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Founding Webgrrls

Aliza Sherman

November 16, 1996 – San Francisco Webgrrls



Well, I’m kind of coming down with laryngitis, but I’ll be taking lots of sips of water and have lots of cough drops in my mouth. This is not my real voice. Anyway…

This is amazing to me. This absolutely blows me away. I have seen four other chapters so far, and each time, it’s so exciting and so different and yet so much the same, as well. I’m going to talk a little bit about the history of Webgrrls, how I started it, why I started it, and also give you a little bit of background about who I am and just what in the world I do.

The thing about Webgrrls is it started by accident, so everyone keeps saying, “Gosh, how did you get the idea for Webgrrls and how long did it take you to plan this organization?” And I’m like, “Well, actually, I didn’t intend to start an organization.” What I intended to do is to try to find a few women to network with in New York City when I first started my business back in January… 1995!

The dark ages! So I was going to put up my first web site, my own personal site, and I thought, wow! I wonder what other women are doing online. And so I went and did a couple of searches, and I found a lot of women’s sites that were sort of the academic sites, “I’m a geophysicist and these are the classes I’m taking.” And I thought no, that’s not exactly what I want to do because I’m not a techie. So as I began to do more and more searches, I finally found this underground group of women at a service called Ecco in New York and also women at Interport in New York, and these sites were creative and colorful. They had personality and a sense of humor and I said, yeah, this is what I want to do.

So I started to e-mail them, and little by little, we would e-mail back and forth, and I thought, you know, we’re all in New York. Wouldn’t it be nice if we just met? So, sure, why not. I e-mailed a bunch of them and six of them showed up one morning for lunch at the “@Cafe” which is an Internet cafe in New York City. A very trendy thing for us to do. The first @Cafe in New York City.

And I remember sitting at the doorway waiting for women to show up and women would walk up and I’d be, “Oh, my God, is that a Webgrrl?” And then it wasn’t, and then another one wasn’t. And finally this woman walks in wearing these high, white patent leather platform shoes, this wild mini skirt, some sort of animal print, blond hair with this big pink stripe, and I’m, “THAT’S a Webgrrl.” And it was.

It was this woman named Phoebe LeGere, who anyone who knows the Downtown East Village scene, this woman is, like, a star. She’s so awesome. She is opera trained and she has this really wild sort of cabaret lounge act she does, plus she’s a painter and a poet, just a very talented woman, and here was one of the first Webgrrls. And another woman, Eileen, was an editor at Holt Publishing, and she was very, very shy. I don’t think she said two words at the meeting.

And it was so interesting to look at these two totally different women who would have never met if it wasn’t just for that e-mail I sent. But they were getting along fine. Phoebe was talking up a storm and Eileen was nodding. And there was a woman named Carlotta that who was this wonderful boisterous woman from Texas who had just moved to New York and she was a UNIX programmer, and at that point I’m like a UNIX what?

So we sat and chat and showed each other our sites and we were like, “What do you think of this? Isn’t this cool?” And I finally said, “Hey, let’s meet again next month.” So we decided to do it. And I put something on my website saying, “Wow, I met these other women, and we’re all Webgrrls and this is so cool, and we’re going to meet again.”

So the next meeting, there was twice as many women. And then the meeting after, we had doubled again, and I’m looking as all these women started walking in and they’re walking toward us, and I’m like, “How did you find out about this?” And they said, “Well, it was on your web site.” And I’m thinking, “It works.” I had no idea people were really reading my web site and then that they’d actually respond and come to a meeting.

So it started to get too big for the cafe. We began to meet in these lofts that people had their offices in and they would give us space. It was really great. And finally I said we’ve got to be productive here, so I sat us all in a circle and made us go around, sort of like we just did here and just say a little something.

And that was great when we were, like, 20 people and 30 people and 40 people. But by November of ’95, there were 200 people at a meeting. So we couldn’t do that anymore. And we had presentations and somewhere along the line, someone said, “Wow, this is a great organization you started.” I’m like, “What? I did what? What do you mean an organization? Oh, my gosh, that means work!”

