Piera Gelardi, the co-founder and executive creative director of media company Refinery29, learned early on that vulnerability and adaptability weren’t just crucial for her career but also for the growth of her company, now 14 years old. She and her three co-founders and friends had to adapt to an ever-changing media marketplace and also their roles within a company that grew from nothing to a major player with hundreds of employees. Not all of those changes were painless.
This week on Eater’s business podcast, Start to Sale, hosts Erin Patinkin (CEO, Ovenly) and Natasha Case (CEO, Coolhaus) talk to Gelardi about impostor syndrome and being your own cheerleader, how her company is trying to change who has access to opportunities, and the emotional rollercoaster of running an ever-adapting company (and getting pushed out of a key role).
On battling impostor syndrome: “As women we often we feel the need to credential ourself to this unrealistic level. Like you kind of think about often women will feel like they need in order to apply for a job, they need to hit every single requirement in the job description ... so I think that was a big lesson for me. A, on not putting myself down, and B, on recognizing my own experience as valuable, and realizing that I have a lot of credentials that I don’t give myself credit for ... It was a lesson that there’s a difference between being humble and being self deprecating. And the world will beat you down. The world will doubt you. And it’s really our own jobs to build ourselves up and to give ourselves that credit, and to work on our confidence.”
On trying to create real change: “What we’re trying to change is we’re trying to change the way that media and advertising represents women and as a result, change the way that women feel about themselves and help women to claim their power. What we hear from our audience is that seeing our content, reading our content, makes them feel less alone, makes them feel validated, makes them feel represented, gives them inspiration and fuel and information to really excel in different areas in their lives.”
On adapting to new roles as the company grew: “Over time, I started to be able to focus more on my strengths but also had to learn a lot of new skills like leadership, management, how to rally people around the goals and the projects that we were doing as a company.
Then as we grew in the last couple of years, we’ve grown so much, and there was a moment where basically we were looking at the organization and several people on our executive team said, “Piera, I don’t think it makes sense for you to manage the creative teams because creative and content are so interlinked, so we think that our chief content officer should manage all of the teams.” It took me about two years to get through the grief of that decision... One, your ego, you want to hold onto something that seems powerful in some way. That you’re personally responsible for managing a lot of people. I think the other thing was having a shift in my own mindset of basically managing people versus influencing people. That was a really hard transition for me. It took me about two years to work through it and get through to the other side.”
On the evolution of her partnership with her co-founders: “We definitely have a very tight bond. I think like any relationship, our company has gone through ups and downs, our relationship has gone through ups and downs. I think that for us it’s been about sparring without parting. Being comfortable with challenging each other, being comfortable with calling each other out when we need to, but having the love and empathy to stick together and to ... I think we all know when one of our partners is calling us out that it is done for the benefit of all of us and it is not done with any kind of malice.”
Listen to the show in full in the audio player or read the full transcript of the interview below. And please subscribe to hear entrepreneurs from various sectors tell Case and Patinkin about their struggles and victories of business-building in the weeks to come.
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Erin Patinkin: One of the things that we wanted to talk about today was that progression from not being confident in who you are and what you’re doing to being confident in who you are and what you’re doing. And a while back on Instagram you talked about an interview you had regretted when you offhandedly had put yourself down, and the result was titled Six Lessons from a Creative Director with Zero Work Experience, despite the fact that you actually had a whole lot of valuable work experience. So tell us about that headline, where it came from exactly, and how it affected you and how you thought about yourself, and how you presented yourself to the media.
Piera Gelardi: Yeah, so I think at the time of the interview I was going through a particularly acute bout of imposter syndrome. I offhandedly said, “I have no experience to be doing what I’m doing.” And it resulted in a headline that said I had no experience. And subsequently, in every interview that I do, including this one, but in a different context. This is different. But in many subsequent interviews, people ask me about my lack of work experience, which drives me bananas because I have a ton of work experience, but it’s no one’s fault. It’s not the interviewer’s fault, it’s not the subsequent journalist that asked me that question. It’s my own damn fault because I said I had no work experience. And I think that comes from imposter syndrome, which most self aware humans have. And I think it’s particularly gendered and acute for women.
PG: And I think that as women we often we feel the need to credential ourself to this unrealistic level. Like you kind of think about often women will feel like they need in order to apply for a job, they need to hit every single requirement in the job description whereas ... This is a generalization, but whereas I think men are more comfortable saying, “Well, I have most of these criteria, so I’m going to apply for this.”
Natasha Case: I will learn that when I get there. Yep.
