Meet Diana Kapp, a business journalist and author of the recently published book, “Girls Who Run the World: 31 CEOs Who Mean Business.” Kapp has written about education and entrepreneurism for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, ELLE, O the Oprah Magazine, Outside.com, ESPN.com, and Marie Claire. She lives in San Francisco, and was recently the moderator of the Leadership Panel at our Women in Retail Leadership Circle: On the Road event there. Kapp is also the subject of our latest installment of the Inner Circle Q&A!
Inner Circle: Where did you get your inspiration to write “Girls Who Run the World”?
Diana Kapp: I was walking home from work listening to Sara Blakely tell the story of Spanx on the How I Built This podcast. It struck me that everything I need my teen daughters to understand is encapsulated in her story. When she couldn’t afford a lawyer to write her patent, she bought a book and did it herself. She cold-called her way into Neiman Marcus, and when they stocked her red boxes in a dusty corner, she snuck in a rack from Target and set up her own display by the register. She pretended she belonged there. She doesn’t hear no. She’s a risk taker, and, when necessary, she ‘fakes it til she makes it.’ Teen girls and young women rarely listen to podcasts or read Fast Company, so they need a way to hear these stories.
More, my daughter Emma, 14, is pure power. She popped out with her hands on her hips, issuing orders to her dolls and then a rotating roster of family members forced to play school (of course she was the teacher). She could lead an army or a small nation — and definitely a company. But so few women become CEOs. Would she? I wanted to provide Emma and tons of girls like her role models, modern working women who are the pioneers of this age. I hope this book finds its way into every middle [school] and high school. Girls need to see that they belong in leadership, inventing and creating and founding companies. That’s how we drive equity in the workplace on a massive scale.
IC: How did you choose which women to profile, and how did you conduct the interviews?
DK: I wanted every different type of girl to find herself in these stories. For this reason, I picked artists, chemists and engineers; mediocre and A students; immigrant stories; women who didn’t even attend college, plus pedigreed types with degrees from MIT; entrepreneurs in construction, candy, media and biotech. I profiled Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe because she’s pioneering personal genetic tests; Mariam Naficy at Minted because her idea to democratize design is revolutionary; and Nina Tandon because she’s growing human bones in her lab. I interviewed about half of the women in person and the rest on the phone. I got to visit Christina Stembel in her flower warehouse and Tina Sharkey at Brandless’ headquarters. In just three cases I was unable to speak with the entrepreneur so I relied on podcasts, articles and extensive research.
IC: The women in the book are from all different backgrounds, but are there any recurring themes they had in common?
DK: The common thread is badass. These women understand no is just a word, not an edict. When Jenn Hyman was driving to meet Diane von Furstenberg for a much-anticipated meeting, Diane’s assistant reached her in the car 10 minutes outside Manhattan to say sorry the meeting is cancelled. Jenn had the cahones to say, ‘What? What? I don’t hear you. My signal is breaking up. I’ll be right there in five.’ And she just showed up. And the meeting happened. These dames steamroll through problems. They’re solutions oriented. They’re also relentlessly resourceful, figuring things out, whether that’s learning to arrange flowers on YouTube or perfecting their email subject lines so they’re sure clickbait.
IC: Is there any particular profile that you found especially inspiring?
DK: That’s like asking me to choose my favorite of my three kids! I’m very moved by Jane Chen, who built an incubator for premie babies that looks like a miniature ski suit. While a normal machine costs thousands, hers costs $200 and doesn’t need power. She has saved 300,000 babies in the developing world.
IC: Through your interviews, did you notice that a lot of the women interviewees had women mentors?
DK: Actually, several of the entrepreneurs explicitly warned against surrounding yourself exclusively with women, a mistake many female entrepreneurs make. Males still hold the primary power in much of the business realm, so it’s best to have a male champion that has your back in every room. That said, these women definitely feel part of a sisterhood, and they all look out for one another and provide support. Many female founders that have made money are now funding other female entrepreneurs.
IC: What were some of the obstacles the women faced?
DK: The challenges are every day and constant. Katrina Lake of Stitch Fix made 30 pitches for funds and got 30 nos. Her Harvard professor told her the idea would be “an inventory nightmare.” Mariam Naficy launched Minted and didn’t sell a sheet of stationery in the first 30 days. In her prior company, Eve.com, she had to bribe a little girl named Eve to sell her the web domain. She offered a board seat to a pre-teen, and yearly trips to Disneyland! Christina Stembel at Farmgirl Flowers is watching all her farmer suppliers pull up their flower crops and plant much more lucrative per acre marijuana.
IC: What advice would you have for women who want to grow in their career, but keep hitting obstacles?
DK: Know that hitting seemingly insurmountable obstacles is inevitable. Nobody is above them. Break big problems down into bite-sized chunks. When you don’t know what to do, find someone who does. When desperate, try coffee, a run, and lots of candy (those are my go-tos). Anne Wojcicki swears by optimism. She told me rather than say we only sold 35 genetic test kits today, she thinks, ‘Wow, we sold 35!’
IC: Why do you think right now is a great time to be a girl?
DK: The world is breaking open for girls and women. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg is captivating the world as she grabs the mantle for climate action. Before her, Emma Gonzalez distinguished herself, leading the charge against handgun violence. Seven women entered the presidential race, and the Democrats may well put up a female candidate for the second time consecutively. Thirty-five women entered Congress in a giant pink wave in 2018. Women are leading the NYSE and NASDAQ. They’re running the five largest defense companies supplying our military. Girls are studying STEM in record numbers, and outdoing guys in school and college entrance. At my high school, Bethesda Chevy Chase, 40 girls just stormed the principal’s office after some guys distributed a numerical rating based on looks.