Chief Executive Girlboss, Sophia Amoruso, got her big girl pantsuit on – well, technically it was a romper – on March 4 at the first official Girlboss Rally in Los Angeles. She looked like she felt empowered in it.
I flew out from New York to attend the first of what’s likely to be many Girlboss Rallies, and I made the trip not because I feel a strong connection to the Girlboss archetype – I’m a bit advanced in my career for that – but because it’s clear to me there’s a phenomenon happening here. I’d be a fool to ignore it, especially as an independent female entrepreneur, albeit a very different kind of one. If anything, I’m probably more of a Tomboyboss, but I’ll try not to make that a thing.
I brought my cousin with me, who made the journey less for professional reasons and rather for personal ones. She and I could not be more opposite, yet we are very close, and we had plenty of time over the weekend to discuss our different experiences. If nothing else, it was a great one to share.
Years ago, a friend of mine in the rag trade taught me that there are two reasons people buy things: necessity and vanity. This was in 2005 or 2006 and things were a lot different then. In recent years a third reason people spend money has become irrefutably apparent: experience.
Sophia Amoruso opened her inaugural Girlboss Rally with comments about how millennials want less stuff and more experience. This is a shift in consumerism I’ve welcomed. I grew up around too much stuff and I’ve always felt tortured by the waste I’ve seen around me.
Amoruso has faced some criticism recently, but it is clear this is a woman who does not let the chatter of others keep her down. She was visibly nervous, as she presented the conference opener, but her ability to admit that was endearing, and it was clear the prevailing sentiment in the room towards her was love. I hope she felt that!
The people someone associates with most says far more about them than any cultivated self image they may present on or off social media. The circle of accomplished women surrounding Amoruso and participating in her vision – even if that vision is not entirely clear – speaks volumes.
What exactly is a Girlboss Rally? More to the point, what is this new company, Girlboss? Good question, and one it seems Amoruso and team are still trying to answer. I don’t think that lack of defined identity harmed the event any, but it is something I think would behoove them to make clear soon.
For now, I can tell you about my experience of the Girlboss Rally. It was 500 attendees, 50 speakers and about 100 members of the media. Decor was lovely, food was healthy and delicious (if sparse), and sponsorships were well-integrated. Overall branding was spot on (I’d expect nothing less). It was held at the well appointed Hudson Loft in Downtown LA, and it consisted of a long day of listening to other people talk.
Although the Rally was billed as a networking event, the schedule left very few windows for doing so. Lunch was at 11am and cocktail hour wasn’t until 8pm. There was no mid-morning nor a mid-afternoon break to mingle. Sessions didn’t even have five minutes between them, and speakers did not stick around to talk to anyone after they came off stage. This was the events biggest failure, and it is representative of my hesitation to subscribe fully to Girlboss culture.
When I started attending Burning Man five years ago, the Ten Principles gave me the vocabulary to define some things I had long believed in, most relevant here being Radical Inclusion. By contrast, Girlboss has an “us and them” thing going on that’s a real turnoff. With the schedule being what it was, and speakers remaining sequestered in the green room where it seemed they were having their own private rally, this simply didn’t turn out to be the kind of networking event that interests me. For younger women at the beginning of their careers, I’m sure the experience was quite different. My cousin, for example, who does not own a business, was not even remotely phased by this element.
The us and them stratification I’m referring to has another issue. One of the best parts of the event was the theme of defining success for yourself, and it was refreshing to see Amoruso speak candidly about this given the recent loss of her retail business, Nasty Gal. The theme reverberated throughout most of the sessions I attended, and by extension so too did authenticity and the professional value of being truly yourself. But to only present exceptionally successful remodels sets even the above average girl up for disappointment.
This frustrated me about the Girlboss podcast, too. While I do truly enjoy hearing the stories of these highly successful women, the fact remains these women are the exception. They are the handful of women who did receive venture capital backing, who did break through barriers. I applaud them, but I want to hear from small business owners, too. I want to hear the stories of women who, like me, have carved an independent living out of doing something that matters to them without significant backing.
One of the sessions I most looked forward to, and most appreciated, was led by Rachel Shechtman. I really enjoyed her interview on the Girlboss podcast last spring, and recognized much of my own retail philosophy in hers. I would give just about anything to have the opportunity to pursue my vision of my own experiential store in New York or Los Angeles, and I found it so encouraging to hear that Shechtman had accomplished hers without venture capital. She explained that she did so with two promissory notes, achieving profitability in her first year, which in retail would typically be three years. Of all the speakers, she was the one I would have most liked to meet.
