The Failure Guru: Meet Girl Starter’s Jeannine Shao Collins
Filed in: Woman of the Week
Jeannine Shao Collins has made it her mission to teach women to embrace failure. True to form, her own two-decade career in magazines only started after she failed to follow in her father’s engineering footsteps (literally—she couldn’t get through the coursework in college). She went on to become an industry leader at Meredith, a major publishing company, before co-founding Girl Starter, a media company that uses entertainment to inspire business leadership. She recently stopped by the MM offices to talk glass ceilings, boys’ clubs, and why you “have to see it to be it.”
I’M AN ONLY CHILD, so it was always upon me to pursue people. If I wanted any friends, they weren’t lying around my house. The best advice I ever got was from my aunt, who said, “If you want to get along with people, you have to be a good listener.” Part of that comes from being curious. It sounds simple, but I think most people 1) don’t ask enough questions, and 2) don’t listen enough. In my case, I don’t know if it was born or taught or circumstantial, but it’s always been something that I was able to do.
MY COLLEGE EXPERIENCE was an uber-failure. My parents wanted me to become an engineer; my father was an engineer, and I was good at math, so that seemed like the logical path. I spent a lot of my time at the University of Rochester trying to fit in a box that wasn’t right. I don’t know if I was mature or disciplined enough for the classes that engineering required. I was horrible at lab; I like to talk with people instead. I didn’t put my best foot forward. It wasn’t a good personality fit.
AFTER FAILING at becoming an engineer, I ended up with an economics degree. Because my parents wanted me to have a job, I went to all these interviews and got hired as an underwriter for an insurance company without thinking about whether I actually wanted to do that. The company was also based in Rochester, which was another fail; I stayed to be with a guy I was dating, so I was there for all the wrong reasons. When you’re doing things to accommodate other people rather than yourself, whether it’s for your parents or your boyfriend or whatever, you’re not really following your heart. I finally came to New York on my own to get into advertising, and I immediately felt like, “Oh, I belong here. This feels right.” That was when I started to do what I wanted versus what other people wanted. From that point, the trajectory of my career led to magazines, and a long career in media at Meredith.
WHEN I WAS AT MEREDITH, pretty much every two years they gave me a new responsibility, whether I liked it or not. And sometimes I was like, “Err… what is this?” But it forced me to learn about how media was evolving, how digital and social were becoming part of the conversation, and how people consume content.
EVEN THOUGH MOST MAGAZINES ARE FOR WOMEN, at the top, magazine corporations are all male. It’s terrible! There was very much a glass ceiling for me and everybody else. I’ve done a lot in the beauty business and in fashion, and it’s a sad reality that women do a lot of the innovation, but men are still running the overall vision, which is a problem. I did work for great people, and they always gave me opportunities and saw things in me that I didn’t necessarily see for myself. But I also had people say crazy things to me like, “We are giving you less of a raise than X, because you have a dual-income household, and we’re giving the money to someone who needs it more.” Which is illegal, but it happened. I was really dumbfounded. Bad on me that I didn’t really say much, and accepted it. It was also a time in my life when I didn’t want to rock the boat and go look for another job, because of my family, and they knew it.
I WORRY THAT GENDER INEQUITY is getting bigger rather than smaller, because of the tech divide. There are so few women who are coding or who understand STEM, and I think it’s spawning a whole new boys’ club that’s even worse than the old boys’ club. That’s part of the reason I founded Girl Starter, because I don’t see things getting much better. Why try to live by the rules that someone else sets for you? Make your own! That’s where the power is. If more women become business owners, they make their own rules. They pay themselves what they want, and they have the flexibility they want. They answer to themselves and they perform; women are really good at that. But women are also very fearful of risk, and the ups and downs of starting a business are arduous.
FAILURE IS NEVER FUN, even when you’re learning a ton. When you’re in the middle of it you always want to poke your eyes out, and you have to be comfortable with a certain level of self-doubt. Failure doesn’t kill you; it makes you assess where you are and causes you to make decisions that will lead you to the next step. It’s the beginning of something else. I always say to my kids, “Flowers grow out of the dirt.” You may not know what good will come of your failure, but you just have to be patient with what the result is going to be. As women, that’s particularly hard, because we tend to be planners. Men aren’t usually planners in the same way. They’re inherently more comfortable with the unknown because they’re not thinking five or ten years down the road in the same way. My daughter’s always talking about what she’s going to do over the weekend, but my sons don’t even know what they’re doing for the next meal.
MY DREAM FOR GIRL STARTER is to create a gigantic community of women (and men, because you can’t do it without men too!) who are starting their own businesses. I want to democratize access so that they can do that. I think that people have to see it to be it, and that’s why we’re trying to expose women to the idea that it’s alright to not be perfect, and not know all the answers. Men are taught to weather rejection, whereas women are taught to wait and be careful. What’s the worst that can happen if you put yourself out there? Someone says no? And then you can move on. It’s not life or death. I think that today’s schools are actually the worst at encouraging risk taking, because kids are expected to graduate with a perfect transcript, and we all know that we learn the most from our failures.
STARTING GIRL STARTER WAS INCREDIBLY UNCOMFORTABLE. There was a point early on when we thought we had a financial commitment, and then it fell through. I suddenly realized, “Oh my God, I don’t have a corporation to back me. The money could disappear.” I wondered if it was even worth pursuing—or if I should just fold up my tent and go back to a cushy job with an expense account. I have to give credit to my husband, who said, “You’re already down the tunnel. What are you going to accomplish by turning around?” It was his encouragement that kept me going.
IN MY PAST LIFE, when I was at Meredith, my dry-cleaning bills were terrible. Everything I wore was silk and linen. Now I’m much more casual. I still want great style, but I don’t want to spend as much money on clothes. Like a typical New Yorker, I love a great shift dress. I love one piece that I can put on and not have to think about it. I have fantastic shoes that I love, but I used to use them much more, when I was in meetings and conference rooms all day. Unfortunately, they’re hard to walk around in, so I have to carry them in my bag most of the time.
Photographs by Maria Karas.