Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run International: How to live a big, unapologetic life through life’s lessons

Molly Barker is an American educator, triathlete and social visionary. She is best known as the founder of Girls on the Run. We reached out to her after our work with Girls on the Run Elkhart and Girls on the Run Kent County to Molly founded the organization in 1996 with thirteen girls in Charlotte, NC. Since then, thanks to thousands of volunteers, supporters and staff, the organization has expanded to every state in the US and has served over 2.25 million girls.

Since leaving the organization in 2013, Molly has gone on to do lots of things. She has worked on Capitol Hill, traveled across the country listening to people share their stories, wrote some books, founded another organization that teaches the art of profound listening, advocated (and still does) for people experiencing home and food insecurity, and launched two awesome kids.


Since founding Girls on the Run International 27 years ago, I’ve met hundreds of kids. To say I have learned a lot from them is an understatement.  

1. Several years back, I was attending a Girls on the Run 5k event.  The last finisher to complete the 5k and I were walking toward the refreshment area together.  Her name was Catherine.

“So how did it go today, Catherine?  How did you feel?” I asked.

She looked up at me, rolled her eyes, and said, “Seriously?  I was last.”

“I saw that,” I said.

We walked for a few steps in silence and then she said,

“BUT I learned something very important about myself today.”

“What did you learn?” I asked.

“I learned that I’m very, very bad at running. So bad in fact, that I probably will never run another step ever again in my entire lifetime.”

“Okay,” I said, thinking to myself, not quite the goal we had in mind for Girls on the Run participants.

And then she continued, “I also learned that I am a really, really good walker, and I can do that for the rest of my life.”

We got some ice cream and fruit, laughed out loud and talked about growing up, feeling good and starting a program called Girls on the Walk.

The lesson? Sometimes in all that tension between trying to figure out what is really us and what is us just trying to fit in, we have to step outside our comfort zone and do things that show us what we are, by showing us what we are not. Like our friend Catherine did.   

2. And then there was that time during a Girls on the Run season, when one of our girls lost her mom to breast cancer, and when she got there, she cried and cried and cried in front of us and we skipped the workout for that day, to just mourn with her.

The lesson being that sometimes being ourselves means being vulnerable and crying in front of people, letting them love us and our big sloppy sad tears.

3. Each season, the girls in the program complete a community impact project.  This particular group decided to create holiday greeting cards for people living in the retirement community across the street from their school.  After loading up some construction paper with puffy glue, sequins, paint, and yarn, we sat down to marvel at our cards before taking them across the street.  Flipping through, I finally came to Jade’s card… and on the cover was a beautiful angel with the words “Happy Holidays” written across the top and when I opened the card, Jade had written the words, “May You Rest in Peace.”

We took the card and the person who got it, laughed, and laughed, and thought it was the best thing she’d ever seen.

The takeaway?  Usually, and I want to stress USUALLY, because it doesn’t always happen, when our heart is in the right place and we are bringing our authentic selves forward to a project, people really appreciate that, even if the messaging is a little bit off. 

4.  That time my daughter, while in third grade, decided that she was too tired to run during the big season-ending Girls on the Run 5k and so she just laid down in the middle of the road, at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Morehead Street.  As a sidenote, it’s amazing how a 40-pound human can suddenly weigh 250 pounds, when they are channeling a sack of potatoes.  We decided as a team that it was okay if she needed to rest and so everyone else just ran around her. Eventually she finished.

The message, of course is, that life can be hard sometimes. And self-care matters.  Taking time to rest, sleep, nourish ourselves with healthy foods…these things fuel us and make us more available to bring our whole selves forward. 

5. Remembering third-grade Victoria, who somehow magically had a dragonfly land on her arm during a Girls on the Run 5k and how she decided that finishing the race with the dragonfly on her arm was way more important than running the race, even though she was the fastest runner on her team and had the potential of winning the whole thing.  Slowing to a baby-step stroll, she eventually completed the three-mile course in about 1.5 hours with the dragonfly still there.  The smile on her face was bigger than California and her teammates thought this feat was truly amazing.

The takeaway as you can well imagine is this:  Sometimes in the middle of doing something that will bring you lots of awards and recognition, you discover something that actually brings you joy.  So do that, the thing that brings you joy, because that’s where your real self lives.

6. I was visiting with a group of girls, when right smack in the middle of my talk, 8-year-old Sarah shouted out to the entire group of about 30 girls, because she could just no longer contain this information, that she could communicate with squirrels.  I sat there for a moment unsure of where this heartfelt revelation was taking us, when Amber, another third grader at the event, shouted, “Seriously?  That’s amazing! How do you do that?”  And Sarah told us.

And what I learned from this?  We all have superpowers!  And sometimes those superpowers will seem weird to other people and sometimes they will be celebrated.  But whatever yours are, use them, because they are uniquely yours, and you don’t want your superpowers to go to waste. 

7. A few years back, a team of Girls on the Run girls invited me to one of their practices, an opportunity I will always take if offered.  As I approached the group, I noticed one girl, I later learned her name was Nicole, looking me up and down.  “Hi,” I said.  Nicole, clearly a leader of the group, cocked her hip, put her hands on each one, and then said quite boldly, “Are you Molly Barker, the founder of Girls on the Run?”  “Yes.  Why yes I am!” Nicole continued, “Well, girl, you don’t look anything like your pictures.” I’m not sure if I smiled or what, but then she said, “But that’s okay, we learned last week in lesson 18 that they photoshop and filter all those pictures anyway.”

The lesson here, of course, is it’s so easy nowadays to compare ourselves to the not real images and filters we see on social media.  I mean I get it!  But the truth is, no one’s life is perfect or as it seems on social media.  In fact, life is messy and scary sometimes and the truth is…the people who really matter are the people who love you just the way you are, unfiltered, imperfect, and totally yourself.

And then, last but not least, that time when Caroline fell during the Girls on the Run 5k in Chicago, and Nakia ran over to help her, and instead of continuing to run the event, Nakia walked with Caroline the whole way instead. 

And the lesson? Maybe the most important one of all. Our true nature is to help others when they are hurt or hungry or in need of something.  At the core of our true selves, lies compassion and love, but sadly compassion and love sometimes get covered up by competition, fear, and separation.  But the truth is, love is what we bring into the world. Love is what we are. So be that. Be love.