While raising large amounts of VC might make you feel like a rockstar, and that ego boost may give a girl what she needs to go after bold goals, so much is given up in exchange. But as Rachel made clear, ownership is actually sexy. The more we encourage women to hold on to what they’ve created, the faster we’ll achieve financial equality. Although I didn’t get to see Sallie Krawcheck’s session, I believe her message is similar, and I plan to watch it online with the digital ticket that accompanied my ticket to the event. Her episode on the Girlboss podcast was also one of my favorites, and her new company Ellevest, whose mission is to redefine investing for women, has the potential to positively influence women’s futures more than just about anything I’ve heard of yet.
Here’s the truth about women and VC, according to Tech Crunch. Only 7% of partners at the top 100 VC firms are women; women hold just under 12% of the partner roles at both accelerators and corporate venture firms; and less than 15% of VC invested between 2010 and 2015 went to startups with at least one female founder. Yes, of course, we want to see those numbers increased, and drastically! By all means, women should go for these opportunities. But, in doing so, until those numbers shift dramatically, they should know that they’re giving up control to men.
It’s easy to romanticize VC – it’s a lot of money! It can come with connections that lead to great opportunities, but it does not equate to success, and it is in fact the exception not the norm. The majority of startups fail, meanwhile VC firms remain profitable because they charge annual fees on their investors funds. Throw your hat in that ring, and there’s absolutely no guarantee it will be worth what you gave up.
When Amoruso took on VC for Nasty Gal, her business was in an unheard of position. Not only did she have no debt, but she had a million dollars in the bank (if what we’ve been told is true)! I can’t help but ask why she needed to go bigger? What was wrong with the successful small to medium-sized enterprise she had built? She was employing people, and seemingly she was having a good time selling things she liked. Certainly she didn’t need VC to write a book. In retrospect, she probably realizes this, but do her disciples? I’d like to encourage those who have bought into the VC myth to really listen to what she said last weekend: success is however you define it for yourself. Learn from her missteps, know when you have enough and innovate to remain independent.
Another thing about female-led companies that receive VC is that they are mostly in the beauty or fashion industries. I also want to hear from women who are not in those industries. All this is to say, Girlbosses, it’s time to stop worrying so much about the shape of your eyebrows! No amount of time spent on them will change your future.
With glass ceilings shattering left and right, there is no shortage of interesting things women could be doing, and in fact plenty of women are starting businesses in other fields. Not these girls though, and that’s probably my biggest indication I need to look elsewhere for inspiration. However, with a lack of such networking events available to attend, I turned to Girlboss in hopes that at least some of what I was looking for could be found there.
Amoruso clearly knows her demographic, and I wouldn’t encourage her to try to broaden it too widely, but the big question now is, who will? Once again, like she did with Nasty Gal, she’s demonstrated a model that can be applied to other types. When that happens, will she embrace it? Will she work with them? Or will she retain her desire to remain apart, accusing them instead of eating her lunch? A girl would keep herself apart; a woman, however, would offer a seat at her lunch table. A boss, regardless of gender, a good one anyway, provides opportunities for advancement rather than just paying lipservice.
Here’s my advice to all the girlbosses on track to be women who make things happen: You can do anything! You can be anything! If fashion & beauty is your thing, go for it! But if it’s not, don’t be afraid to go for what is! Break molds, defy expectations, shake off tradition!
Keep getting together. Talk to each other, coach each other, reach out for one another. Share your stories, share your secrets, share your weaknesses too. And most importantly, don’t forget that we are only half the population. Sure, we have a long way to go to achieve true parity with men, but don’t imagine for a minute we could do it without them. Interestingly enough, one of the best sessions of the day was with the only male speaker on the bill, Kevin Systrom, the founder of Instagram, who credited his wife with the suggestion of adding filters to his beta, and, as he said, thereby changing photography forever. Likewise, if you were at the Girlboss Rally, and you were paying attention, you would have noticed that the entire film production team was made up of men, and you would have also noticed that Amoruso’s new man, Galen Pehrson, was there to support her the whole way through. Because of them, and the skills they contributed, this event will be accessible in perpetuity to countless women the world over. Now that’s team work, regardless of who’s the boss.