So it became an organization. And by then I was getting e-mails from other people, other women in different cities, in different countries saying, “Hey, I want to duplicate what you’re doing. I want to start a chapter, too.” San Francisco is actually the second oldest chapter, Seattle being the first oldest chapter. So, pretty darn amazing.

Well, the new year started, and we decided to really buckle down and try to figure out what this is all about and getting that mission statement, like the real mission statement this time, together. And I decided that the way that it happened is the way I wanted it to continue to happen. The fact that it grew organically because a woman or several women had the sort of passion for what’s happening on the Internet and the web, and just had a desire to build something from the ground up. And just sort of use their spirit, just to bring women together collectively. I thought, “That’s how it should be. I don’t want this to be like some some super formal professional working group,” because I’ve been there. I’ve done those sort of things. Been there, done that.

And it’s great for something, but this is something else. It’s something that I’ve never found anywhere, and I don’t think that anything like this could ever happen again. It started at the right time in the right way, and I think that it truly has a spirit behind it that a lot of groups seem to lack. Never wanting to knock over groups, because there’s a place for each and every one of them. But I think Webgrrls is special. It is this “thing.” It’s become this sort of living, breathing, organic thing that we all just sort of water and watch grow, and it sort of nourishes us in a way, and then we continue to nourish and grow it. Anyway, that’s sort of a philosophy thing.

The mission. The mission is pretty straightforward. We’re here to provide a forum, a place for women to gather and to talk to each other, to network either to find a job, to find support, to find a project to work on or someone to help them on a project, to get feedback.

There’s so many reasons for us to be here. And what I started doing at the meetings is really forcing women to stand up and say who they were, because I don’t think women really take the time to brag and boast about themselves enough. And especially in a room full of people. And I want them to talk about the things they’re doing and then to say what they need from the group.

I think we were sort of doing it here, but I’m very specific. I’m like, “Tell us what you need.” Because if you don’t put it out there, it won’t come back to you. But the minute you do, it’s absolutely amazing the kind of response that you get.

And then I tell women, you know, — this is all in New York, by the way. I’m describing how our meetings go — “Tell us what you can give to the group.” And then I say, “Don’t feel guilty if you can’t think of what you can give right now.” Because I think women tend to feel really guilty. They don’t want to ask for anything. They feel guilty to ask for something. They sort of want to help everyone else.

Not to make these broad, sweeping generalizations, but I think a lot of us know what I’m talking about. But the aspect of giving, don’t feel guilty if you can’t give, because what’s going to happen is a few minutes later, someone is going to stand up and say they need something and suddenly a light bulb will go off in your head and you’ll say, “Wow, I can help translate something into French.” Whatever. Whatever it might be.

So that’s how we run our meetings in New York now except we get between 75 and 100 women at every meeting, and we have to meet twice a month to keep the demand sort of even. So now we have a sign-up sheet, and if you want to make an announcement, you sign up on the sheet.

And all of the women who are new, they’re afraid to sign up on the sheet because they don’t know what’s going to happen to them. And then after they see that it’s okay and it’s kind of exciting and fun and interesting and helpful, then after I go through the whole sheet, all of a sudden all these hands start going up and they all want to say something.

But it’s really productive. I can’t tell you how many women every week find a job. And I’m sure everyone here is finding similar situations. There are a lot of people looking at Webgrrls now and turning to Webgrrls as a source of talented, creative people. I get called constantly from everything from headhunters to corporations to start-up businesses looking for people.

So it’s really an amazing, amazing resource for the community at large. And one of the other things that I feel Webgrrls is about besides offering this platform to women is to reach out to young girls and mentor them; to be role models. I don’t know if all of us have really thought of ourselves as role models, but each one of us has something so valuable that we’re doing or a passion or a belief in something, or just a love of the web. Hey, the web addict. I mean, that’s not a bad thing. There’s something great about that. You feel strongly about it. And that kind of passion and drive is what girls need to see.

So I always say that if each one of us just helped one woman, one other woman and one other girl, imagine what an impact we would make. And we’re all busy. We all have busy lives. But I know the thing that keeps me going and that really keeps me inspired is when I can help someone else and then watch them grow and go, “Wow! I helped her. I helped do that!” That’s such a neat feeling.

