You already know their names: Maddy Moelis and Sierra Tishgart (Great Jones), Rachel Hollis (Girl, Wash Your Face), Audrey Gelman (the Wing), Steph Korey (Away), Ty Haney (Outdoor Voices), Leandra Medine Cohen (Man Repeller), Jen Gotch (Ban.do), Christene Barberich (Refinery29).
Their public disgrace became a form of entertainment for those of us with a work-from-home pandemic lifestyle that allowed us to be online pretty much all the time. Their downfalls felt participatory, an augmented-reality game you could play on your phone by toggling between different angry comment threads. Direct-to-consumer brands sold us scented candles and adaptogen tonics while we scrolled.
For the past year, every time a female founder has been exposed in the public square for failing at intersectional feminism, the news appears in my D.M.’s. I wrote a novel called Self Care, set at a wellness start-up, about the dramas that play out between glamorous influencers and righteous online activists. As much as I’ve critiqued (and satirized) girlboss feminism that prioritizes personal ambition and achievement above collective progress, I’m also critical of the way social media incentivizes our outrage and rewards our worst instincts to inflict punishment.
In 1976, the editors of Ms. persuaded activist writer Jo Freeman to write an essay on feminist infighting. After publishing “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,” the magazine received a record number of letters to the editor. Trashing, Freeman writes, “is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.” The “accountability” we claim to want from white girlbosses looks an awful lot like trashing, dressed up like social-justice activism.
The more I thought about what a female founder owes her employees, investors, and customers, the more I saw the conflict between the expectations of venture capitalism and the demands of socially conscious consumers. Once you’ve made the decision to raise V.C. funding, your investors expect growth—fast. Your business imperative shifts from delighting your customer to delighting your investor.
The ascendancy of the millennial female founder coincided with the rise of direct-to-consumer brands. These founders sold community alongside crop tops and cheek pigment. They built cultish online followings around their brands. And when they proved fallible, the denizens of these digital communities tore down their icons.
Leandra Medine Cohen, founder of the fashion site Man Repeller, was felt to lack sufficient awareness of race and class privilege; when Cohen directly addressed her audience by sharing her intentions to learn and grow and do better, the response was: Sorry, not good enough. Man Repeller no longer exists. Meanwhile, Condé Nast’s diversity-and-inclusion council is headed by Vogue’s Anna Wintour.
Boybosses like Adam Neumann, Travis Kalanick, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg are celebrated—until they aren’t—for moving fast and breaking things, even when what gets “broken” is staff morale, because their mission is to deliver returns to their investors, not to create a utopian workplace.
These founders sold community alongside crop tops and cheek pigment. They built cultish online followings around their brands.
When there are reports of a toxic work environment at a company run by women, on the other hand, “the media, disgruntled employees, and their investor board members, burn them at the stake,” writes Brooklyn Bridge Ventures founder Charlie O’Donnell. And that is especially true “when female founders aspire for their companies to fulfill a higher purpose via a lofty narrative.”
“I think a lot of it has to do with expectations,” O’Donnell told me last fall. When he read a chef describe the Wing as “a pink penthouse in the sky … a total facade,” in The New York Times, O’Donnell thought, “Would she have rather worked for Marriott? Because Marriott certainly does not give a shit about anything other than making money.” The founders of the Wing weren’t held to account for failing at the business. They were held to account for failing at feminism. But O’Donnell points out: “Is there a successful version of feminism that everybody agrees on the definition of?”
In a public apology posted to Instagram on October 14, four months after her resignation, founder Audrey Gelman addressed these contradictions: “Was The Wing an activist non-profit? A coworking oasis? A fast-growing tech start-up? Everyone expected something different, which made it impossible to please everyone.” O’Donnell, who is a small, passive investor in the Wing, was told by a staff member that part of their message going forward will be “We are a for-profit company.”
