Using running as a foundation for a better life, Girls Gotta Run executive director Kayla Nolan brings hope to school-age girls in Ethiopia one step at a time.
Kayla Nolan ’11 took up running in high school, when she joined the cross country team. Looking at colleges in California, the Sacramento native wanted to find a school where she could run competitively. “Occidental had a really great program under Coach Rob Bartlett, who’s still there,” Kayla says.
“When I visited campus, that’s when the running community came to life for me,” she adds. Running at Oxy helped her explore Los Angeles as well: “I got to see amazing places and run through different parts of the city that I don’t think I ever would have thought to go to.”
There is perhaps no sport as universal—or accessible—as running. Today, Kayla is executive director of Girls Gotta Run Foundation (GGRF), an organization dedicated to the empowerment of girls in Ethiopia through running and education. From its modest beginnings in 2006 providing shoes and athletic gear for teenage girls in Ethiopia, GGRF has evolved into an organization dedicated to the empowerment of girls through a variety of tools, including education and entrepreneurship.
“If girls can just make it past the age where they’re most vulnerable to dropping out of school and entering early marriage,” Kayla says, “they already have a greater opportunity of earning an income, getting a higher education, and having the community and tools to navigate those challenges.”
GGRF is a remarkable organization with a mission that’s rooted in the core values of Occidental. And Kayla would likely have never been a part of it had she not embraced the many opportunities she was afforded at Oxy—beginning with her Richter Scholarship, which funded independent research abroad under the supervision of a faculty member.
“As a long-distance runner, I was looking at the empowerment of women through running and wondered what that experience was like for other women my age,” recalls Kayla, who majored in politics. Focusing on Ethiopia, she got in touch with Girls Gotta Run Foundation because they were the only organization working with female athletes around education and early marriage prevention.
She spent a summer living with an Ethiopian family, immersing herself in the country’s language and culture. With the support of GGRF, she spent most of her time talking with women runners of all ages in different cities. “A lot of the themes that came out of those discussions centered around national identity—that participating in the sport of running in Ethiopia brought a lot of pride to them and to their families, and also economic opportunity.
With Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, as her project adviser, “It started looking like a quality project that I could get some value out of—not only for myself but also in terms of where the research could eventually go.”
She was subsequently invited to give a paper on the topic at a conference on women in sport development in Africa at Oxford University in the U.K. (which Kayla was able to attend with support from the Young Fund). Professor Jane Jaquette and Dreier worked with Kayla to turn her Richter report into a conference paper.
It was around this time that she got a call from Girls Gotta Run. The organization was looking to grow from an all-volunteer structure to “something that could have more of an impact,” Kayla says. They wanted her to come aboard to help grow and eventually run GGRF.
“I was 22,” Kayla recalls. “I had no idea how to run an organization. But I knew the core work, so it felt like an exciting opportunity.” Kayla joined GGRF in 2012, working alongside the founder while getting a crash course in running a nonprofit from the Foundation Center in New York City.
After she moved to Ethiopia full-time in 2013, GGRF overhauled its programming to support girls and their families through such areas as education (providing full scholarship support, including books, food, and medical services), running (providing sports gear, shoes, snacks, and water), and life skills (developing safe spaces and helping girls to build empowered lives through workshops).
By 2017, Girls Gotta Run was flourishing and its staff was well entrenched. Interest in the program exceeded the foundation’s means to support it, so Kayla moved back to the States to focus on organizational development and growth. She’s now based in Seattle now and spends a couple months a year in Ethiopia.
On Jan. 10, 2019, the girls participated in the Bekoji 100 relay, Ethiopia’s first ultra-relay organized for and by girls and women. Half of the team were from Girls Gotta Run and the other half were international athletes and recreational runners. Forty-eight runners worked together to cover the 100-mile course through the Bali Mountains and the Red Valley.
“It’s so powerful to see something that you created take a life of its own,” Kayla says. “I think that’s what we would all love to see—you make something that has its own legs and it keeps going.”