PG: I will learn that when I get there. And so I think that was a big lesson for me. A, on not putting myself down, and B, on recognizing my own experience as valuable, and realizing that I have a lot of credentials that I don’t give myself credit for. Because it was only when I saw it in print that I discredited ... I said, “That’s not true. That’s not true.” It’s not true that I have zero work experience. Not only have I been building this company-
EP: It’s not just a company, it’s a huge company.
PG: Right. Not only have I been building this huge company from nothing to where it is today, which now is 14 years of on the job experience, I also had years of experience before that in media and creative. And so anyway, I think it was a lesson that there’s a difference between being humble and being self deprecating. And the world will beat you down. The world will doubt you. And it’s really our own jobs to build ourselves up and to give ourselves that credit, and to work on our confidence.
I think I’m someone that’s very transparent. And I value vulnerability in the work that I do, in other people, so I don’t think it’s that we shouldn’t talk about our imposter syndrome like we’re doing right now. I think it’s important to talk about imposter syndrome, to talk about self doubt, to be vulnerable in that way. It’s just you have to think about the context that you’re talking about it, and making sure that you’re talking about it and recognizing that it is what it is. That it’s imposter syndrome. That it’s something that you need to conquer. It’s not the truth. Because for me, in that moment, I had internalized it and made it my truth, and that’s really damaging, so I think that was definitely a big lesson for me.
NC: I’ve heard you say it’s almost like you should talk about yourself the way ... almost imagining it’s not you saying it, another advocate would be talking about you and talking you up. That sometimes has to be you being your own cheerleader in that way.
PG: So true. I remember when I was growing up, sometimes if I would say like, “Oh, I’m so stupid.” My mom would go, “How dare you talk about my daughter that way.”
NC: That’s amazing.
PG: And it’s funny. My mom also often has a hard time taking compliments, or she’ll talk negatively about herself, and we both helped each other to get to a better place. Like I taught my mom a few years ago how to accept a compliment.
NC: All those years.
PG: And then she has to teach me the lesson that I taught her.
EP: What I found that I was doing for years is someone would ask me about the company that I was building, and I’d say, “Oh, well, we’re doing really well. We’ve raised money. We’re cash flow positive. But I’ve made so many mistakes. It’s been really hard.” And always sort of showing what I had done and built followed by, “But I’m not that great.”
NC: Almost like a Tourette’s thing.
EP: It really was. And I have a wonderful mentor and he one day was like, “Why do you constantly talk about what you do and follow it with something negative? It’s such a strange habit.” And I don’t think I ever really realized that. I’m a very jokey person. I like poking fun at myself, but there is a difference between sort of not taking yourself too seriously and not taking yourself seriously. And that’s something that I had to learn too, and it was very hard for me to accept that anything I did was good. And it was a very pivotal moment for someone who I really respected to point it out to me. And then I became ultra self aware for a while. I was like, “Why am I doing that? I need to stop.” Because it can come off, especially in a business situation, as insecurity. And that’s the death of a leader, especially when you’re trying to present yourself to media or investors or clients.
I had just a very similar moment where I was like I need to stop doing this to myself. Because ultimately, it’s also bad for your own ego. You have to build your self up internally.
NC: And I do think you hit on an interesting point about there is definitely some gendered stuff going on with imposter syndrome. I tell a lot of female colleagues, or especially women in business I mentor, I think sometimes what women consider bragging is just how men talk. It’s such a different standard.
EP: Oh, absolutely.
NC: So getting into specifically about women, and because that’s so much of your team and your community, how does the experience you’ve had with that, how has that affected how you interact with them, whether it’s your audience or your team? Do you really find that to be also an issue within the culture and you try to break them from putting themselves down or not speaking up enough or anything like that?
PG: Yeah, I think the things that you learn for yourself, it’s all for a reason, then you’re able to see those things in other people and be able to point them out and help people through them. There’s a great chapter in the “Feminist Fight Club” book called WWJD, What Would Josh Do? And it’s about conducting yourself like a mediocre white man.
It’s a really helpful chapter to read whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s very instructive as to the ways that we conduct ourselves and a lot of the habits that we have. Read What Would Josh Do? It’s a really good chapter in the book, and I found it very helpful, and I think about it a lot.
But, yeah, I think in the company, everyone’s different. It’s amazing. I learned so much from the people that work for me, and I see so many different types of leadership styles with the people in the company. And it’s helpful because you see certain things that are incredible that you aspire to emulate and you see things that you want to help people work through. When I see other people that have imposter syndrome or self doubt, I’m actually really good at helping people through that as someone that continuously goes through that myself. So yeah, I feel like the things that we struggle with end up being the things that we’re most useful helping other people through.
