Culture 22 October 2018
When I was 13, my mother knocked on my bedroom door to show me the pictures she had taken of me at my 8th grade graduation. The one she had put on top was of me taken from the side, walking towards the stage to accept my diploma. At five-foot-seven I was already much taller than my peers - male and female - and my long stride was clearly the subject of the picture. My legs spanned the entire frame.
“You know, sweetheart," my mom said, “You should really work on taking smaller steps. It isn't ladylike to move so fast."
My mother, a pretty, petite blonde from a middle class midwestern family, was only trying to help. She wanted me to be successful. My face went red, and I didn't respond.
I think about that day a lot. It was the first time someone had told me outright that I was too much. As I attempted to follow my mother's advice and make myself smaller, I grew another 3 inches.
In the years since, I've heard that same message over and over again: you're too loud, you're too big, you're too plain, you're too flippant, you're too serious. The messages were always contradictory, and often about things well outside of my control. But one thing was clear: I was too much in key ways, and if I wanted to succeed I needed to be small, quiet, reserved. Smart without taking center stage. Funny without being witty. Pretty without drawing attention to myself. And those were just the things my mother told me. I complied. I walked in the space that felt safe. I called myself opinionated but never brash, educated but polite, tall but fine with taking small steps.
About a year and a half ago, Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election. Something inside of me broke. Not only because the reality of who had won and why was sinking in, but because Hillary Clinton was the god damned embodiment of walking that line of “too much" and “just right." She was smart but didn't push it in your face. She was funny without making laugh-out-loud jokes. She was pretty, but wore pantsuits because the media 15 years earlier made fun of her ankles. She was taking all of the advice and using it! She was a senator! A Secretary of State! A presidential candidate for a major party!
You're not too much - you're more than enough
And people still hated her.
She was still too much. People “just didn't trust her" or “just didn't like her voice" or found her ambition off putting. She wasn't “authentic" - whatever the hell that means. People made comments about her that didn't make any sense. She spent years - decades! - doing the things she was told to do. She took her husband's last name, put her own political ambitions aside, let the men in her life lead, and walked that tight line between being smart enough to play the game and being quiet enough look like she had just accidentally won a few rounds.
There are countless stories that begin on the morning of November 9, 2016, when we all realized that Donald Trump would be the next president. Mine began much earlier - in July 2000, when my mom told me my stride was too long and I needed to take smaller steps. But that morning is where my story bends and becomes relevant. November 9, 2016 is when I took my first long stride since that conversation with my mother all those years ago.
It took a momentous event - the election of Donald Trump - to force me examine my own part in the larger narrative. I wasn't using my voice, and I didn't care to. It's hard to care, to be involved. It's hard to push against a system that you are ultimately comfortable in. My mother - white, able-bodied, beautiful, rich - and this world was made to cushion her, as it was made to cushion me. All I had to do was play by the rules and my life would be easy. And it was. I had an easy life. I kept quiet. I was politically active the way many privileged white women are: tangentially, softly, from a distance. My indignation of being told to be small, quiet, easy was nothing compared to the rewards I reaped by playing along.
I realized, all at once, that it wasn't just about keeping me quiet and easy; it was about keeping all women quiet and easy. It was about giving white, able-bodied, cis, straight women just enough of the benefits of patriarchy so that they do the hard work of keeping other women down. It is an elegant system: make me feel bad about myself, but give me an easy path in life and I do the rest. I put myself above women who didn't “conform" and kept them down to keep myself up.
After Trump was elected, I wanted to do something. Anything. I reached out to my childhood friend, Sarah Lerner, and asked her out to lunch. She was the most politically active person I knew. We talked for hours, and I knew we could do something special. We could use what we were given, white privilege, and create a space where women could rise to the top of political discourse. I wanted to start a podcast.
Sarah flat out turned me down.
I invited her to lunch again, and told her I had made a plan to launch the podcast. She reminded me that she had said no. I replied, “I know. But it's just an outline. Just take a look at it." She did, and I knew I had her. “Okay," she said. “Let's give it a shot."
