Amy-Willard Cross knew her historic mission and found her power to achieve it was right there, within her. She tells 9 Ways how and she founded the media company Vitamin W, “100% Kardashian-free.”
Knowing her personal history enabled Amy-Willard to create the future of her choice. How’s that for using the old Power Tool #1?
Read and be energized…then sign up right here for Vitamin W’s free newsletter and they’ll donate $1 to one of five fabulous women’s charities. Here’s Amy-Willard:
Gloria Feldt: When did you know you had the power to start a woman-owned media company? What did it feel like?
Amy-Willard Cross: I tried to start a magazine—a Pariscope kind of guide for LA. I was just out of college and had never worked at a magazine, so I got a partner. Soon, though, I gave up and took a regular starter job which turned into decades of working in magazines.
Fast forward to the mid-aughts. I started a site of women’s oped—thinking that, like Dooce, I’d put something up and the world and advertisers would flock to me…but I missed that boat by a few years.
After a few years of watching the not-for-profit feminist blogosphere, I determined that the world needed a woman-owned media property that would promote women in every respect—our businesses, our nonprofits, ALL our stories—and gather together the 11 million women who support women’s organizations into a powerful audience.
I found a super-smart MBA partner who helped me develop a business plan—and then we started thinking about raising money. That same spring of 2011, I was at a conference to learn how to be an Angel investor—and realized, I don’t need to raise money from someone ELSE to start an online publication—I can afford to do with my own capital.
I had felt I had to ask someone else’s permission to take that risk. But I didn’t….It was like I was wearing those Ruby slippers all along. So now I just have to keep clicking my heels together so I can get to where I need to go. It’s not Kansas exactly, but my destination is far off.
GF: What is in your background that led you to your current work?
AWC: I’m the middle girl, not the beautiful one, or the tantrum-ing one (with an only son of an only son of an only son for a brother) so I learned to do dishes, not make a fuss and keep my head down and do my work. Or that’s how I see it.
I’m descended from a long line of feminists—I’m named for Frances Willard the suffragist and more—famously, temperance activist. My great grandmother worked alongside her, shoulder to shoulder but NOT bending elbows.
My grandmother was a divorcee with two MA’s and a Fulbright professor who was the first woman teacher at University of Damascus. She always told me to go to a women’s college. “In my day, you had to be 100 times, better than a man, in your day, it’ll be about 50 times.” She was a strong southern lady (and very conservative and made a huge impression on me)
I always knew I’d be a writer—I used to tell my grandmother I’d take a typewriter on my honeymoon. She didn’t contradict me. She wasn’t a huggy kind of granny—she was a formal finger bowl-practicing kind of woman who would scold me for reading War and Peace too fast.
I did follow her advice and went to Wellesley (the Agnes Scott of the North); my grandfather the minister would ask me whether I was graduating cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude. I was magna, in the end, thankfully. Going to Wellesley was the best decision I ever made even though I felt too cool for it at the time; my favorite people are those I’ve met there or at later reunions. Anyone who did is smart and feminist enough for me to like. I even hire Wellesley people I find on Linked in…I’d hire from the Other Seven Sisters but somehow I got kicked out of that group and they won’t reply to me about why. Spammers at work?
As a child, I wasn’t into dolls or sports—just books and theater. I was in a small class of smart girls. I would count ads in the New Yorker for some reason. I marched for the ERA. I read Ms. in elementary school. In fifth grade, I wrote my first play—a dystopia where women were the oppressors and men the oppressed. (Conflict was solved with a promise of a vacation.)
As I got older, Germaine Greer, college guides and Our Bodies Ourselves kept me company—I didn’t need any sex ed as I decided that I couldn’t waste time with dating—I was anxious about getting into the ‘right’ kind of college. For middle class Americans, it seems to be like the threads of the Fates—which school you attend determines your life’s path.
I always swore I’d never work for women’s magazines, but a bankruptcy made me do it. Then I reviewed Naomi Wolf’s book where she did a byline count and I was shocked to see the odds of my getting published in the New Yorker were low just because I was a girl. And then I realized that the women who wrote for Harpers would write about how they liked porn, so I finally plunged into a Canadian women’s magazine which was tied into the feminist movement.
