Sandra Kim, entrepreneur and social justice advocate, talks Everyday Feminism.
I have a confession: as a former gender grad student, I was a little star-struck while interviewing Sandra Kim, Founder & CEO of Everyday Feminism, an online magazine that supports people facing violence and dominance due to gender, sexual orientation, race, class, and other differences. Kim started Everyday Feminism in mid-2012, and in three short years, it has become one of the most popular feminist digital media sites worldwide. It has a team of over 40 writers and draws 4.5 million visitors monthly from over 150 countries.
I chatted with the clearly passionate Kim to hear more about her path to Everyday Feminism and her words of wisdom for managers, social justice organizations, and aspiring entrepreneurs.
What led you to start Everyday Feminism?
I’m an unlikely candidate to start something like an online magazine considering my background is mainly in the nonprofit sector, and so it’s a very different kind of endeavor. The reason I started it is: because the work I’ve done in the past around violence and abuse, people have always talked to me about what had happened to them or someone they loved… [Kim has experience working with survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence, and other forms of trauma.] They knew I was a safe person to talk to because of the work I had done. They knew I wouldn’t be shocked, I wouldn’t be judgmental, I wouldn’t try to change them, and I might have something useful to say because I had done all this work.
They would often share that they didn’t talk to people about this—most people did not know. I also saw that in my friend circle. Because of the way the statistics work out, most of my friends had experienced some form of violence or abuse, to various degrees of impact. We were all going through something. So I thought it was very important to start having conversations publicly about it and the burden would not be on people individually when something had happened to them personally. It is just too much to ask one person to tackle conversations around something that is still so raw and traumatic.
We need to have conversations to get our society to be responsible. And that’s where I thought of the concept of ‘everyday feminism’—how we bring those types of values and analysis into our everyday lives, as a positive model of how to see the world to make it a more just and fair place. So we expanded from being more focused on violence and abuse—as you can see, we have pretty much everything because these [issues on the site] are all forms of domination. So that’s how Everyday Feminism came about, and the purest and easiest way of getting the conversations going is obviously online.
“…Bring those types of values and analysis into our everyday lives, as a positive model of how to see the world to make it a more just and fair place.”
What is your favorite thing about being an entrepreneur?
For me, beyond having the impact that we’ve had, it’s being able to create a work culture where people feel truly acknowledged and valued as a human being as well as for their work contribution. A large part of how I bring feminist values into our everyday life is through the work environment. How do we incorporate an inclusive, anti-oppression approach to working, to managing, to making decisions, to sharing information and communication? How do we take care of ourselves in this process of doing emotionally difficult work? How do we always put people first, before the work? My former boss used to say—and I think this is very true for social justice organizations—because we are so passionate, we often do so much harm to ourselves as people as we strive to create change in the world. So how do we not do that—how do we stand as a model for the change that we want to see and honor ourselves as we do this work? What happens when we think of ourselves as mattering and not just the impact that we have?
That shows up in a lot of different ways. As a leader, I set the tone for all of that. I create what is permissible for the rest of the team. So there are very concrete things that I do in order to create an environment where they understand that I don’t expect them to be perfect, but I do expect them to take responsibility for their actions and there is room to make mistakes. We always hold ourselves accountable and [treat each other] with compassion because we are growing, learning human beings, right? We value each other as human beings. That will always come first for me, no matter what.
With that, people flourish in a way that is very unusual. My staff joke that they want to work here until they are 99 years old and they never want to leave, which is obviously very uncommon! So that is a really important thing that we need to be looking at as entrepreneurs—our responsibility to our team.
Can you give me an example of how you cultivate this atmosphere?
We have a culture of owning up to mistakes because that’s a big part of it. So I do this myself by admitting that I make mistakes, or that I don’t know everything. Leaders often feel the need to be the one who knows everything, has a plan, and tells everyone what to do—that’s kind of the stereotypical notion of what a leader does.
I come in differently. I’ll be like, ‘Here’s the situation, here’s some information about it,’ and usually I won’t propose a solution—I’ll just give the information. And then I’ll go around and get everyone’s thoughts about it and I make sure that I go last. I know that if I go first, I’ll box them in—no matter how much I try to create a greater sense of power balance, there is always a power imbalance and that’s something each of us need to be very transparent and conscious of as a leader. I do that intentionally by trying to take up less space in conversation and so I wait to go last.
My job as a leader, as the person who has the bird’s eye view, is to synthesize. So I’ll synthesize what everyone has said and try to get something coherent that honors the different truths, but in a single package. And then I’ll come back and get their feedback on that. They are the ones that have to implement it most of the time, so there should be buy in. I will say, ‘What do you think of this? It’s okay if you disagree with me.’ I’ll say that explicitly. Even though it’s part of the culture that they can push back on me, that’s not easy to do publicly, and so I will assert that and invite that.
“What happens when we think of ourselves as mattering and not just the impact that we have?”
What is the most important thing you have learned since starting your own business?