Fifteen months later, we've made that space. Men make up 73% of media management. And because of that, women's voices are often sidelined, ignored, or insulted. Women are told we're too emotional for politics, or just flat out not smart enough. We get interrupted when we speak up. We're told to get back in our place. Hellbent rejects that. Here's five things we've learned, that no one told us about launching Hellbent:
You're not too much - you're more than enough. Maybe you've heard this before, like I did. But there's a difference in knowing it and believing it to be true. So maybe you need to read this quote by Marianne Williamson every day, tape it to your mirror, do whatever you need to make it really resonate:
“Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you."
Think bigger, and you will be.
The boys club is alive and well (in podcasting too). The reason why Hellbent is known as “for those who resist and persist" is because despite the fact that we are currently riding an exciting wave of feminist revitalized activity, there is work to be done. For one, in the media industry alone, men occupy 73% of top media management positions. When I went to a large podcasting conference last year, the attendees were overwhelmingly male, and almost every panel I went to was led by men. Podcasting is a new media format, but it is already starting to follow old models. We can change that.
Vulnerability is invaluable. There's always a temptation to “play like a boy," to “act less feminine" and disown what societal norms have coined as female characteristics in order to “fit in" with the boys club. However, last time I checked, a smile registers the same in every language, and so does a tear, and to disregard emotional intelligence, is to sacrifice just that: intelligence. Leading with vulnerability has in fact, produced the most authentic interviews, created meaningful content for our audience and led to legitimate relationships that make the Hellbent community uniquely real.
If you're uncomfortable, you're doing it right. There are so many days that I think, “Well, I can't un-learn that." (Don't google “incel" if you'd like to sleep tonight.) Despite how uncomfortable it can be, and how much easier wrapping myself up in a cocoon of white-able-bodied-women privilege would be, this is a barometer for the work that needs to be done. Chances are, if you are uncomfortable, if it feels hard, you are moving in the right direction of making a difference.
Meet someone where they are. Recognizing that everyone is coming from their own “prior-text" their own life experience, just like my mom, you have to meet someone where they are. So, wherever you are, if you're willing to listen, be challenged, think critically and make your own choice, Hellions everywhere can put our heads down on our pillows at night and feel like we did something right.
Through Hellbent, we have a community of thoughtful, engaged listeners, overwhelmingly female. In every episode, we have a section called “Gratitude Check" because while the political landscape today can be overwhelming at the very least, we can all dig deep and find something good in our lives. We take something normally seen as a disadvantage in politics (openness and vulnerability) and make it something positive. We want to tell our stories as women, to shift the lens through which we view the news. We employ and contract women and pay them fairly for the work they do. We accept feedback and take time to think through and discuss criticism and dissenting opinions. We own our mistakes and push to be more intersectional, more nuanced, and stronger allies. This podcast and this community have made me a better feminist, a better ally, a better citizen, and a better human being. What I learned in the past fifteen months is that to change the world, we have to change ourselves. I had to take that big, long stride into the fray and know that I would come out the other side as the person I knew I could be.
"Steal the mesh underwear you get from the hospital," a friend said upon learning I was pregnant with my first daughter.
It was the single best piece of advice I received before giving birth in December 2013. My best friend delivered her daughter eight months previously, and she was the first to pass along this shared code among new moms: you'll need mesh underwear for your at-home postpartum recovery, and you can't find them anywhere for purchase. End result: steal them. And tell your friends.
My delivery and subsequent recovery were not easy. To my unexpected surprise, after almost 24 hours of labor, I had an emergency C-section. Thankfully, my daughter was healthy; however, my recovery was quite a journey. The shock to my system caused my bloated and swollen body to need weeks of recovery time. Luckily, I had trusted my friend and followed her instructions: I had stolen some mesh underwear from the hospital to bring home with me.
Unfortunately, I needed those disposable underwear for much longer than I anticipated and quickly ran out. As I still wasn't quite mobile, my mother went to the store to find more underwear for me. Unfortunately, she couldn't find them anywhere and ended up buying me oversized granny panties. Sure, they were big enough, but I had to cut the waistband for comfort.
