How do we find mentors who look like us, who understand our story? This is challenging, especially for women, and especially for those of us who don’t fit a certain profile: white, straight, privileged, cisgender.
That’s part of the reason why Grace Bonney, the founder of OG design blog Design*Sponge, wrote a book called In the Company of Women. It hit store shelves this week, and she’s just kicked off an epic tour to promote it. Inside its pages, over 100 creative women talk about their career, what success means to them, how they’ve overcome challenges and what they’ve sacrificed to get where they are today. It’s truly inspiring — and that’s coming from a lifelong cynic. I called Grace to talk about the book, blogging and what she learned from this project.
Leslie Price: What was the process behind finding and selecting the women featured in the book?
Grace Bonney: It began as a list of women I have always admired for being bold. By that I mean outspoken and highly opinionated, not afraid to be loud and take up space. That naturally led me to people that work in entertainment. I had a list of musicians and poets and people who worked in politics, then I started expanding and ended up with like 200 people. Ultimately we ended up with 107. It was really all about making sure that everyone everywhere opening up this book was able to find some facet of themselves reflected in one of these women.
Leslie: What else do you hope women take from it?
Grace: For me, it’s all about visibility and understanding how important that is. I came out publicly in 2011 and had come out privately two years prior to that. It was really difficult to not have a women who was out in the lifestyle community to look up to. I wanted young LGBT kids, women of color and people who were over fifty to see thriving, happy, incredibly confident and talented women doing their thing. To be able to look at that and say, “Oh! I can do that. I can be exactly who I am and I don’t have to change anything to be successful.” That drove me.
The thing I hope people take home — the lesson that I got that I definitely didn’t expect to get — was to cut myself some slack. I went into this thinking that so many of these women, especially women like Eileen Fisher and Linda Rodin, would have secrets to work/life balance. The secret was there is no such thing as work/life balance. That lesson alone made me come away from this book feeling so much calmer and more confident. Women hold themselves to this standard that we’re supposed to be this perfect person in every place of our life at all times and that’s never going to happen.
Leslie: One of the things that I thought while reading was how interesting it is to read a book that’s just women and just female entrepreneurs. You really don’t get that perspective very often.
Grace: That still shocks me! I can’t believe that this book didn’t exist yet.
Leslie: Was there something that you thought they all had in common?
Grace: Going into it?
Leslie: Afterwards. Were you like, “Wow, every woman is really hard on herself,” or “Every woman wants more mentors.”
Grace: You nailed it with the second one. Every single woman I talked to, from the age of 19 to late seventies, desperately wanted more personal support from women who were also doing something similar — whether that was other artists or other entrepreneurs or other women who are running large companies. I honestly didn’t expect women running big companies to feel [this] way.
Leslie: I saw that you featured your wife but not yourself. Is there a reason why?
Grace: I’ve had enough air time. Between my radio show and the website, my voice is out there a lot. Adding my voice was taking up a space that didn’t need to be taken up. So that was it. That was an early-on choice.
Leslie: I follow you on social media and have for years online. You have been able to deftly talk about harder-to-discuss issues, such as recent police brutality, while in this “lifestyle” space we inhabit as publishers. That and the book speak to a greater mission. Can you talk about that shift?
Grace: I think about pivot moments all the time, how many of them I’ve had in my life and how profoundly they’ve affected not just my life at home but my life at work. Coming out gave me this huge understanding of what it felt like to be part of a group that felt “other” in any way. That factor so clearly applied to women of color, to differently-abled people, to people who just weren’t reflected in this broader media spectrum. I started to realize how responsible I was for perpetuating that and Design*Sponge really wasn’t making inclusivity a focus. It was a hard stop for us. It was a slam on the breaks, figure out what we’re doing wrong and turn the car around. That was not an easy sell for the audience because I think a lot of people just want pretty houses and pretty atmosphere, and to not hear anything else.
We’ve definitely lost readers and there are people who are upset, but at the end of the day, I care more about cultivating a community that is compassionate and open-minded.
Leslie: I was really surprised by how many of the book’s “inspirational quotes” spoke to me. Which really spoke to you?
Grace: There are two off the top of my head. The first was Liz Lambert of El Cosmico. She runs an incredible series of hotels. She talked about how important it is to give up the idea of the perfect first impression and embrace the fact that people remember how you handle yourself when things don’t work out. That was a giant lightbulb moment. So many of us working online try to make everything pitch perfect from the get-go. And protect ourselves from negative comments and feedback. She reminded me that in those moments of people being upset, or disagreeing, or being frustrated, that’s actually the golden opportunity for me to explain and to demonstrate how we handle things, how we speak to people, what we really believe in.
The other one was Thelma Golden, the director of The Studio Museum in Harlem. She talked about how in moments of difficulty, she returned to people from her community who have done things amazingly before her. Sometimes, working online, you can feel like you’re this pioneer. Like, “Nobody’s ever done this before, there is no clear path to follow.” But there are plenty of people who laid the groundwork for certain types of careers or voices online.
Leslie: What did you take from this project about success?
Grace: I came away with the understanding that success is a target that’s always moving. What success is to you in your twenties will definitely not be what success is to you in your thirties and forties and so on. For me, in the early days it was about traffic and achieving goals that come with what it means to publish online. Now that I’m in my mid-thirties, it’s very different. It’s, “Am I taking care of the people who work with me? Am I taking care of my family? Am I fulfilled? Am I being honest and genuine with people?” As a blogger, you’re taught to talk a lot. This has made me much more interested to hear what other people have to say.
Leslie: Is there a question you wanted to ask but didn’t because it felt too personal? Were there questions that you wish you had asked?
Grace: I did ask this question, but I wished I had pushed people a little bit more on it: “What have you had to sacrifice for your career?” So often we think that people who have achieved success haven’t given anything up. There’s this really important bonding moment that happens when you share things that are difficult. Like, if you don’t get to spend as much time with your kids as you want, or you don’t get to take the business trips that you think would have been incredible and inspiring because you have somewhere else to be that’s also important. Those are tough moments. Things are never black and white. It’s never like, “Oh yes, I get all the time I want at home or not enough time at work.” It’s a bit of both. It’s always, “I missed my kid’s soccer game BUT I got to have this incredible experience at work,” or vice versa. You can live with both of those at the same time.
Get your hands on a copy of In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs; check out Grace’s site, Design*Sponge; and follow Grace and Design*Sponge on Instagram @designsponge, Twitter @designsponge, and Facebook, too!
Photo credits: Excerpted from IN THE COMPANY OF WOMEN by Grace Bonney (Artisan Books). Photographs by Sasha Israel, Claudia Zalla, and echo and earl. Copyright © 2016.