In January 2005, on top of a Mayan pyramid in Oaxaca, Mexico, I had a life-changing experience. I met Lisa Stone, the founder of BlogHer, the first community for women who blog.
At the time, I was a political consultant in Washington, DC. I felt unheard, to say the least. BlogHer gave me a voice. Writing about politics as BlogHer’s first Political Director gave me a platform to share women’s points of view.
I didn’t know it then, but as one of the few female bloggers who covered politics, I had lucked into a powerful niche. As blogging gained popularity and authority, I often found myself fielding questions from curious political, marketing, and communications professionals: What was this blogging and citizen journalism thing all about, and could I explain it to them? Even better, I could blog from anywhere, and this allowed me more time to myself while still building professional influence. I knew I was on to something- and that was the root of my business, Women Online.
And that’s why, even though the internet is an ugly place, it can be magic when you’re working to find your voice and make your mark in the world. BlogHer co-founder and author of Roadmap for Revolutionaries Elisa Camahort Page calls herself a digital utopian, and I must agree.
Here are the profiles of three women who built businesses by satisfying their curiosity and finding their online voices.
I met Chedva Kleinhandler in Tel Aviv when I was on a REALITY trip to Israel. I was drawn to this funny and bold woman entrepreneur. Chedva is a Haredi woman– from an ultra Orthodox Jewish community. She is a true trailblazer, and is now CEO of Emerj – an app that uses AI to connect employees with mentors on demand. When I learned Chedva got her start as a blogger I had to know more and asked her the story of how she started, because her blog changed her life.
In 2008 Chedva was translating subtitles for TV shows and books. She was a new mom managing her emergence as an adult. “I had a very personal blog, which I then after a few years deleted. I really sort of really spilled out everything about being a young mother. I was 21. It was a very emotional time in my life. I was just starting to work.”
Chedva built many blogs along the way: from book reviews to diet and fitness and lifestyle. She found her niche when she became a homeowner. Looking for inspiration, she found home and design blogs, an emerging category. Chedva says, “I remember the experience of finding a blog you love and not sleeping at night.”
She began commenting, following both the bloggers and the designers they featured on Twitter. Community developed: “We sort of became this group,” both fans of the blogs and aspiring bloggers themselves. It was a global group, including “one interior design publicist who was American but was an insomniac so she never slept.”
In 2009 Chedva started her design blog, which she initially called Belly’s Button and which evolved into Rooms and Words. “I started writing about both just to curate my inspiration. There was no Pinterest. My computer kept crashing from all the images I would save.”
She laughs: “I felt that suddenly I also had something to say about things that I liked and didn’t like, what makes this feel homey, why I would like to have this in my home. Not trying to position myself as an expert because I had never been an interior designer and decorator. Just as someone who is interested from a very human perspective.”
As her blog evolved, Chedva started consulting for big brands, “I found myself producing photo shoots; companies like Houzz and Etsy came to me for collaborations. In 2011, IKEA in Israel approached me. I actually gave my first workshop there for their designers on how to blog.”
As word got out, business owners from all disciplines approached Chedva for help in launching their online presence. As Chedva taught herself how to be a consultant, the idea for her company Emerj came to be: “I never thought I’d have a startup. It came literally from me feeling that mentoring was super meaningful to me.” Because she is a curious person and because she understands online community, Chedva launched a survey asking women all over the world what they needed to succeed. Women from 54 countries responded, and from the community’s answers she shaped her startup. For too many women she spoke with “Mentoring was missing,” and Chedva realized there was a gap in the market.
Chedva and I share a similar approach: we learn from women online! “You just need to adapt and learn who are the influencers, what’s interesting to them, what’s interesting to you, how you can actually bring humanity into it, right?”
Andrea Sparrey’s counsel helps people get into elite business schools, and her track record is enviable. Her firm Sparrey Consulting has built a network of thousands of clients they’ve coached through the biggest life and career transitions, and who now hold powerful jobs in every industry. But when I met Andrea, she had just left management consulting and was a new mother. She wanted to break into MBA coaching, but the field was ruled by gatekeepers: from Deans of Admissions to consultants who’d worked hard to gain their industry knowledge and weren’t necessarily open to newcomers. So Sparrey used blogging to break in, and meet the people she needed to. Although she is now the past President of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, she began her career by editing the trade association’s blog when she was just starting out as an MBA admissions consultant. In so doing, she met everyone influential and powerful in the field of business school admissions— because she interviewed, engaged with, and edited them.
At the time, Andrea didn’t have much choice: she needed to conduct most of her networking online. Because of her husband’s job, she’d uprooted her life from New York City to San Diego, far from the locus of elite business schools and the consultants, bankers, and entrepreneurs who applied to them. “I was willing to write articles—and it gave me a platform to call up the most important people! I then helped organize the conferences, and then I had the chance to go out and meet people at all levels of the field,” Andrea says.
For author and editor Lizzie Skurnick, it turned out that the biggest superconnector in her career was her blog. Her inspiration to launch one of the first literary blogs, Old Hag, led to her career as an author, publisher, New York Times columnist, and much more–and, most important, let her make her living in the books world. Lizzie says, “My entire professional life and my dearest closest friends spring from a blog. If I hadn’t started it, and connected with the three people who also shared my passion, I wouldn’t have the life I have now.”
In 2003, Lizzie was sitting in her apartment, 40 pounds overweight, recently fired from her job, her only income a still-new relationship writing about books for a local indie paper. But from a major writer she profiled, she learned about blogs, and joined the fledgling world of literary bloggers. At the time, she says, “You could get fired for blogging, and we all either hated our jobs, or were about to get fired.” None of them had any idea the media was about to become obsessed with blogging, and she and her friends were swept up in it, some founding new Gawker blogs, some going to the Daily Show, some making a splash in print media.
For Lizzie, it led to writing reviews for the New York Times Book Review. It also, through a friend who read her blog, put her on the radar a local teen girls magazine that let her work part-time, but still gave her health care. Another blogging friend introduced her to the new editor-in-chief of Jezebel, and she launched a column on YA books that the major author (remember her?) recommended to her editor. That became a book, as did her New York Times Magazine column, which another blogger friend had recommended her for. That in turn led to her YA imprint, Lizzie Skurnick Books, which put her in the Times again, but as a subject.
“Everything, everything I have came from the blog,” she says, “but I was just noodling around. At the time, using a blog to be ambitious would have been crazy. So never underestimate the value of just fooling around with what you love.”
Morra is author of Hiding in the Bathroom: A Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home) and founder of social impact agency Women Online and The Mission List.