I eventually recovered from my C-section, survived those first few sleepless months, and returned to work. At the time, I was working for a Fortune 100 company and happily contributing to the corporate world. But becoming a new mom brought with it an internal struggle and search for something “more" out of my life--a desire to have a bigger impact. A flashback to my friend's golden piece of advice got me thinking: Why aren't mesh underwear readily available for women in recovery? What if I could make the magical mesh underwear available to new moms everywhere? Did I know much about designing, selling, or marketing clothing? Not really. But I also didn't know much about motherhood when I started that journey, either, and that seemed to be working out well. And so, Brief Transitions was born.
My quest began. With my manufacturing and engineering background I naively thought, It's one product. How hard could it be? While it may not have been “hard," it definitely took a lot of work. I slowly started to do some research on the possibilities. What would it take to start a company and bring these underwear to market? How are they made and what type of manufacturer do I need? With each step forward I learned a little more--I spoke with suppliers, researched materials, and experimented with packaging. I started to really believe that I was meant to bring these underwear to other moms in need.
Then I realized that I needed to learn more about the online business and ecommerce world as well. Google was my new best friend. On my one hour commute (each way), I listened to a lot of podcasts to learn about topics I wasn't familiar with--how to setup a website, social media platforms, email marketing, etc. I worked in the evenings and inbetween business trips to plan what I called Execution Phase. In 2016, I had a website with a Shopify cart up and running. I also delivered my second daughter via C-section (and handily also supplied myself with all the mesh underwear I needed).
They say, “If you build it, they will come." But I've learned that the saying should really go more like this: “If you build it, and tell everyone about it, they might come." I had a 3-month-old, an almost 3 year old and my business was up and running. I had an occasional sale; however, my processes were extremely manual and having a day job while trying to ship product out proved to be challenging. I was manually processing and filling orders and then going to the post office on Saturday mornings to ship to customers. I eventually decided to go where the moms shop...hello, Amazon Prime! I started to research what I needed to do to list products with Amazon and the benefits of Amazon fulfillment (hint: they take care of it for you).
Fast forward to 2018...
While I started to build this side business and saw a potential for it to grow way beyond my expectations, my corporate job became more demanding with respect to travel and time away from home. I was on the road 70% of the time during first quarter 2018. My normally “go with the flow" 4-year-old started to cry every time I left for a trip and asked why I wasn't home for bedtime. That was a low point for me and even though bedtime with young kids has its own challenges, I realized I didn't want to miss out on this time in their lives. My desire for more scheduling flexibility and less corporate travel time pushed me to work the nights and weekends needed to build and scale my side hustle to a full-time business. If anyone tries to tell you it's “easy" to build “passive" income, don't believe them. Starting and building a business takes a lot of grit, hustle and hard work. After months of agonizing, changing my mind, and wondering if I should really leave my job (and a steady paycheck!), I ultimately left my corporate job in April 2018 to pursue Brief Transitions full-time.
In building Brief Transitions, I reached out to like-minded women to see if they were experiencing similar challenges to my own--balancing creating and building a business while raising children--and I realized that many women are on the quest for flexible, meaningful work. I realized that we can advance the movement of female entrepreneurs by leveraging community to inspire, empower, and connect these trailblazers. For that reason, I recently launched a new project, The Transitions Collective, a platform for connecting community-driven women entrepreneurs.
As is the case with many entrepreneurs, I find myself working on multiple projects at a time. I am now working on a members-only community for The Transitions Collective that will provide access to experts and resources for women who want to leave corporate and work in their business full-time. Connecting and supporting women in this movement makes us a force in the future of work. At the same time, I had my most profitable sales quarter to date and best of all, I am able to drop my daughter off at school in the morning.
Mesh underwear started me on a journey much bigger than I ever imagined. They sparked an idea, ignited a passion, and drove me to find fulfillment in a different type of work. That stolen underwear was just the beginning.