EP: You have empathy.
EP: How many people do you have on staff now?
PG: With freelancers, almost 500.
EP: Wow, that’s amazing. That was just a random question I was curious about.
PG: It’s so wild, I know. Sometimes I walk in and I feel like, “Oh, I’m just going to my job, employee at Refinery 29.” And then like, “I built this city. This is wild.”
EP: It’s insane.
PG: It’s just hard to expand your mind to take in sometimes what you’ve achieved. And I also feel like sometimes that’s why we try and counterbalance it is because we’re actually afraid of our own greatness. We’re afraid of our own achievement.
PG: Sometimes when you get to another level, it’s just hard to even process that you’re there.
EP: Totally. You have such a large staff. Is there a way that you feel like you can bring everything that you’ve learned to every single person that walks in through the door at Refinery 29? How do these emotional experiences, you’re very open, you’re emotionally honest, and people connect to people because we see ourselves reflected back. How do you bring that not just to the media, and your social media, but to your staff?
PG: Yeah, I think I try and do it by being emotionally honest, being vulnerable. I’ve tried, because now there’s so many people, it’s such a big difference between sometimes I think, “Oh, if only I could go back to when we had 20 employees, that would be so good.”
EP: We want to talk about that actually.
PG: But with that many employees it is sort of thinking about what are the systems that I can put in place and the touchpoints that I can put in place to impact people? So some of those are I have a monthly creative meeting where I gather ... anyone can attend the meeting, but it’s largely the people that are working on different creative teams. And in that meeting, I usually open with what I call my soliloquy. But I open sort of giving some perspective as to what I’ve been out in the world seeing, and how that relates to the work that we’re doing. I try and help people to see the meaning of the work that they’re doing.
So maybe I’ll tell them a story about someone who loves Refinery coming up to me on the subway and gushing to me about how meaningful the work that we do is to her. Or recently I told them about going to a paid family leave think tank and having this big conversation about the fact that media and culture actually drive policy change. And so sort of helping them to see where we sit in actually changing culture and changing policy and changing people’s lives. So I try and help people to tap into the meaning of what they’re doing, helping them to see their place in that. Because often when your head’s down, you’re getting your work done, you don’t necessarily, you’re not able to zoom above yourself and see what you’re a part of. So that’s something that I really try and do with the team.
NC: Soliloquy. I love that.
PG: The soliloquy. What am I going to say for this soliloquy? So yeah, trying to help people see the perspective, but then I’ll also speak honestly. Sometimes the last creative meeting, August is always such a busy time for us, and I find that people get super burnt out because we have summer Fridays. It’s summer, they want to live their best life, and take advantage of summer, so they’re doing that and they’re taking their summer Friday, but as a result, they have half a day.
NC: 12 hour Monday to Thursday.
PG: Yeah, they have less time to get work done, and we’re super busy. So just every year, it’s this cycle. So I also try and use that time to speak honestly about that. So for the August one, I was like, “Guys, this is a historically big burnout time. So you might all be feeling end of your rope. And I want you guys to find a self care buddy because when we’re at the end of our rope is often when we forget, or we make excuses why we can’t take care of ourselves. And you have to find that balance.” So I just try and encourage them to do stuff like that. And then, this is a really long winded answer, you can cut me off.
NC: No, the more the merrier, honestly. People feel like they probably have to hide at most companies what you’re saying, what they’re going through. So just to call it out and make it okay, already I feel like kind of dis-empowers it to take over. And that’s awesome. That’s really smart. I think that would be an amazing lesson for anyone listening.
PG: Yeah, exactly. It’s just calling out, being transparent, honest, not pretending everything is perfect, and allowing them to acknowledge in themselves that something is hard, something is challenging, I think helps them to address it.
NC: If I can just say too, I think mostly when I think of transparency in business, and for a lot of people potentially, my mind goes to being open with the numbers and the metrics and the goals. But you’re talking about something so different, which is really just using your words and the fact that you’ve been doing this for this long, you know it like the back of your hand. August is coming, this is going to happen. And so it doesn’t always have to be, I think, transparency about something in the financials or something, it can be the emotional side. So I think that’s really cool, and it changes, I think, our perception of what transparency means.
EP: Yeah, I also think, I have found that my staff feels the best when we don’t hide the hard times. And there are always hard times when you’re building a business, especially in the beginning when there were moments when we were like, “Is this going to work? We don’t know.” But instead of hiding that from people, we’d be like, “Hey, guys. We’re not sure if this is going to work. If you believe in what we’re doing, can we bind ourselves together and go crazy and knock sales out of the park and reduce costs and all of those things that affect food businesses? Looking back, the hardest moments oftentimes feel like the best moments in the history of the company because we, instead of retreating into ourselves, tried to rally around the issues. That really brought people together in a good way even though they were hard moments in the end.
