wasn't much on girls and career development."

Title IX, Brenengen explained, helped focus national attention on girls and sports, which is something professional athletes can get behind and support. Likewise, industries have taken a look at their own personnel needs and gotten girls involved in sciences. On the other hand, she said, "Career development really is life planning. And that's so big. It's hard to wrap your arms around."

Planning a career path takes sequencing skills, Brenengen explained, and today's girls need help sorting choices, understanding logical steps, and charting a plan. For example, to win a scholarship that will help pay for college, a girl needs to earn consistent grades in high school. To ensure acceptance at the school of her choice, a girl needs extra-curricular and leadership activities to put on her college application, whether those activities include a position on the yearbook staff, a season as swim-team captain, or a summer as a camp counselor. Brenengen's quest for a career development curriculum to use with her YWCA girls led her to WomenVenture and its growing GirlVenture program, which helped girls plan for their futures by teaching them basic money management and leadership skills. Brenengen liked the mission of GirlVenture so much she started working as a consultant for the program in 1996. Three years later, she went to work with GirlVenture full time. She also joined the Minnesota Girls Coalition.

"If girls had the opportunity to get involved in a program that exposed them to career options, their eyes would be opened," Brenengen said. "They would be much more aware much earlier of the career options available to them."

"We've come a long way in society as to what men and women can do, the roles they can fill, but we still have a long way to go," she continued. "For working women, it used to be the big three-teacher, nurse or secretary. Now, it's the big 10, or maybe the big 20. Now, when I ask girls what they want to be, lots of them say 'actress' or 'beautician,'" Brenengen said. "Maybe one out of every 10 girls will say something like 'marine biologist,' but not nearly enough." Sadly, shortly after her full-time move to WomenVenture, girls' programming suffered budget cuts. "The recession happened, 9/11 happened. There just wasn't funding available," she said. Instead of leaving WomenVenture, an organization she believes in, Brenengen took on the role she currently holds: director of workforce development. The title is an umbrella that covers four initiatives. GirlVenture continues to be one program Brenengen coordinates. She also runs a financial literacy program at WomenVenture, along with a third program aimed at involving women in the trades, and a fourth program offering career counseling for women changing fields or re-entering the workforce after divorce or child rearing.

Which hat am I wearing?
Brenengen admits her multifaceted job requires juggling. "There is a lot of work involved," she said. "I have different roles at work and different roles at home. Sometimes I have to ask myself, 'Where am I? Which hat am I wearing?'"

Flexibility helps Brenengen maintain her daily responsibilities. "I'm going to go and volunteer in my daughter's classroom on Friday mornings," Brenengen explained, "and I can do that because I'll make up the work time in the evenings or on the weekend. The people I work with are so great. We acknowledge that we're all whole people with lives outside of work and we back each other up if one of us needs to be gone." Her husband, Matt, she said, helps her maintain a flexible schedule as well. His job allows for flexible time too, which works great for their family and their personalities.

"Flexibility is a strength for me," Brenengen said. The youngest of seven children, she points to her childhood as the reason she is able to track various passions at once. "I have four brothers and two sisters. Growing up, they were all engaged in different activities," she added. "Taking an interest in all of my siblings made me a curious learner. I had to become a Jill of all trades just to keep up with them.

"One of the things I love about my life right now," Brenengen laughed, "is the flexibility. My life's kinda messy, but I love it."

Metro-area freelance writer Kelly Westhoff last wrote about the Women's Environmental Institute for the Minnesota Women's Press.