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Changemaker Chats Founders Jessica Johnston and Briana Ferrigno “Don’t Just Want to Hear Success Stories”

July 27, 2018 | Filed in: Woman of the Week

About eight years ago, Jessica Johnston and Briana Ferrigno met in a hallway between conference rooms. They soon realized they had a lot in common: master’s degrees from Columbia, a commitment to social impact, and brand-new jobs that were, at times, utterly confounding. Over the next few years, they became each other’s professional sounding boards. Then, in 2015, they decided to expand: They co-founded Changemaker Chats, a network of women who host intimate, off-the-record conversations with female leaders around the world (recent “Changemakers” include Tara AbrahamsU.S. ambassador Aurelia Brazeal, and our very own Sarah LaFleur). Here, we spoke to Jessica and Briana about the power of having a partner in crime, the beauty of “test and learn,” and why you need a forum for sticky topics.

On “Winding” Career Trajectories:

Jessica: I started off in international sales and worked in countries all around the world—Abu Dhabi, Botswana, Egypt. Then I came back to the States and moved into corporate strategy. I wanted to focus more on social impact, so I went to grad school at Columbia to study international development, with a focus on philanthropy. After graduating, I worked in global health, nutrition, and—for better or worse—domestic politics, which was a bit painful. I currently lead global partnerships at a large sportswear and apparel company, where I focus on getting kids active around the world.

Briana: My background is in communications and public health. I went into commercial marketing right out of college and found that I wasn’t terribly fulfilled, so I moved over to nonprofit communications. I became fascinated by how to use marketing to achieve social impact, so I went back to graduate school at Columbia University, where I earned a master’s degree in strategic communications, and then another master’s degree in public health. After working in public health communications for a large nonprofit, I was then hired to help launch a marketing agency that works with nonprofits and companies to develop communications that drive positive behavior change. I was the second hire at the time, and now leading that agency is my full-time job.

Changemaker Chats founders

Jessica (left) wears the Mariely dress in black. Briana (right) wears the Sarah dress in black and the Helene necklace.

How They Met

Jessica: Brie and I met during a time when we were both a bit lost, literally and figuratively. We were at the same conference, trying to find a certain room. We started to talk and realized we were both very new at what we were doing. Working at a family foundation was new for me, and Brie’s agency was new for her. We had a moment where we both admitted, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Do you know what you’re doing?” And we bonded over that. Our work continued to overlap, so we kept seeing each other in professional settings, and then at one point we decided to get a drink together. It’s telling that we found each other through a shared experience of confusion. Our conversations became the impetus for Changemaker Chats, which we started a few years later.

Briana: Jess is my partner in crime, and has been since the day we met. We were both trying to make it through chaotic times at work—and looking for a friend to help figure it out. It was comforting to have someone to listen and share experiences with, especially those related to daunting questions about your career path. I remember being especially fixated on seeing more examples of female leadership. When I looked around in my industry, I would see so many young, talented women in their early or mid-careers. But then I looked up at the C-Suite, and I questioned whether I would ever fit in. I wasn’t sure what this meant for my future. It’s hard to believe in yourself when you have these thoughts, and Jess helped me to find the answers I needed. Eventually, through Changemaker Chats, we discovered that so many women have these doubts–and we also learned what their tricks are to overcome them. We have a favorite piece of advice from Maria Eitel of the Nike Foundation: “Find your beacon—your personal motivation that you return to when you begin to question your path.”

Changemaker Chats founders

Jessica (right) wears the Aditi dress in crackle and the Woolf jardigan in black. Briana (left) wears the McDonough top in staccato, Pippa pant in staccato, and the Henrietta earrings.

How Changemaker Chats Came to Be

Briana: On a few occasions throughout my career, I struggled with colleagues who were disrespectful and said some things that really crossed the line. This was years before #MeToo, I felt like I needed to keep my head down and keep working. It wasn’t until Jess and I, along with another friend, started sharing our experiences and asking each other, “What’s the best way to handle this?” that I realized how powerful it is to have frank conversations about these issues.