We had this crazy time in 2014, and the staff that were working with us still say, “Wow, that was so crazy, but it was also the best,” because we all felt like we were working towards a goal together, and we were being honest that we might fail. You just mentioned that you try to get people, you try to remind them that what you do changes lives. What does that look like to you? What kind of lives do you want to change and how?
PG: For us, what we’re trying to change is we’re trying to change the way that media and advertising represents women and as a result, change the way that women feel about themselves and help women to claim their power. What we hear from our audience is that seeing our content, reading our content, makes them feel less alone, makes them feel validated, makes them feel represented, gives them inspiration and fuel and information to really excel in different areas in their lives. That’s the main thing we’re trying to change. We’re also really trying to change who has access to opportunities. We have a women’s film initiative because we want to get more women behind the lens.
EP: That’s the Shatterbox Initiative.
PG: Shatterbox, yeah. We’ve done a lot of different projects to visually change the representation of women from actually creating our own stock archive. Basically, stock photography was really not doing women any favors with how we were being represented. Not only was the imagery, the stereotype is white women laughing into salad bowls.
NC: So true.
PG: Not only was it these cliché type of images, but we also just saw such a lack of representation and even things like when we were looking at what images of plus sized women looked like. In the majority of the images of plus size women, they were measuring their waist or standing on a scale.
EP: My God.
PG: Their weight was the subject of the image versus their weight being an aspect of the image but where they were the protagonist doing other things. That was a project we took on actually very early on. We started shooting our own staff, and then we started going out with model casting cards to just make sure that we could really represent women of all types. Then we started our stock archive collection, and then we actually extended that with a partnership with Getty so that we could not only change the way women were seen on our site but that other brands-
NC: And the largest stock photo company in the world.
PG: We started a “No Apologies” collection with Getty because we don’t think women should have to apologize for who they are or what they look like.
NC: That’s awesome. When you’re able to create content that successfully resonates with your audience and potentially shift culture, how does that impact your bottom line?
PG: For us, really connecting with the audience in the way that we did built up the audience, and that helped us to get the interest of advertisers that wanted to connect with the millennial women audience. We also proactively went out to a lot of brands and said, “You’re getting women wrong, and you’re ignoring women, and this is a huge market opportunity. You can’t win without women.” That was our tagline. We went out to tons of brands and said, “You can’t win without women.”
EP: That’s awesome and true.
PG: Then we’ve worked a tons of huge brands, helping them to do a better job of speaking to and representing women. That’s been how we’ve built our business basically is really doing the work ourselves to understand, represent, and speak to our audience in a way that they want to be spoken to, and then helping brands do that as well.
EP: That’s great.
NC: Wow, going to a different direction for a minute. There’s definitely been some pivots with Refinery in the past that involves switching strategies, but I also imagine a pretty good change for you. If you can just talk about what different roles have been and how you’ve gotten comfortable with them? I think it’s interesting even what you mentioned earlier, which is just having that nostalgia of maybe for oh, was there a time that felt simpler and that felt great and you look back on it, or are you always looking ahead to what it’s going to mean and what the next will be?
PG: It’s interesting ‘cause I feel like in the business world, the word pivot can be used as a dirty word. I think what I always find paradoxical about that is that the world is always changing, so if you don’t change, it’s pretty likely that you’re not going to be future proof.
PG: We’ve had a lot of different shifts in our strategy and responsive shifts to what’s happening in the world. When you think about it, we launched 15, no, 14 years ago. When we launched, Facebook was still for colleges. I think Twitter had just launched. There was no Instagram. It was just a totally different landscape.
We’ve definitely, as we’ve grown the company, continued to shift the way that we do business, take on new things, try things. Some things didn’t work, we’ve tabled them. I think for me, we started and I wore every hat imaginable, which I think both of you can relate to.
PG: That’s just what you do. You have to.
EP: I love hats.
PG: I love hats.
EP: That’s actually true.
PG: Actually, I love a hat.
EP: I do have a lot of hats.
PG: I look good in a hat. I’m happy wearing all the hats. We used to joke, Christine, Philip, Justin, and I, those are my co-founders, we used to always joke at Refinery29, “No job is too low,” as we were lugging out the trash or Philippe and Justin were trying to install an air conditioning unit that they got off of Craigslist. In the beginning stages, I would do everything. I wrote, I coded content, I took photos, I did design, I did Google Analytics, I moderated our comments, like anything that needed to happen.
