For as long as she could remember, Ollie Payne was targeted for being different.
It began as a child, when schoolmates preyed on someone who didn’t perfectly fit in while coming of age outside Atlanta, Ga.
“From elementary school on, I had experienced bullying,” Payne, now 21, told InsideEdition.com. “Of course, it got progressively worse as I got to high school.”
As a teen, Payne preferred dark clothes, the theater and practicing expressive makeup and hair to perfect her skills — and her preferences brought on a damaging attention.
“People would make fun of me because of how I looked, how I dressed, how I wore my hair. They’d make fun of me because I was a book nerd, a theater nerd. They’d leave mean notes in my locker, just bring me down anyway we could,” she said. “It [got] to the point where people were telling me I was worth nothing, [that] I might as well end my own life... Senior year, I decided I wasn’t going to face it anymore.”
Payne dropped out of high school, convinced that to make anything of herself, she’d have to do it alone.
But all of that changed when she became involved with Girl Starter, a reality competition series documenting a group of young women as they work to secure funding to launch their own businesses.
“I signed up, I thought ‘I might as well,’” Payne said, noting that she realized how much an opportunity such as the one Girl Starter would afford her meant after she was told she was chosen to compete.
“They called me after about three or four interviews, and they said, ‘We have one more question for you, just for logistics’… Are you ready to go to New York?'" she said. “I cried. I was so happy. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so excited and terrified all at once.”
The series, which premiered on TLC in April, pairs off women between the ages of 18 and 24 to work on and pitch business ideas to entrepreneurs and business leaders in an effort to secure seed-round funding for their concepts.
The women also compete in challenges as they push their ideas through six steps of business building. The winner of the competition will receive $100,000 in cash and services to help launch their businesses.
“I never thought before [the Girl Starter experience], that I could start a business, but with their help and the six steps, I’m more on my way,” Payne said, explaining that she’s developing an application that focuses on helping artists build their resumes and find jobs.
The opportunity has also shown Payne the value of female friendship, she said.
“I’ve never really had close friends that were girls, because a lot of the bullying came through girls,” she said. “It’s like, [in high school] they create this mold, and if you don’t fit into the mold, you’re automatically rejected. Now, I’m meeting other people who have gone through similar things... and I’m way more accepted.
“This experience has given me a new perspective. Of course, in business, there’s a competitive spirit — but it’s nothing personal. We mostly just lift each other up. We really want that to be the message to other young girls; girls don’t have to be catty with each other.”
The show has also given its contestants a chance to see women from similar backgrounds who have succeeded in the business world.
“I haven’t really known about a lot of black female entrepreneurs,” said Brandy Brown, a contestant from Brooklyn, N.Y., who is developing an app that is geared toward improving student engagement. “I’ve never actually been around other people who started their own businesses who are just like me … [in general] you have tremendous support and that’s something you really don’t have when you’re trying to do it on your own at home.”
Girl Starter was created by Jeannine Shao Collins, a former chief innovation officer at Meredith Corp., her husband Chris Collins, and Dani Davis, a TV writer and Broadway producer.
The idea came from Collins’ daughter, Julia, who expressed interest in inspiring young women like herself to get involved in business.
Though in its first year, Girl Starter hopes to continue to serve as a jumping off point for potential female founders.
Its mission has resonated with its current contestants, especially Payne, who said her life has been changed by the organization and its ability to inspire.
“I wish I could tell myself [in high school] to push through, because it’s going to be okay,” said Payne, who went on to get her GED after dropping out. “Any part of me that’s different, that’s okay.”