Many have criticized Gelman for failing at for-profit feminism, but I know it’s just as hard to please everyone when you’re doing not-for-profit feminism. In 2016, the nonprofit feminist writing conference I’d co-founded imploded over our 18-plus attendance policy (meaning no children or infants). Although a majority of the mothers involved with the conference wanted to keep the status quo, a petition—signed almost entirely by writers who had never volunteered for, or attended, the conference, including a woman I’d considered a friend—denounced the policy as anti-feminist and demanded that we change it.
The weekend of the conference, activists took advantage of our trending hashtag on Twitter to draw even more attention to what bad feminists we were. After some of the anger had died down, I put out a call for volunteers to join a new committee to work on our attendance policy. I received little to no interest. The point of the campaign was the public callout, not to put in the work to find a solution.
While working on this piece, I spent about 10 hours speaking to women who no longer work for the companies they founded, after being publicly held “accountable” last summer. I could not persuade a single one to go on the record. They were too wary of how the crowd had turned on them to stand in the spotlight again.
“What’s Your Differentiator?”
When we engage in online callout campaigns, we may tell ourselves we’re holding powerful figures to account, but the tools we use were engineered by Big Tech. As the writer Ligaya Mishan has observed, “Every obsessive search on Google for proof of wrongdoing, every angry post on Twitter and Facebook to call the guilty to account is a silent ka-ching in the great repositories of these corporations, which woo advertisers by pointing to the intensity of user engagement.” To fix this, you’d have to reimagine the digital economy.
Naj Austin has a radical vision for re-inventing the Internet that she calls Somewhere Good. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, her platform’s revenue model is not built around advertising. Instead, Somewhere Good will make money when its users do, through paid memberships in various communities. Austin envisions the platform one day becoming as multifarious as Google, “but better.”
“I think for real change to occur, we really have to shake up, change, reimagine who’s creating the new wave of companies,” Austin told me. “When I was talking to an investor a couple of weeks ago, they were like, ‘What’s your differentiator?’ And I said, ‘I am.’ Me building this company is completely different than Mark Zuckerberg building it. I know what it’s like to exist as a Black woman online, and that ultimately delivers a different product.”
When we engage in online callout campaigns, we may tell ourselves we’re holding powerful figures to account, but the tools we use were engineered by Big Tech.
Making identity your differentiator is a strategy other millennial female founders have tried. But Austin says that what sets her apart from other founders is her intersectional team: “People of varying identities, experiences, and backgrounds all coming together to create something new as one, versus one person building something that everyone else must now fit into.”
On Somewhere Good, users will be sorted into communities based on their identity and interests. Austin thinks when users are intimately and intentionally connected, like guests at a dinner party, they’ll have an incentive to be kinder to one another. But in my own experience, online communities quickly and easily devolve into bitter conflict—especially when they’re built around a shared identity. Running a women-only Facebook group with 40,000 members was one of the hardest, most thankless jobs I’ve ever had.
When I asked Austin how she planned to resolve the conflicts that would inevitably crop up, she said, “We’ve already put together a code of conduct and our values statement, and we purposefully did it before the product is built because we want to be clear that it actually came before the product—this is not something we’ve added in once something terrible has occurred.” Everyone says they care about community moderation, “but we’re doing something about it,” she said. In May, Somewhere Good raised $3.75 million in seed funding.
As intrigued as I am by Austin’s ambitious plans to make a better Internet, I’m also haunted by what I’ve learned about how vulnerable female founders are to online communities that judge success by different metrics than investors do. They face the double imperative of succeeding both in business and at sisterhood. “While the men are distant, and the ‘system’ too big and vague, one’s ‘sisters’ are close at hand,” Jo Freeman wrote in 1976.
More than 40 years later, we have powerful mechanisms for holding our sisters publicly accountable, but we’re trapped by our inability to forgive. Until we allow women to learn from their mistakes, make amends to those they’ve harmed, and start over, we’ll keep adding names to the endless roll call of women who failed at being everything to everyone.
Leigh Stein is the author of Self Care