Finding Purpose in Tragedy
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Finding Purpose in Tragedy

After losing her sister to gun violence, Joy Lindsay (HGSE ’24) founded Butterfly Dreamz to help teen girls and young women become leaders.

Joy smiling in a Butterfly Dreamz t-shirt

In 2012, Joy Lindsay was working in the finance department of an education nonprofit while pursuing a master’s degree. She was excelling in all aspects of her work and studies.

Then, the unthinkable happened.

“I was figuring out what I wanted to do in the nonprofit sector, and that’s when we lost my sister, Kim, to gun violence,” shared Lindsay. “I was always going to start something, but doing it in her honor made sense, given what my family and I were going through...I knew the pain of losing her would overtake me if I didn’t transform it into something purposeful.”

That purpose, Lindsay found, was starting Butterfly Dreamz: a nonprofit that provides leadership development and support to girls from underserved communities. Since its founding, Butterfly Dreamz has worked with thousands of children, and received grants from several foundations and corporate sponsors, such as Goldman Sachs and the NBA Foundation.

As a master's student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a Cheng Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Social Innovation + Change Initiative, and member of the Harvard Innovation Labs, Lindsay has spent the last year advancing her education in areas that will help scale Butterfly Dreamz’s impact. Leading up to her graduation from Harvard, Lindsay shared the founding story of Butterfly Dreamz, how the organization has evolved over the last decade, and what’s to come in the years ahead.

Beginnings of a startup emerge from a devastating loss

Lindsay did her undergraduate degree at Howard University, where she majored in finance and began exploring her interests in business, entrepreneurship, and education.

“Although I loved finance and business, I had a really strong passion for working with young people,” said Lindsay. “When I was consulting, I always ended up working in an after-school program, and then got a job in the finance department of a nonprofit in the education space.”

Lindsay enjoyed her work at the nonprofit and decided to attend NYU to get a master’s in public and nonprofit management to further her career in the field. When Lindsay lost her sister, she immediately began work on a project in her honor.

“I had in my mind the date of 2013, 7/26, because we lost Kim on 2012, 7/26,” said Lindsay. “I decided, in a year from now, I’m going to launch something.”

Lindsay’s initial idea was to use storytelling as a means for “vision and transformation,” inspired by the pastor who led her sister’s memorial service.

“When we lost Kim, the pastor brought all of us together in a storytelling circle,” Lindsay reflected. “I felt like it was a real healing moment. Even though we were getting ready for her memorial service, the act of us getting together and hearing stories about her almost felt like we could feel her spirit and laugh in the work.”

After the service, Lindsay gathered stories about her sister from family and friends. These stories initially became a blog, and inspired Lindsay’s first children’s book, “When a Butterfly Chooses to Fly.” The book tells the story of three sisters. One flies away, leaving the others to process their loss.

After the book was finished, Lindsay began leading storytelling workshops at schools across Newark, New Jersey, and Cleveland, Ohio, using the book to facilitate conversations with the students.

“What was powerful for me wasn’t just telling the story that I wrote, but inviting students to tell their own stories,” said Lindsay. “Hearing kids talk about...divorce, moving, or transitioning — hearing young people [use creativity to] grapple with change and loss and try to figure it out...I thought, ‘Okay, there’s something here.’”

A group of girls sitting on grass and smiling
Joy with high school interns in Newark, New Jersey, with her sister Kim, and leading a storytelling workshop.

Diving into full-time entrepreneurship

Butterfly Dreamz’s trajectory evolved further when Lindsay got a call from a school in Newark about doing a workshop for girls.

“I realized...our girls didn’t just need a space to tell their story, but they also need support,” said Lindsay. “That was the beginning of Butterfly Dreamz's model of us being in schools, and helping out guidance counselors and social worker departments. [This project] took up all my time, and made me think ‘Okay, I want to do this full time.’”

Financing a startup’s early days is always challenging. In the initial years of Butterfly Dreamz, Lindsay also took a finance job at a nonprofit. After two years of working at an organization while also building her own, Lindsay decided to commit full time to Butterfly Dreamz in late 2016. While she felt prepared for the transition, Lindsay reflected that, “the reality of what it meant to be a full-time entrepreneur and not having a steady income hit me — 2017 and 2018 were really hard years.”

During this time, Lindsay found strength and motivation in the Butterfly Dreamz community and in the impact they were having on girls across the US. Lindsay shared:

“We created this powerful community of people who believe in the leadership and wellbeing of girls and young women, particularly Black girls and young women...Whether we’re facing health issues, or systemic racism, or things that attack us, knowing that love from our community is there, I’m so proud of that.”

She added, “I’m also proud to see our girls flourish…[and] achieve their goals. Seeing them show up confidently. Seeing them speak up when they see inequities. Seeing them start businesses. I’m just really proud of our girls achieving their dreams.”

“We created this powerful community of people who believe in the leadership and wellbeing of girls and young women, particularly Black girls and young women...Whether we’re facing health issues, or systemic racism, or things that attack us, knowing that love from our community is there, I’m so proud of that.”

Going back to school to help grow the organization

As Butterfly Dreamz began applying for more grant funding, Lindsay often came across questions about the organization’s research and evidence-based practices. As she reviewed the research in this field, she began questioning the existing body of work, sharing:

“When I started to develop our program and our curriculum and look into what people considered evidence-based and research-based, I saw some problems with the studies or the assumptions. I knew I didn’t just want us to have quality programs but to be a thought leader in the youth development space — particularly as it related to leadership development, identity development, and well-being of adolescent girls and young women.

Lindsay decided to apply for graduate school to begin research that would not only shape Butterfly Dreamz’s initiatives but also inform broader education policy. She applied and was accepted into the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), which she wanted to attend because of “what the professors there were studying, and the work and research being done there.”

While a graduate student, Lindsay was also a member at the Harvard Innovation Labs, where she received support to hone the Butterfly Dreamz pitch and access capital through the Social Impact Fellowship Fund:

“We tell our story so much to people who are used to hearing it. Being in a space where we’re able to craft it into a tight seven-minute pitch...has been incredibly helpful. Learning how to communicate to different audiences has been very helpful, and the funding was great.”

Joy in her graduation robes outside HGSE
Joy outside the Harvard Graduate School of Education on Commencement Day 2024.

Looking towards the future

After graduating from Harvard this spring, Lindsay will begin her PhD at the Yale School of Public Health, while continuing to raise funds for Butterfly Dreamz, which will help her hire full-time staff and scale the organization.

“Our team is made up of really passionate people who are all part-time,” said Lindsay. “These last couple years, I've been so grateful for my staff, but I think the reality is that we all have been driven by like purpose and passion...What we're working on now is getting the funding that we need to have a full-time staff.”

Currently, Butterfly Dreamz serves about 2,000 people annually through in-person programs as well as through an online community, the Cocoon Club. With Lindsay’s drive to help girls from underserved communities become confident leaders, Lindsay is confident that Butterfly Dreamz will have a significant impact on girls across the US in the years to come.