You have to be the captain of your own ship. When you are starting off, there is so much that needs to happen and you are the only one that is looking out for everything, so it’s very easy to drown as the founder, as the entrepreneur. So what you have to really focus in on is learning how to ride the wave and keep focus, without being inflexible. There’s a saying that no battle plan survives the first skirmish. That’s very true for entrepreneurship. There’s the importance of having multiple contingency plans and being flexible while at the same time keeping your eye on the prize—knowing that the prize may change over time and being open to that. It’s an iterative process. That’s what I mean by being the captain of your own ship.
In that vein, can you give me one example of a time you experienced a challenge with Everyday Feminism and what you learned from that experience?
We first believed that we were going to do this series, Empower U. It was going to be where our revenue was coming from—through a series of videos primarily, which would help people apply a lot of these concepts and go beyond the articles. I started creating them and we did this whole announcement and some fundraising about it…and after doing it for a month, I realized it was not sustainable. It was not sustainable in developing the content, and I don’t think it was a sustainable financial model.
We scrapped it, stepped back, rebooted, and came up with something different. That’s why we have online courses now. It was a version of what we were thinking of doing (Empower U) but it was much more focused, simplified. I think because it was more focused, it did better. Empower U was just too ambitious to start out with. So we turned on a dime, and that was the right thing to do. That’s what the data said. We told people we were going to do it [Empower U], we got volunteers, we got donors—but rather than fight, it was like, ‘No, let’s just tell everybody the decision we made, why we made it, and how we’re going to redirect everything.’ Let’s be transparent and move forward. And the online courses are doing very well!
“We value each other as human beings. That will always come first for me, no matter what.”
What advice would you give other women and minority entrepreneurs?
Starting up your own thing is not for the faint of heart. There will be naysayers, skeptical folk, and people who want to support you but aren’t particularly useful, actually. There will be very, very few people who want to support who actually are very useful.
A lot of folks say, ‘Go out and talk to folks,’ and that’s good—talk to folks, but you got to be captain of your own ship, you have to listen to yourself and be grounded in your values. Let your values guide you forward and help you sift through what everyone else is saying around you.
Particularly if you are coming from a community that is often perceived as less competent, you will have a lot of folk who—because of the way you look—assume a lot of things about you and the way you operate. It is not a statistical fluke that you look at the nonprofit sector and the vast majority, despite it being focused on primarily issues that affect people of color, and despite the fact that most of the people who work in the nonprofit sector are women—it is not a statistical fluke that the vast majority of people who are the head of organizations are white men. There are reasons for that, of who people believe should be leaders and they should give money to. So when you don’t fall underneath that category, you need to know how to navigate that bullsh*t and not let it hurt you.
The other thing is, you have to be aware of your own privilege and power as you go through this. If you are doing a startup, chances are you have some sort of privilege and power. So you have to be aware how that impacts things and not recreate those oppressive dynamics within your organization. You have to be clear about how you’re being marginalized as a leader. You also have to be clear about how you could be marginalizing others as a leader. That’s why you have to stay grounded in your values and let your values lead you.
“There are many ways to have impact in the world and entrepreneurship is definitely one way, but it is not for everybody … However, if it is right for you, it is unbelievable.”
Last, is there anything else that you wanted to add?
There’s a lot! There are many ways to have impact in the world and entrepreneurship is definitely one way, but it is not for everybody. It is definitely not for everybody. However, if it is right for you, it is unbelievable.
If you’ve been like me, I’m not very good if I don’t have the complete freedom that I have now—that ability to let yourself grow and evolve without having checks on you (like managers). Being able to develop your vision, take it somewhere, and support other people so that they can take their vision somewhere—that’s a beautiful thing. Help people be free in their work! For folks like us, it’s about our passion and commitment. It’s not just work. It’s about making the world a better place.
You mentioned that certain personality types may do better with entrepreneurship. Can you talk more about that?
That’s a dicey question because I don’t want to pigeonhole people because people can definitely grow and all entrepreneurs do grow as they are doing this work. But you need a fair amount of flexibility, a certain amount of being able to envision what is not currently possible and then figure how to go from here with what you have—which is not very much—and go for that vision. [You have to] understand how to create a team around you because one person can never do it all.
One person is never going to be able to do everything, and that is part of the burden of the traditional thinking about a leader as being the person who knows everything and just tells everyone what to do. That’s not true. That’s why it’s so lonely and there’s so much burnout at the top. You really need to create a team, at least a partnership, to get complementary skills because it’s very hard to get one person who can do everything—probably impossible! You’re always going to be pretty lacking in certain areas that are necessary to make it work.
So emotional maturity, honestly, and self-awareness are key to being successful entrepreneurs. That’s why self-care is so important. If you push yourself, push yourself, push yourself and don’t take care of yourself, emotional judgement goes down the drain. It is all wrapped up in being a functional human being—and you need to be a functional human being to some degree to make things work. That’s sometimes hard to do in our movements where if you take time out for yourself, it’s like you’re not down for the cause. It’s all that—it’s a complicated question and a complicated answer!
Find Everyday Feminism online!
Portrait courtesy of S. Kim; other photos are mine.