EP: How did you do that with no work experience? Just kidding.
PG: Screw you. I just figured out how to do all of these different things so that we could what we wanted to do, which is something that there really wasn’t a roadmap for at the time. There was really nothing out there that was really doing what we were doing. It was the wild, wild west, and we were figuring it out as we went along. That’s a very comfortable place for me. I have many, many interests. I love being spread too thin. I love jumping around and doing different things. I’m a builder. For me, that’s the greatest joy is building something, figuring it out, it feeling like an impossible challenge, and that thrill and adrenaline of doing it.
EP: Well, it’s amazing to hear that. That just makes me feel like, “Well, you are a real entrepreneur,” and you’ve been able to keep that entrepreneurial spirit that you have within you alive over 14 years because of those pivots and because you guys are such a nimble company. Sometimes when founders get worn out, it’s like, “Well, I’ve just been doing this same thing every day for many, many years.” It’s really interesting to me that you’ve been actually able to harness the love of change into the company that you’ve been building.
PG: Oh, that’s a nice interpretation.
NC: But really.
PG: I love change. That’s awesome.
NC: I’m the same way.
EP: It keeps you going.
NC: Me too. That true, true startup moment, it’s really lightning in a bottle because there’s so much energy there, like you said, and also, you’re truly creating something out of nothing, and you have the courage to do it. It’s so important to hold onto that energy, I think, as the company matures. You’ve talked a lot about that blank canvas, and so maybe also the change brings that blank canvas for you, and then you feel like you can recreate what the vision of the brand is, what your role is. Is that what that’s about, do you think?
PG: Yeah, I love change, and I love a challenge. I love when there’s a problem for me to solve or there’s some clear parameters to create within. As we’ve grown the company, my role has continuously changed, and I’ve taken on basically the new territories that oftentimes, I’m taking on a new territory for us to grow into. I think when we started 29 Rooms, that was such a thrilling time, again, because it was that blank canvas. We had no idea. We really hoped that it was going to work, and we believed.
It definitely was that thrill of building again. We didn’t know if we were going to be successful. There was a lot of doubt within the company, and it was definitely a hard sell to sponsors as well because there wasn’t really a comparative type event out there.
NC: Okay, so you were wearing a lot of hats in the beginning, and then there’s this huge evolution with the brand. Can you talk about where you are now with your role and are you always in control of what your role is? ‘Cause this is something that happens with so many friends in business now is sometimes their role changes because they decide, but sometimes there’s other people deciding.
PG: Yeah, it’s definitely been an emotional rollercoaster building a company, and my role has shifted so much other time. There’s been points where I felt really great about that and points where I didn’t feel as great about it. In the beginning, I was wearing all these different hats, and then over time, focused more into what are truly my strengths, which is really on the brand side, vision, and leading creative. That was a comfortable transition for me because as much as I loved wearing all the different hats, Google Analytics isn’t necessarily the place where I’m best suited. Over time, I started to be able to focus more on my strengths but also had to learn a lot of new skills like leadership, management, how to rally people around the goals and the projects that we were doing as a company.
Then as we grew in the last couple of years, we’ve grown so much, and there was a moment where basically we were looking at the organization and several people on our executive team said, “Piera, I don’t think it makes sense for you to manage the creative teams because creative and content are so interlinked, so we think that our chief content officer should manage all of the teams.” It took me about two years to get through the grief of that decision. It was one of the hardest times in our company because I think it wasn’t in my control really. I fought the decision. At the end of the day, other people felt that that was the right choice.
I think what was hard about it was when I look back, is two-fold. One, your ego, you want to hold onto something that seems powerful in some way. That you’re personally responsible for managing a lot of people. I think the other thing was having a shift in my own mindset of basically managing people versus influencing people. That was a really hard transition for me. It took me about two years to work through it and get through to the other side. I actually feel that it’s been something that’s been really great for me, and it’s been something that over time, I’ve settled into and I’ve started to understand more and have built certain systems around in order to be able to have that influence because I still am responsible for the creative output.
I still have a huge stake in our brand and where we’re going with our brand and making sure people are on board with that and understand it and can execute it, but I’m not personally responsible for managing each and every one of those people. It’s just a huge shift in mindset. I had been working at that point for 10 years to learn how to manage creative people, and then it’s like, “Okay, you’re not managing creative people. You now have to inspire and influence creative people.” I often call myself the fairy godmother because I create the force field. I create the inspiration. I educate people. I guide them. I lead by example, but at the end of the day, they don’t report to me.
NC: It sounds like a dream.
PG: It’s complicated. It’s complicated.
