“It’s a simple thing: when we put on clothes we like, we feel good… When we put on an outfit we love, we feel empowered”
Allyson Ahlstrom, a senior in Wharton studying Real Estate and Finance, is far from being just another college student. Not only does she juggle classes, extracurriculars, and social activities like the rest of us, she also devotes a significant amount of her time to developing Threads for Teens, a non-profit organization that she founded seven years ago. At age 14, a time when most teenagers are busy navigating the beginning of high school, Allyson was inspired to help her community after reading the book Generation Change. A few days later, a full idea came together with a logo and a name: Threads for Teens would provide deserving girls in need with brand-new head-to-toe outfits.
Initially, Allyson sent letters to over 300 companies and stores to ask for clothing donations. Much of her funding came from the kindness of corporate partners: after leveraging her own connections and warm leads, eventually brands like Moroccan Oil began to reach out to her too. Since those humble beginnings of helping 13 girls, Threads for Teens has grown into a full-time clothing boutique in Santa Rosa, California. Today, this location is run by girls who are seniors in high school, with another affiliate store in Minnesota and a few national pop-ups.
To date, the organization has received over $400,000 in monetary contributions and clothing donations, and has impacted more than 5,000 girls. For three summers in a row, Threads for Teens even hit the road to tour the 48 contiguous states in a pink mobile boutique! Keep reading to learn more about how Allyson has combined both her social impact goals with her college life.
How did you discover your passion for helping young women who had been part of the foster care system? How did you come up with the solution of selling clothes?
I always wanted to make a difference, so I thought about causes that mattered to me. I had a friend in foster care and grew up reading the Chicken Soup for the Kid’s Soul book series which talked about the foster care system. I was also always passionate about fashion and wanted to combine that interest with a cause I cared about. I decided to target young girls because I was a teenager when I started Threads for Teens and wanted to help people my age.
What has been the most meaningful experience that you have had through Threads for Teens?
The most meaningful experience was meeting a girl named Alice in Detroit. I told Alice about Threads for Teens and my story, not thinking much about the impact it could have. When I came back to Detroit a year later, Alice told me she had been so inspired by my initiative that she worked hard and had received a scholarship for college! This story is so incredible because most foster care kids do not go to college, and only 2% actually graduate. I was so thrilled to be able to have an impact on Alice’s life and be a part of helping her continue her education.
Can you speak about the girl empowerment summits that you hosted during the tours?
The day starts with a panel of local businesswomen who identify with the girls’ backgrounds. These women from foster care or similar backgrounds talk about how they achieved success. Next, we organize a workshop that teaches girls how to dress for interviews. Afterwards, we usually split them into two groups and have sessions on makeup and hair.
As a social enterprise, how do you measure your impact?
I measure the number of girls who come to the events, boutiques, and stores. I also conduct more qualitative surveys to see how my programs affect girls and see if they have influenced the girls to try something different or new.
What advice do you have for young girls who want to make a difference?
If everyone does a little, no one has to do a lot. You can make a big difference by volunteering a few times a month. Age is just a number– don’t let it become a mental barrier. Develop your skills and knowledge and then use them to help organizations that need your talents.
You must be wondering how Allyson has managed to grow Threads for Teens while being an incredibly busy college student. She told us that it is undeniably difficult to maintain balance, and that it certainly took her a long time to realize that Threads for Teens was a full-time job. During her time at Penn, she held leadership positions in Wharton Women, the MUSE Marketing Club, the Class Board of 2017, the Wharton Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Club and even served as social chair of her sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha. Succeeding in all of these activities required “crazy daily scheduling and a prioritized to-do list”. However, Allyson’s advice for us is to really get invested in one club you truly care about, starting out in an entry level position and then building up to serving on the board.
What personal characteristics of yours have been most helpful in this journey?
Relentlessness. There are going to be a lot of people who say no, but there’s also always going to be another opportunity. Everything is going to turn out well if you care about the work that you’re doing. (You can learn more in her TEDx talk)
Furthermore, Penn has supported me and definitely changed me throughout this journey. My sorority supported me with a prom dress drive at the Inn at Penn, and my friends also volunteered to help. Similarly, the alumni network has been a great resource and opened many doors.
Threads for Teens has made me more responsible, and has allowed me to better consider how to achieve my goals in life. I definitely want to leave a legacy.
What are your post graduation plans and what role does Threads for Teens play in them?
I am planning on giving Threads for Teens a year of full, undivided attention. I want to make it self-sustaining, hire the right people, work on fundraising, and develop/professionalize the curriculum. After all of this is up and running, I plan on getting a job and overseeing the operations for Threads for Teens maybe as a board member.
Written by Julia Bache (W’ 19), Lydia Chen (W’ 19), and Eugenia Carmona Aristeguiet (W’ 20),