Igniting the power of she

The Duke network fuels the birth of a platform and reality show aimed at supporting young female entrepreneurs.
Writer: 
April 19, 2017

Inside an industrial space filled with exposed brick walls and ceiling pipes overlooking the East River in Brooklyn, cameramen are setting up their shots while an assistant director gives last-minute instructions to a small studio audience. The place is buzzing with energy and tension. Over in makeshift backstage rooms, five finalists, divided into two teams of young college students/would-be entrepreneurs, are practicing their final elevator pitches.

In minutes they will have the opportunity to demonstrate why their start-ups have the potential to go the distance before a panel of judges, including the CEO of Staples, in the televised finale of the new reality television show Girl Starter. Nerves are running high, because for the victors, the payoff might be higher than just television exposure.

Over the past six weeks, the all-female contestants have put their entrepreneurial precocity to the test. They’ve devised and refined business ideas before a spectrum of successful business leaders while also competing in a series of challenges like fundraising and building a business plan. The winning team will earn not only the crown of Girl Starter’s debut season but also $100,000 worth of seed money and services to help them turn their business idea into a real enterprise.

The show’s competitive format resembles such popular reality TV fare as Shark Tank, The Apprentice, and even Project Runway (yes, the contestants live together in a Brooklyn townhouse), except for two things. Girl Starter, which begins airing on TLC on April 28 at 7 p.m., is the cornerstone of a new for-profit media venture, also named Girl Starter, targeted at galvanizing entrepreneurship and business leadership in girls. And the venture’s origin story was formed and fueled by the female Duke experience as well as the university’s vast and enthusiastic alumni network. Says Dani Davis ’88, one of Girl Starter’s cofounders and a Tony-nominated Broadway producer, “There’s a feeling of connection to the undergraduate experience that prepared us for the world.”

The idea behind Girl Starter came three years ago, rather unexpectedly. Julia Collins, then a sixteen-year-old junior at The Spence School in New York began applying for college, with Duke at the top of her list. Collins accompanied Davis, a pal of her mother’s, to a panel of businesswomen discussing “The Upside of Risk.” Most of the panelists and many of those in attendance had gone to Duke, and Davis thought it would be a great opportunity for Collins to meet with them. “Julia is smart and dazzling,” says Davis, “and the event was incredible. It went an hour overtime with women saying all sorts of controversial things.” Collins, now a Duke sophomore majoring in public policy with minors in economics and creative writing, came away with a different impression. She was struck by the drift of the panelists’ discussion, much of which they spent bemoaning how much more difficulty women in business faced, particularly obtaining funding. “I sat there thinking, ‘How was it possible that these accomplished women have it this hard?’ ” she says. When it was over, Collins turned to Davis and said, “You’re having this conversation too late.”

Growing up in Manhattan as the product of successful parents—including a mother who is the former publisher of More magazine and chief innovation officer of Meredith 360—who exposed her to numerous opportunities and people, Collins believed that kind of gender disparity was a thing of the past. “I’ve always been entrepreneurial,” she says. “I remember my favorite childhood memory was starting lemonade stands and making money. I really liked owning something, being in control, and creating.” But listening to the panel, she felt somewhat betrayed. “I think that up until now women had been told they could do or be anything,” she says. “They had the opportunity to be anything, like a CEO.”

The panel forced Collins to consider a totally different reality. “So much of the media that we consume is about our appearance or wealth as our most valuable asset,” she says, “when that’s not true at all.” Recognizing that she grew up privileged while attending a “super-feminist all-girl school that told me I could do anything,” that afternoon Collins says she came to realize “this was not the case.”

Once back home Collins told her mother, “I’m sick of all the whining” and announced that she wanted to start an entrepreneurship club geared toward females at her high school “to try and nip this problem in the bud.” Her mother, Jeannine Shao Collins, countered that if Collins really wanted to make an impact she had to reach beyond her elite private-school Manhattan bubble. “I told her if she wanted real change, she needed to scale, to reach girls in Oklahoma and Wyoming,” recalls Shao Collins.

That interaction set the stage for Girl Starter. Shao Collins and Davis began batting around concepts based on Julia’s idea of supporting young female entrepreneurs. Soon Shao Collins’ husband, Chris Collins, a digital-media sales expert who had worked at ESPN and The Wall Street Journal, joined them. Together they landed on creating a reality competition TV show, since, as Shao Collins notes, “97 percent of young people want to be famous, and for them, entertainment is a large driver.”

The show would be the vehicle through which Girl Starter could reach a broad audience and would include a website, girlstarter.com, tied to the TV show but filled with original content to help other girls launch their businesses. “I believe women have to see it to start it,” says Shao Collins. “And they need to see better female role models on television that show their potential and are not about just how they look.”