EP: Yeah, of course.
NC: I think when you’re a founder, you make every decision for so long. In fact, that’s exhausting. There’s decision fatigue. Even I’ll have like the tiniest question my team will ask me. I’m like, “I just literally cannot make another decision today.”
EP: Yeah, absolutely that happens to me.
NC: Right, and then all of a sudden, that is taken away from you even if it was exhausting. I think it’s a huge mental block to get around. It’s great that ultimately it was good. It pushed you to change in new ways.
EP: Well, also, the converse of decision fatigue is letting go, right. If you have your hand in every single decision of the organization from what type of La Croix flavor you’re going to serve in the office to which investors you should be talking to, the opposite of that is not having control over all of those things. It definitely takes a change in mindset to get there.
NC: I’ll always control the La Croix though.
PG: Letting go is really hard. I don’t think I was ever a control freak, but I have a very clear vision of our brand. So letting go is challenging. It’s been a really challenging process. It’s been a long process because even when I managed people, there were many things that I had to let go. I actually remember this particular moment where not only myself, but my co-founder, Christine, who’s our editor-in-chief, she and I were both at one point, this is going to sound so ridiculous, don’t judge me. At one point, we were both approving every opener image, so every image that was on the home page for every story.
PG: People would have to get us to approve them via email. One of us would respond, but the other one might not respond. It was a shit show. It didn’t make any sense. We had the best intentions for it. We were just trying to do quality control ...
NC: Of course.
PG: ... and make sure the content was good, but we got to this point. Someone, bless them, pulled me aside and they were very timid in telling me, but they said, “I think it’s time that you and Christine talk about this and maybe there’s some streamlining that we can do here.” It was a very important moment for me because I thought, “Okay, how do I get myself comfortable with letting go of this small thing, and how do I get Christine comfortable with it as well?” I looked back at all the emails that we had on these chains of opener approvals. I saw the major themes that were coming through in our feedback. I basically put together a filter.
NC: A rubric.
PG: Yeah, I put together a decision-making filter. It was like the image should have a clear focal point. It should be easy to parse whether it’s small or full size. The images that you choose should have diverse representation in them ‘cause when I looked back, there was five themes that came up again and again and again. That small thing really shifted the way that I thought about how to manage people but also how to let go. That’s been instructive as we’ve grown. Now even with things like our brand values, everyone has to operate using our brand values and understanding our brand values no matter what role they’re in, whether they’re ordering snacks for the kitchen or setting up a big partnership.
Another thing that we’ve started doing is doing these brand huddles. We essentially set up these work sessions with people where they come and each one, we talk about different a brand value. We’ll have a special speaker from internally who will speak about one of the four I’s, impact, individuality, imagination, and inclusivity. Someone will come, and we’ll have our creative director from events speak about imagination and his creative tips for getting unstuck, and then we’ll go around the room, make sure that every single person gets to talk about how they exercise imagination in their day to day. Then we’ll have some kind of real life challenge that they solve together, thinking about how they could infuse imagination into their work, on the day to day. So we do those regularly, and different people come, and it’s just a way, A, it’s a nice respite for people to have an hour to talk about inclusivity, and talk about what that means to them personally, and their experiences with it, and hear other people’s experiences as well. It’s very connecting and bonding, and kind of like, I think about also the example of a college campus, of how do you facilitate and workshop these important conversations in a way that feels safe, that feels like you’re giving everyone a chance to participate, and that helps them to really deeply, internally understand what you’re talking about, but find it for themselves?
So, as my role has shifted and I’m thinking more about these bigger ways of influencing people, it’s totally changed the way that I operate.
EP: You have three partners, one of whom is your husband.
PG: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
EP: I’m sure all of your roles have changed significantly over time. How has that affected your relationship? Amazing, by the way, that you’re all still partners.
PG: It’s pretty unbelievable.
EP: It is. You have defied some serious odds.
PG: Yeah. I basically, am married to four people, or three. I’m married to myself too.
EP: That’s typical.
PG: Yeah, all of our roles have had to change I think. The good thing is that we always had fairly defined areas of expertise and fairly defined territories that we fit into. I feel like that’s part of what has allowed us to-
EP: What are your roles now? What are your titles now?
PG: So, Philip and Justin are co-CEOs. Philip tends to be more focused on the content and tech side, Justin has been more focused on the advertising side of the house. Christine is our global editor in chief, so she really oversees our editorial voice, our content, and then I’m executive creative director so I oversee the brand. Christine is definitely my partner in the brand as well, but yeah, think about the brand, the design, the photography as well as the new places that our brand is showing up, whether that’s products or big events.