So what do I do? What do I do with my life? Well, I started this business called Cybergrrl at the very beginning of ’95. Before that — I’ll give you my brief run-down of jobs. Sort of like this weird, eclectic life. But I love giving this because it shows you that you could be anything and have done anything. And this industry is so wonderfully wide open right now that you can really do something in new media and make a name for yourself.

First of all, I never graduated from college. I have no degree at all. I think I’m two years from any degree. And what did I take in college? Oh, let’s see. Fashion merchandising the first year. I took one law class, and I took Shakespeare, and I took Russian history. I mean, forget it. It’s a wash.

And after that I waitressed. I was a Howard Johnson’s ice cream counter girl. And then I also did the breakfast shift at this little cafe, and then I decided, you know, I’ve got to make more money than these tips. The tips weren’t good on the breakfast shift, I tell you, but I hated the night shift. So I decided to temp. And I worked for — I think it’s Novell temp agency.

And it was great. I could type really fast, but they told me if I could learn computers I would make more money. So I never touched a computer, not even touched a computer, until I was out of college and working in a temp agency, and I only learned the computer to do word processing so I could make a few more bucks an hour. That’s it.

And then I found out about this job in the music business, and boy, did that sound cool and glamorous! And I decided to take a job down in North Carolina, and sort of run this office for this booking agency… and we booked bar mitzvah bands and wedding bands. So that was my sort of glamorous foray into the entertainment industry.

And then I had this dream of working at ICM, and through this weird circumstance where my boss was trying to impress me and he said, “Oh, I know an agent at ICM,” and he introduced me and then this agent’s assistant quit, and he knew I was interested in working at ICM and suddenly I had a job, and I moved to New York where I never wanted to live, ever. I still don’t want to live there eight years later, but…

So I was at ICM and I was working for bands like Neil Young and Tracy Chapman and Elvis Costello, and other bands like heavy metal bands, and I decided I was going to quit it all, I was going to sell all my belongings, drive across country and be a writer. That was it.

And then the managers from Metallica offered me a job, and I said okay. But the reason, though, is I had big fears about not having a job. I had big fears about not being able to pay the bills. I had incredibly enormous fears that I would be homeless. It was like this really weird thing. So I didn’t take off. I stayed and I worked for Metallica and all those bands for about four years.

Then I said I’ve got to really do something with my life now. This is ridiculous. For anyone who is in the music business, who has ever thought of it, I think now is probably a better time than it was, but it’s horrible for women. It is really a horrible business for women, but I think the entertainment industry at large needs more women in there, but we’re lucky to be in the new media industry because there’s a lot of opportunity, and there’s a lot of great positive attitude toward women.

So that’s the music business thing. I ended up meeting a photographer who documented domestic violence and I ran a nonprofit organization for her for a year on domestic violence awareness. You notice how I’m not talking about the Internet or computers at all?

We’re already in 1994, you know?

Okay. So I did have a computer at home and I was using it to write my stories and then somebody taught me to go online. So I was playing. This whole time my hobby is staying up late at night playing and my sister is like, “I’m so worried about you. You have no social life.”

But the computer, Internet and stuff is my hobby. So then, some of you may have heard of this, but my friend and I were held up at gun point and kidnapped. And this is November — no, I’m sorry. August of ’94. And we escaped, and I lived, which is why I’m here.

And that made me just look at everything. That made me look at the whole thing I just told you about, and what was I doing with my life? I was working for other people. I was a secretary. I was an administrative assistant. I was somebody’s helper, and I thought, you know, I can’t let fear hold me back because here I faced these three guys with guns, pointed right at me, and I managed to talk our way out of this thing. So I must be a pretty brave person.

So why am I not brave enough to, like, start my own business? So I fled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is like the perfect place to sort of like get centered and discover a skill that helped me create what people see — the information highway. And who knew? I had no idea.

Now everyone thinks I’m this huge techie-type person. I’m like “What?” And I really am not and you don’t have to be. I’ve now teamed up and hired a techie guy. He’s the only one I hired. The rest of us are woman. I have two full-time people, two part-time people and six interns right now. I started in my studio apartment. I moved into an office space in August of ’95, and we’ve been there over a year now.