From the outset, according to Davis, they wanted to create a program that enabled as many girls as possible to benefit from a host of tools, lessons, and mentorship. “We studied other platforms working with girls, and there was always a fee or barrier to entry,” she says. “We wanted to build community around them which other girls could connect with, and to build a community of mentors, coaches, and, down the road, investors who are interested in fostering these businesses and supporting them.”

Things moved fairly quickly. Even before they’d settled on a brand identity or the Girl Starter name, the cofounders sent out a rudimentary flier across the country asking for interested female entrepreneurs between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four to send in a short video about themselves pitching a business idea for an upcoming reality show. Within ten days, they received 400 responses. “So many girls had businesses, thoughts, and dreams, and they went for it,” says Davis. “We had to shut the process down we were so overwhelmed.”

From the deluge, they narrowed the field down to thirty. Another round whittled the applicant pool to the final dozen, and eight appear on the show. “The first question we asked was, ‘Are you a young woman who wants to or has started a business?’ ” Davis explains. “We wanted people who really had a variety of different circumstances including geographic, ethnic, and economic diversity. The common thread, no matter their economic status or education, we found was that they were all very focused and driven people. And that’s powerful to see.”

In 2015, as they were still forming the contours of the enterprise, Davis invited a group of ten Duke undergraduates participating in the university’s arts and media New York summer program to Shao Collins’s house for feedback. “We being older people were wondering, gee, how do we communicate to this generation and build this community online?” she says. “It was this amorphous concept, but we knew there was something in there because when we talked about it, the girls lit up.”

Davis and Shao Collins also held various focus groups via Skype among young women and a number of Duke alumnae across the business spectrum who enthusiastically pitched in helping with everything from devising a logo to creating the business plan to shaping ideas—and a liberal dose of help, advice, and support.

The university, in particular the Baldwin Scholars Program, offered informal support and outreach; five Duke alumnae, including Dina Meyers ’94, an entertainment producer veteran and principal of DEM Entertainment Team, served on Girl Starter’s inaugural team of advisers, as did five Duke students, including Julia Collins, dubbed the venture’s founder/intern. “What I love about this is that the more we shared this story about Girl Starter, the more women raised their hands and said, ‘I want to help,’ ” says Davis. “It was Duke women all across the country.”

One of the first to raise her hand was Lesley Jane Seymour ’78, the former editor-in-chief of More magazine. The idea appealed to her immediately. “There is this common thread from the Duke experience of wanting to make things happen that was classic Duke,” she says.

After decades in the corporate world, Seymour had come to believe that entrepreneurship is the best way forward for women. “People used to say, ‘Go into corporate life; it’s steady and predictable,’ ” she says. “But what we are seeing now is young people finding it’s not safe. If they start their own businesses, they can control their own fate.”

Hyperaware of the dearth of women-funded start-ups, Seymour says, “I thought if I can help balance out the inequality, I’m up for the game, and I thought that Girl Starter was a great way to help balance the inequality. Personally, I’d like to see more young women be funded coming out of the gate at college. Corporate life doesn’t allow women to have it all—and men really don’t have to think about that. You don’t have men coming out of Duke asking, ‘Can I have it all?’ ”

There’s the rub. Much of the momentum for Girl Starter had in fact already been laid bare by the university’s landmark Women’s Initiative Study in 2003, which found that many of the university’s undergraduate women arrived with a wealth of self-confidence only to see that diminish greatly over time. The idea for Girl Starter hit home among so many alumnae because, as Davis explains, “there’s a disconnect at college. Women are told you can do anything, but men say do not talk openly about your goals and dreams; keep them to yourself.” As the venture gained traction and she met with more young women, Davis says she found this dynamic playing out repeatedly. “I met all these incredibly talented and accomplished girls, but I was really disheartened by their lack of confidence.”

Girl Starter was a way to not only narrow the real-world divide when it comes to women in business but to provide an early foundation that these women could draw from when it came to pursuing their own aspirations, before society and gender politics took hold, as Julia Collins describes, “to reach girls while they are moldable.”

According to the latest U.S. Census data, women start businesses at twice the overall national rate, accounting for 36 percent of all privately held firms. Yet despite their demonstrable force as an economic catalyst, women face a host of barriers, chief among them the ability to access capital. For instance, a 2014 report by the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee found that only 17 percent of small-business loans go to women. When it comes to the tech industry, women fare even worse. The Harvard Business Review recently reported that only 9 percent of high-growth tech start-ups funded by venture capital firms go to women-owned businesses.