NC: It shows how much listening you’re all able to do also, because to have CEOs, where in theory there’s no tie-breaker and then there’s four of you, where once again there isn’t ... I mean, you really have to be willing to come to ... I don’t want to say compromise is like a negative thing, but you have to be able to all get on the same page for something to move forward.
EP: Because you’ve been together for so long and you’ve stayed married, where do you think you guys are now? You must have a really tight bond. How has that evolved?
PG: We definitely have a very tight bond. I think like any relationship, our company has gone through ups and downs, our relationship has gone through ups and downs. I think that for us it’s been about sparring without parting. Being comfortable with challenging each other, being comfortable with calling each other out when we need to, but having the love and empathy to stick together and to ... I think we all know when one of our partners is calling us out that it is done for the benefit of all of us and it is not done with any kind of malice.
Yeah, we have such a ... we have an incredible bond. We’ve been through so much together. We know each other so well. I think knowing someone ... because we ... Christine and I actually worked together in my previous lack of job experience, so she was the executive editor at this magazine called City where I started as an intern and worked my way up to being photo director, so we had already worked together and knew that we had a really great creative partnership. She has amazing ideas, I’m a builder, I’m able to really have the vision to carry an idea into execution, so that was always ... and we bring out great ideas in each other. That was always something that we knew we had and then Philip and Justin went to high school together, so they’re very old friends and Philip and I are married, so we know each other very well.
It’s really it’s interesting to see someone, to know someone personally and know them in the workspace and I think it’s something so incredible to get to see that person grow in that way. For Philip and I, being married and working together for 14 years, we’ve been through so much. It’s amazing in so many ways because it’s not like I go home and am just like, “Oh, I’m off the clock. I’m not thinking about work anymore. I’m not having ideas anymore.” To be able to kind of always have someone to bounce those off of or build on each other’s ideas or help each other figure out how to approach something is super helpful.
There’s definitely times where I’ll ... I remember this one time I got into an argument with someone and I came home and I was telling him about it and he immediately ... I guess this is also like a dude thing, but he immediately went into like trying to solve the problem and he’s like, “Well, that person is under stress because these market conditions are like this, blah, blah, blah, you should probably ... “. He’s giving me all this advice and I was like, “I just want you to say that person’s a jerk.”
NC: Totally. I definitely can relate to that.
EP: Especially being married to my co-founder as well. That’s very true. You’re like, “I’m just venting and I just want you to say ... “, just give me a hug or something like that.
PG: Yeah, I’m just venting. I just want you to say, “That person sounds like a jerk. You’re awesome.”
NC: Yeah, I won.
EP: Being that we’re both married to our co-founders, there is something else we will have in common quite soon, which is you’re going to be having a baby.
PG: That is correct.
EP: It’s incredible. Can you talk about how you’re feeling about all that?
PG: Yeah. I mean, I’m so excited. I can’t wait to meet her. It’s been a long time ... a long time coming. It’s been a seven year project, so, yeah, mostly just feeling very excited to welcome her into our lives, but I’m also ... I have no idea what my life is gonna be like. I’m trying to plan my parental leave. Philip and I are both trying to plan our parental leave and at first I was so delusional. Like, we’re doing 29Rooms, our big event, in LA December 5th. Our baby is due November 20th. I was like, “I totally can go.” I was talking to some moms in the office and they’re like, “Yeah.” They’re like, “Good luck.”
EP: Never know.
PG: Think again. So I think it’s ... for me, I’m someone that I have big ambitions and I never feel like I’m doing enough. I always have like 10 things that I want to do on the back burner and seven business ideas that are incubating for the future. So I think that’s probably gonna be the thing that’s the trickiest for me is finding that balance of ... I also think that I want to be an amazing mom so I will have a lot of goals in that department and then a lot of goals in the work department and it’s just so hard for me to say no to things and it’s hard for me to-
EP: It’s a new pivot.
PG: Yeah. It’s so hard for me to say no. I’m always scared if I don’t take an opportunity that no more opportunities will come, which I ... I don’t know. I feel like I’m always like a teenage girl in Maine that just is yearning for the big city and yearning for culture and yearning for opportunity and so whenever anyone asks me to do anything, I just always say yes. I think that’s gonna be the trick for me is not ... is learning that I can’t do it all and that I need to actually pick and choose and prioritize and be okay with that and not feel like a failure as a result.
NC: I think you will find you’re gonna be very efficient with your time. In a way, there’s things that you might get done more and have more time for other kinds of tasks and whatnot. You just never know, like you said.
PG: Never know.
EP: It can go so many different ways.
