Call it the reality effect. For Jeannine Shao Collins, CEO and Co-Founder of Girl Starter – a new television show on TLC – now was the right time to use the reality show format to help empower young women in business. Collins is also the former EVP and Publisher of MORE Magazine.
“I will say right now everyone knows women are leading men in education,” says Collins, whose new six-episode show is meant to empower young women in business.
“There is such a [self] starter spirit of these young women vs. the boomer generation. They don’t think they have to work their way up the corporate ladder. They want to own their businesses now. We’ve seen it resonate and want to keep that going.”
Each episode highlights a piece of the Girl Starter curriculum: Start it. Plan it. Prove it. Build it. Brand it. Fund it. The grand prize includes up to $100,000 of investment and services.
According to Collins, the genesis for the show actually came from her 16-year-old daughter, Julia, after Collins had explained to her about the well-known gender disparity in business. “She was quite adamant and said I have to do something about this gender inequity thing,” Collins says. “She told me she was going to start an entrepreneurship club so that young women can develop a risk tolerance. I said, ‘Julia, that’s brilliant and I believe we have to get behind girls while they are younger but I don’t think it’s going to affect the world.’”
To make a bigger impact, and after considering a recent statistic stating that 97 percent of millennials aspire to be famous, the gears in Collins' mind started turning. She decided to transform her daughter’s idea into a reality show in order to bring the message to the public. Before deciding on the format, Collins and her team decided to talk with Julia’s peers to understand their sentiments about joining the business world.
“We did a focus group with young women [and found out] they felt like the word entrepreneurship was elitist and difficult to spell,” says Collins. “To get women to lean into it, it had to be more approachable and more inviting. We were trying to inform young people to think of how to make ideas, how to get mentorship and how to pitch for funding.”
Ultimately, eight girls between the ages of 18 to 24 were selected to participate in the show, which featured guest mentor judges like Tiffany Pham and Stephen Shapiro. Additionally, Collins secured Collete Davis, a 23 year-old rallycross race car driver, as the show's host.
After meeting with a casting director and posting a casting call online, Collins says she received 400 submissions from girls in 10 days who wanted to be part of the show, even without knowing the associated network. “We know there’s a huge appetite for young women who want to aspire to be the next Mark Zuckerberg,” says Collins. “We really tapped into something, and ended up with eight very diverse girls; geographically, socioeconomically, educationally, and culturally. We wanted the show to be democratizing.”
“The whole thing was my first journey as an entrepreneur,” says Collins. “I feel I’ve learned all those lessons that the girls have. You don’t really know what it’s like until you are there. It’s filled with ups and downs and highs and lows. We all learned a ton through this experience."
Because Girl Starter is a reality show, Collins says there was some behind-the-scenes drama, but that overall vibe was positive. "There was a ton of drama but not many cat fights," says Collins. “There is drama in business. You think you are going one way and it pivots another way. The girls relied on each other and they feel like they made seven best friends.”
Another strategic choice was to select investors like Microsoft, Staples, Visa, AT&T, and the US Airforce that represent women in media without necessarily being "girl brands.”
“We really felt these companies wanted to get behind these women… and make sure women lean into stem and tech,” Collins says. “It only means better products for them."
“Our brand is about trying to capture those investors [focused on] female entrepreneurs,” says Collins. “Those who walk the walk and talk the talk, and are totally authentic. Those who want every man and woman to achieve their full potential. We are a startup and want people who are authentically behind the mission."
Collins said another motivator was her personal goal of helping improve the role models for women in media. “They want to be known as smart, capable, innovative and multidimensional," she says.
Filming, which lasted six weeks and started in February, was taxing. But with production company, Al Roker Entertainment at the helm, Collins said she was re-invigorated and reminded of her mission. “He’s a father of two and such a girl star, getting behind young women,” says Collins. “The girls loved meeting him."
“The whole project has been amazing,” says Collins. “Frankly I can’t wait to share these girls with the girls [of the world]. It’s totally inspiring."
Looking to the future, Collins, who reveals Girl Starter Season 2 is in pre-production, wants to expand the reach of the show, potentially utilizing social channels and other digital mediums.
“We’d like it to be a movement on all platforms,” says Collins, who owns the rights to the show and all its associated content. “We can play in digital, and hope to get involved in large social media platforms.”
Viewers can catch episodes on TLC Go.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.