In establishing Girl Starter’s business model, its founders decided to use this grim statistical cloud to create a silver lining. Rather than establish themselves as a nonprofit, they decided to launch as a for-profit enterprise. Not only did they want to be able to generate revenue to provide a slew of tools and content for girls to access for free online, but they also wanted to be able to demonstrate their core mission. “Girls aren’t charity,” says Davis. “The idea here is essentially to provide tools and scaffolding and mentorship to help girls wherever they are to help them create their own businesses.”

To that end, Girl Starter owns the television show and sells corporate sponsorships, integrating the companies into various episodes. To date, they’ve raised $3.8 million in sponsorships, ranging from $250,000 to $1.5 million from such outfits as Staples, Vera Bradley, Microsoft, the U.S. Air Force, Pilot Pen, and Klarbrunn Sparkling Water. For their part, the companies provide marketing and participate in various episodes as coaches, mentors, and judges. In the case of Visa, the credit-card giant linked up with Girl Starter as part of its own three-year-old program aimed at amplifying female entrepreneurs. The company sponsored a Girl Starter episode, and its contestants then joined Visa executives in Austin last March. There they participated in Visa’s “Everywhere Initiative,” where five women-led start-ups pitched their own ideas.

The arrangement was a natural alignment of agendas. “They get access to this generation,” says Davis. “That means hearing about what interests them, and what they want, and how they can incorporate that in their own companies. The girls benefit from their expertise, and Girl Starter gets revenue to make our platform available.”

For a company like Staples that is looking to expand a service-oriented agenda and become a go-to destination for small businesses across the country, Davis says it was a particularly good fit. For instance, Staples is a constant presence throughout the episodes as the contestants use the brand, its services, and its supplies in various business-building challenges. Shira Goodman, the company’s CEO, will announce the winner alongside the Today show’s Al Roker, whose production company, Al Roker Entertainment, is one of the program’s producers.

Mollie Breen ’15, coincidentally one of the contestants, found the corporate sponsorship encouraging. “Yes, we got freebies like tablets and bags,” she says, “but really I felt like I got to really see these large corporations be advocates for women and invest in us, and it was cool to see that.” Breen, a Baldwin Scholar who double-majored in math and computer science, says the companies benefited from her viewpoint. “We were able to offer them the millennial perspective on their products and let them know what we liked so that they could incorporate that into their businesses.”

Perhaps less obvious in the equation was how everyone benefited simply from the ability to engage. Davis described one memorable filming day when Deborah Lee James ’79, former secretary of the U.S. Air Force, sat down with the contestants and was asked, “Do you ever get scared?” She answered, “I feel inadequate every day.” Says Davis, “It’s disarming for a leader to have that kind of moment of impact on this generation. And she is revealing something powerful not just to the girls on the TV show but all across America via TV and the Internet.”

Although she can’t divulge the show’s outcome before the finale airs, Breen, who currently works at the U.S. Department of Defense as an applied-research mathematician, says she came away from Girl Starter with a new awareness and skill set. “I received an understanding of how to start a business,” she says. “But I also got out of this peer-to-peer relationships. And I learned so much more about myself as a leader and an individual, and how I want to connect to others when it comes to conflict and problem solving; but also how to present myself in a group setting.”

The Girl Starter experience also helped Breen to weigh and take risks. Like all of the contestants chosen for the show, Breen had to make a seven-week commitment; that meant taking off time from her job.

“As a Duke student, you are set up to be a success, graduating with a lot of job opportunities,” she says. “But I think sometimes that makes it harder to take on other opportunities like this one going forward. One thing I had to consider was what to do about my current job, and I had to be okay to take time away from it. If I had told my graduating self this a year ago, I would have thought that person was crazy.” But, she says, in the end, “I learned to embrace it and be okay with taking that risk.”

With the finale set to air June 2, Girl Starter already is looking toward season two. This summer they are planning a ten-city East Coast road show on college campuses with popups, offering similar mentorship and tools for fledgling entrepreneurs.

“I think at the core of this we are just helping young women come with an idea and commercialize it,” says Davis. “We help them take an idea and give it structure and clarity. We are giving them tools to refine their idea and communicate it. And they learn to do that by doing research about themselves and others and by asking hard questions.”

Pausing, Davis says, “I think if I had something like this when I was their age, I would have understood that [it] is okay to have ambition. That it was okay to be smart and to think big, and it’s also okay not to have all the answers.”

Stacy Perman is an award-winning journalist and the author of three books, including The New York Times bestseller In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules and most recently, A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Fortune, Bloomberg Businessweek, Marie Claire, Time, Forbes, The Hollywood Reporter, and Newsweek.