PG: I have no idea.
PG: the other thing is I don’t know what she’ll be like. I was talking to a friend and she was like, “What are you most excited about?” I was like, “I’m just so excited to do, when she’s a little older to do creative projects with her,” and she goes, “Well, if she’s into that.”
NC: You’re like, “What? Oh my god.”
PG: She’s not gonna be a mini-me.
EP: I want to go to a baseball game.
PG: Yeah. She’s gonna be her own person with her own interests and so ...
NC: Or she could be a total mini you.
PG: She could be. But either way-
NC: I’m picturing that too.
PG: Either way it’s cool. She’s gonna be a Scorpio.
NC: Either way it’s cool.
PG: She’s gonna be a Scorpio and I’m an Aries and those are not the most compatible signs, but I don’t ... I don’t believe in that being so hard defined.
NC: Right. So exciting. Very excited for you.
PG: I’m excited.
EP: I think it’s time to wrap up. This has been an amazing conversation.
PG: We’re wrapping up already?
EP: We’re wrapping up. At the end of every show we ask our guest to share one skill with us that helped them build their business, so that’s how we’re gonna end today. Do you have one that you can share, and if you do, how would you break it down for our audience?
PG: I think the skill that I would share is vulnerability. For our business, that’s really been about listening, having the vulnerability to not feel ... to not have all the answers and to actually listen to people, so that’s meant really listening to our audience, shifting things and being open to changing our own ideas when we realize they’re not working or they’re not resonating with the audience or internally.
I think also the vulnerability to admit what we don’t know and ask for help and ask questions. In the beginning as we were starting the business, there were so many things we didn’t know. There were many things we didn’t have experience with. None of us went to business school, none of us had ... I don’t even know what type of experience would have allowed us to do what we did because there weren’t really businesses like ours out there, so ... I don’t think there were credentials to be had, but we had to be vulnerable enough to admit what we didn’t know and to ask for help.
I think for me as I grew in my role, as I started growing into being an executive, I felt really uncomfortable. I remember sitting in these meetings with people that we had hired that had a lot more experience in the corporate world than I did and they were using all this jargon and language I didn’t know and at first I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know it, because I thought they would ... they wouldn’t respect me or they would see that I was a huge imposter and a big lesson for me was I finally thought ... I started to internalize this feeling of being an imposter, being a kid at the adults table, and I finally said, “Well, how am I gonna get through this? I need to admit what I don’t know. I need to be vulnerable enough to ask questions, because otherwise I’m not gonna learn this weird language that they’re speaking and all these acronyms.”
The interesting thing was I started to ask questions, I started to say what does this acronym mean? What do you mean by that thing that you’re saying? And I really thought people would basically laugh in my face when I started asking these questions, but the amazing thing that happened was when I would ask the questions, other people around the table and be interested in the answers or they would come up to me afterwards and thank me for asking the question or say, “Oh, that’s such a good question. I had no idea what they were talking about.” So I think for me that was a lesson in that actually vulnerability can be a strength in that way too, that you can help other people when you’re vulnerable enough to ask a question, to admit that you don’t understand something, to admit what you don’t know. That it can actually open up a lot of space for other people.
I think for us too with the content that we’ve created when we started Refinery, we were ... we wanted to talk about style but not in this rules-based way that was traditional in fashion, where it was really design to make you feel bad about yourself. We wanted to talk about it in a way that was about self expression, that was about identity and as we started to build the company and the content that we were creating, we were really focused on kind of letting the seams show, talking about things that people didn’t otherwise talk about, things that were taboo, talking about periods, talking about miscarriage, talking about all these different topics, mental health, things that people weren’t talking about, we wanted to talk about. Those were the things that we were talking about with our friends and with each other, but that we didn’t feel were being represented, or were being represented in either ... like when we started talking about sex, we were like, “We don’t want to talk about sex like Cosmo where everything has a wink, wink, nudge, nudge to it and it’s all about pleasing your man, and we don’t want to talk about it the way that if you Google it, the things that come up are ... which are scary and medical.”
PG: We just want to talk about it in a real, honest, vulnerable way and that was something that was so ... it really caught on with the audience was having that ... being real and relatable, being vulnerable to just go at those taboo topics in that way I think was something that no one was really doing at that time.
EP: Yeah, I think what’s really amazing about that skill is unfortunately, at least in our culture, we often associate vulnerability with weakness.
EP: But vulnerability and being able to show how you feel is actually courage.
EP: I think that’s an amazing skill.
PG: Thank you.
NC: Thank you. Thank you for that and thank you so much for coming today. I’ve learned so much talking to you.