Jessica: I had also been in a situation where an older, more powerful man took interest in my work, and I had thought, Somebody is finally noticing my talent and wants to invest in me! You know how this goes: You’re excited to have a mentor, and then he makes a pass at you and it all comes crashing down. And then there’s the emotional aftermath. You ask yourself, “What did I do wrong? Did I laugh too much? Was it something I wore?” It created a lot of self-doubt. Brie and I realized that this had happened to both of us, and we were able to talk about it. These situations aren’t always a major focus of Changemaker Chats, but they’re part of the origin story, because it became clear that we needed a forum for these sticky topics. We also wanted to create a place where people can seek tactical advice, like how to get a guy to stop interrupting you in meetings, as well as ask the broader “What do I do with myself?” questions.

Briana: We also wanted to call upon more experienced women who had been through the ringer and lived to tell the tale, so to speak. I wanted to hear stories from women who had been through different career phases and made it to the next level. With Changemakers, we don’t just want to hear success stories—we want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. We want to know how resilience is built. We can’t all know everything, but the next best thing is to surround ourselves with smart people, good advice, and a supportive community.

Changemaker Chats founders

Jessica (left) wears the Mariely dress in black. Briana (right) wears the Sarah dress in black and the Helene necklace.

On Defining Success

Briana: Changemaker Chats is not just about climbing the ladder. Not every woman wants to be a CEO, and that’s okay. We want to enable women to do the things that are important to them, to make the change that they value, whether it is to be the best community activist, the best boss, the best sister, mother, or friend. Seeing different faces of what female leadership looks like is central to our mission.

Jessica: “Test and learn” is one of our favorite expressions. When we first started Changemakers, we didn’t know what would work and what wouldn’t. We would beg, borrow, and steal to get a venue to host us, because nobody knew who we were and nobody cared. At one point, we were scrambling to find a venue to fit 50 people, so we settled on a co-working space, and it just didn’t work—the talk wasn’t as special because it didn’t have that intimate, closed-door feeling. There were other people walking through the room, and the discussion wasn’t as deep. But we learned from it.

Jessica (left) wears the Aditi dress in crackle and the Woolf jardigan in black. Briana (right) wears the McDonough top in staccato, the Pippa pant in staccato, and the Henrietta earrings.

On Setting Priorities

Jessica: On any given day, there are a lot of things we could be doing, and it does get hard to balance. We don’t lack for ideas about things to do with our city directors or the women in our Changemaker communities. But we also have to recognize that we are a 100 percent volunteer-run organization. There are some things we need to have, and other things that are nice to have. One example: We will always be responsive to our city directors. I’m never going to let one of their emails just sit in my inbox. They are the leaders who convene these dynamic groups of women every month in different cities—of course we make time for them. They are at the top of the pecking order. Other emails can wait sometimes. Sometimes it’s my husband who might need to wait. Brie and I both grapple with that.

Changemaker Chats founders

Jessica (left) wears the Mariely dress in black. Briana (right) wears the Sarah dress in black and the Helene necklace.

On Growth

Briana: When we first started, we said, “This is a passion project, and we’re going to do it every other month.” So we started in one city, and found these incredible women to speak and be part of it with us. Now we’ve expanded to 12 cities and built a network of over 6,000 women. Jess and I are also very committed to our full-time jobs, so we’re reliant on our city directors who build and manage their respective Changemaker communities. These are talented women who volunteer their time to build the community, choose the speakers, secure a space, find sponsors, host these chats, and serve as leaders for Changemaker Chats. Since we have grown so much, Jess and I have moved into more supportive, holistic roles—it’s more about big-picture ideas and making sure our local leaders have what they need.

Jessica: My mom is an attorney. She worked her whole life, has a big family, and is really active in the community. People would always say, “I don’t know how your mom does it,” so at one point, when I was still a kid, I asked her myself. And she was like, “I don’t. It’s that simple.” I find myself in a similar boat now: I have a child, I have a husband who travels a lot for work, I do Changemaker Chats in addition to a full-time job, and I have a number of volunteer commitments. There’s no way I can try to control it all, so I don’t. With Changemakers, we were fortunate to have this expansion, and we could never have scaled it so effectively if we had tried to keep a tight grip on it.

Photographs by Jordan Walczak.

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Charlotte Cowles is a New York-based writer​ ​and editor.​ ​Her work has been published in New York Magazine,​ Harper's Bazaar,​ and Art in America. She'd always rather be at book club. Read more of Charlotte's posts.

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