GF: Who are your role models? Why? What lessons did you learn from them?
AWC: I don’t know if I have any role models in real life…people that I could copy so that my life would be perfection. However, there are many people I look up to.
I love what Lawrence Lessig does—with creative commons and Rootstrikers. I am in awe of Brewster Kahle’s commitment to the Internet Archive. And Hillary Clinton for using her perfect smartness for good and to serve her country. And Soledad O’Brien who is not only a hard-working journalist who won’t take crap and spin who confronts big issues like being black in America, but also helps those less fortunate with a brilliant foundation that just pays tuition of young women.
I really admire Joanne Wilson aka The Gotham Gal for her bringing entrepreneurism to women (and women to entrepreneurism) and Rachel Sklar for creating the very positive phrase and idea of “Changing the ratio”. Both those women show the possibility of creating something new and powerful. Jessica Jackley with Kiva, as she figured out a whole new model of bringing money, directness and human storytelling to aid.
However, I do rely on a lot of Scarlett O’Hara’s wisdom, “I’ll think about that tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day.” Which to me means, you can confront any problem, just sometimes wait a bit—but not too long. Have a good night’s sleep or take a deep breath, then get back at it.
GF: What are you hoping to accomplish in your work?
AWC: My goal for VITAMIN W is to build a media platform with a powerful audience. I want Vitamin W to become a big voice for women online—for the most part on the internet, we are un-herded cats, except for Komen moments when we rise up. It’s time to aggregate our voices online.
I want this platform to help change the ways companies communicate with women. Companies need to reach us—the major purchasers—but they often do so in in a manner that is inauthentic and self-serving”. Vitamin W will provide space for companies to communicate in a new and different way—through strategic cause marketing and positive messaging. Many of the for profit, more substantive women’s sites are just a piece carved out of a media empire—a way to sell advertisers women’s eyeballs. Nothing more than that.
I don’t want to be a pair of eyeballs for sale. I want to take charge of that transaction between advertiser and publisher and change it.
I also want to use Vitamin W’s audience to for good—to help build up women’s businesses and support nonprofits by getting the word out about their work.
Making the site profitable means that we can afford to pay more writers and get good quality material. I have been going to conferences focused on women’s media and have met many people in the feminist blogosphere and was stunned to find out that blogs that had millions of readers were running as collaborative non–profits, and that they didn’t pay writers. I thought, what a bad model for a women’s press. There is no reason why we can’t have a woman-owned financially sustainable press that promotes our interests in every single way—from advertising to editorial.
GF: Is there a message you’d like to give to the world today?
AWC: That women, as a block, are powerful and have to assert our demographic power politically and economically. Add others who have been excluded such as Latinos and African Americans—and you see that we are the majority. The majority is supposed to rule—fairly.
GF: Is there a leadership lesson you have learned and would like to share?
AWC: From people I know who run businesses, I’ve figured out that the owner is standing at the abyss—that everyone behind her doesn’t know the reality and doesn’t want to. And that as a leader, you have to carry on with the abyss in front of you and not show anyone what could go wrong. Just think about NOT falling into its chasm.
Try to be as nice as you can to people. I’m a chaotic person to work for as everyone has told me—so I couldn’t be mean on top of that. Also, why spread bad feelings around.
GF: What other observations or advice about women, power, and leadership would you like to share?
AWC: Ask, or even better just do.
When I was younger, I used to wait to be asked…well sometimes. Once I was working at a film company on a project; there had been some big news story, a colleague wrote up an editorial and faxed it to the Times of London. I was flabbergasted at her boldness. But I never forgot it. You can reach as high as you can—sometimes you’ll grab the brass ring, or swinging vine or whatever. But you have to reach.
And speaking of doing, VITAMIN W Media is doing a very cool campaign: Her Voice, Her Cause, to raise funds for our five nonprofit partners: Girls Who Code; Hollaback!; Our Bodies, Ourselves; The 2012 Project; and Women, Action & the Media. Through November 27, VITAMIN W will donate $1 to these women-focused nonprofits for each new free newsletter subscriber, up to $10,000. You click and we’ll contribute!