So it’s weird. It’s so weird to talk about yourself, and even I’m so used to it now because people are always asking me these questions. But it’s not the normal thing to do, is to stand up and say, “Oh, this is me and this is what I do,” and cool, cool, cool. But again, I think it’s important to see that somebody with such eclectic, weird, skill sets, background, bizarre education, no technical stuff can start something, and can do it.

What do I do exactly? Cybergrrl — we always keep reinventing ourselves. We’re sort of like Madonna or something. We come up with a brand-new phrase for who and what we are. But I consider us an online entertainment studio. If we had tons of money and tons of Hollywood connections we’d be doing TV and radio right now but because we don’t, we’re doing it all on the web.

But we started consulting, online marketing and that moved to web site development but if you’ve seen any of the web sites I’ve developed, they’re like not very great. They’re just like plain and simple. But luckily, I team up with great companies with great content so the sites that we create are very content oriented, and then a lot of them are very women’s information oriented. Then we decided to go create our own sites. Actually, what happened is I created a bunch of sites on my own and now the company is starting to help.

But we have the Cybergrrl site which is sort of your guide to cyberspace. She tells you where to go and what to do. That’s cool. But the Webgrrls site which is linked to women’s home pages, not necessarily members, but women who have web pages, and there’s information about this, Webgrrls, us.

Then I’ve got the Femina site which is sort of my salute at Yahoo but more women oriented, so when you put in health, you get women’s health. If you put in PMS, you get some links, that kind of thing. And I’ve created WomenZone which is sort of in this weird beta testing right now. It has a couple of articles that lead into chat — not chat. Posting boards. So the idea being you can read it like a magazine or you can respond right away and get some feedback, which is like a feature that a real magazine doesn’t have.

And we’re going to do GrrlsZone. And people say why are you always doing stuff for women? And it’s because I don’t understand men!

Why can’t I do something I know and understand? Well, it’s funny, too, because we’re going to put a sports site, a sports page up, but we already have women’s sports under Femina, but on Cybergrrl — Cybergrrl is not just for women. We’re going to have sports. And I was thinking, I volunteered to write that section and I thought, oh, my God, what do I know about sports? Nothing at all.

So now not only do I have to do research for links but now I have to do sports? What do you mean sports?

ALIZA: So I just believe in it, and I think it’s so important. So the mission of my company is to really create entertainment, educational resources, products, all about helping people get online, especially women and girls, giving them reasons to be there and helping make technology non-intimidating, help make technology accessible and make people realize that it can be a tool in their lives.

It doesn’t have to be an intrusion. It can help them. They can benefit. So those — That’s the philosophy behind my business. And on a personal level, I just — I think it’s so important.

When I was a little girl, I was so good in math and so good in science. I was a straight “A” student. But it’s weird. As soon as I got into high school, I dumped out. On purpose. I remember doing this. I remember sitting in classes and I was one of those who was always separated into gifted and stuff, but when you do that you’re treated so badly. And then I’d go to the normal classes and I would answer a question right and everyone would glare and they’d hate me. And so I started answering questions wrong. I started failing tests on purpose so I could say, “Oh, yeah, I got a ‘D’!”

But it’s so weird and people don’t realize that that’s really what intelligent people go through or what girls go through. Like girls — girls are intelligent people.

But it’s a scary thing and I wish someone had seen what I was doing and said, “Hey, it’s okay to be smart.” But I was dumb for many years!

Now, I lost so much. I mean, I — I’m fine with the fact that I didn’t graduate from college, because I got to take whatever I felt like and I never felt any pressure. But by the same token, people look at you different when you haven’t. You know, they say — they look at my resume. Actually, the weirdest thing of all is I get asked for my resume now that I’m president of my own company than I ever did before. It’s like when a woman calls and says she’s president of such and such, “Well, just send your resume, honey.” I’m like, “Oh, my gosh.”



Source – Gifts of Speech:
Copyright 1996 by Aliza Sherman. All rights reserved.