Women's History Month: Q&A with Jes Wolfe, CEO of Rebel Girls

It’s Women’s History Month and we can't think of anyone better to talk about women making history than Jes Wolfe, the CEO of Rebel Girls and one of our 2022 Hall of Femme honorees. Jes’ leadership at Rebel Girls has helped to amplify the stories of hundreds of history-making women in an effort to inspire and cultivate confidence in young girls. 

Une Femme Wines: How did your journey with Rebel Girls start?

Jes Wolfe: After we sold my last company, I decided to take a break. I moved to [Lake] Tahoe, got a dog, and became a ski bum. To keep my foot in the startup world, I hosted founders in Tahoe for 3-day “ski strategy camps,” where we’d convene, ski, and talk about their businesses. 

One of the founders who came through was Elena Favilli, who is one of the co-founders and authors of the original Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls book. After numerous conversations with her, I was hooked on Rebel Girls.  At the time, it was two books with a big mission and I felt like it could be something much bigger. I also wanted to be part of an organization that had both impact and commercial potential, so it seemed like a great fit. I joined the board as their first independent board member, and then I became the CFO and COO. The next year I raised our first venture round and became the CEO.

UFW: What does the word "rebel" mean to you?

JW: "Rebel," to me, is the truest, most pure expression of self. It means being absolutely unapologetically who you are, living your life and pursuing your passions, and making your mark on the world in a way that is so true to the individual. A true rebel does that regardless of societal, familial, or cultural expectations. It’s about being authentically you, embracing that, and going for it. That is how rebels contribute so much to society and leave their marks on the world.

UFW: We love that Rebel Girls is all about giving young girls confidence. Sometimes, however, we find that there's a lack of confidence in adult women - even for women who are leaders and at the top of their games. How do you cultivate and maintain confidence in yourself and your team?  

JW: There are two parts to this: building myself up and building my team up. For both, it’s about celebrating wins, recognizing a job well done, individual superpowers, and successes – whether small or large. 

In moments of doubt, reinforcing the positive versus focusing on the negative is important.  Bad things and bummer moments do happen; and in those instances, it’s about changing the perspective. It’s easy, especially for women, to go into a downward spiral of self-doubt when we make mistakes. 

I find it helpful to think of mistakes as learnings. When I fail and make mistakes I remind myself that this is a great opportunity to get better. Same with my team: how will we get better? 

The combination of recognizing the things we’re doing well and changing the failure focused mindset to be a learning and growth focused mindset definitely helps to increase our confidence and drive to go-forward.

UFW: Do you have a favorite Rebel girls book? Why? 

JW: I have two favorite books. The first one is Awesome Entrepreneurs, for a variety of reasons. Only two percent of venture funding goes to women. We need to more often celebrate the women who raise venture capital. It makes me sad that household names in VC and the entrepreneurial space are almost entirely men. If you ask people to name an amazing female entrepreneur, most people can’t answer that question. This book is a great starting point to make stories of female entrepreneurs more public.

The other book I love is the story of Madam CJ Walker. In addition to the chapter book, I added her story to Awesome Entrepreneurs because she is the original badass of badasses, and I didn’t know about her until I joined Rebel Girls!  I went to Stanford Business School and we didn’t have a case-study on Madam CJ Walker, despite her being the original self-made millionaire. Her parents were slaves, she was married at 14, had no formal education, and then she created an empire all on her own before women even had the right to vote. Her story is really inspirational. It’s about creativity, tenacity, and believing in oneself despite everything. My wish is that everyone knows her story. 

UFW: What’s one of your biggest triumphs as a CEO? 

JW: Since taking on the CEO role, we’ve reached 15 million more girls. That’s the result of scaling content in a big way: more stories, more books, more audio, more formats. We've also scaled partnerships. I'm really proud that we've been fulfilling our mission to raise the most inspired and confident of girls across the globe. We’ve increased their confidence and changed their perceptions of their place in the world. But what’s more important than the numbers is the depth and quality of that impact. We get inbound messages all the time from parents and girls telling us about the impact that Rebel Girls content has had on their lives.

One woman wrote to us about the effect Awesome Entrepreneurs had on her niece. This young girl was having a really tough time during COVID. She withdrew socially, struggled leaving the house, and developed a lot of anxiety. She read the book and was so inspired she decided to create her own string bracelet business. She started a website to promote her business, and eventually joined a sports team as well. She went from being very anxious to blossoming and expressing herself in multiple ways. We hear a lot of stories like that - tangible examples of what this brand and our storytelling can do, and it makes me proud.

UFW: What’s one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made as CEO that you want other women to learn from?

JW: Instead of mistakes, let’s call it learnings. What are some of the biggest learnings I’ve had? From a startup perspective, I’ve staffed up teams and put marketing spend to work that was premature and ended up burning time and money. It’s appealing to scale things but sometimes premature before proving product-market fit. I’ve learned how to be much more prudent when allocating resources, particularly for young businesses or new products. 

I’ve also learned about how to better interact with investors and board members. When I started out, I was more deferential and sought out guidance and approval. As I’ve gained experience being a CEO, I’ve become more confident. I realized that I have more information and think about this business more than anyone in the entire world. It’s important to solicit input from advisors and investors, but that dynamic has evolved in that I am much more self-assured and I no longer seek approval the way I used to. 

UFW: We started the Hall of Femme to celebrate all the women out there making history - can you tell us about a woman in your life who you’re sure will end up in the history books because of her extraordinary work? 

JW: My personal hero of heroes is Kit DesLauriers. She was the first person to ski Everest and the Seven Summits when she was almost 40 years old. At 35, she decided to start competing and won all these world championships and got sponsorships when the other competitors were 10 years younger. Then she set out to be the first person - man or woman - to ski the Seven Summits. She is truly a pioneer for hardcore endurance sports. She's in our Champions Book and we have an expanded audio story for her as well.

Another woman I put in our books is Asma Ishaq. She’s the CEO of Modere. She’s the first woman in her family to go to college, (and has 3 degrees from Princeton and Berkeley no less). She invented one of the first collagen products 15+ years ago, grew her business, sold it to a much bigger company, and was asked to run marketing for the combined company. She was so good she became CEO, has grown Modere more than 10x, and been able to scale to 50 countries. Most of her competitors are run by men, but she is paving the way to lead and win in her industry over the next 10 years. She leads with so much intelligence, excellence, grit, and kindness. She’s bringing people along with her and her employees adore her. 

The third woman who needs to be in a Rebel Girls book is Wendy McMahon, who is currently the president of CBS News. She started in marketing for a single local tv station in New Orleans and then went to ABC where she eventually became the Head of Digital for all of their local news stations and eventually took on the role of President. Then, she moved to CBS to be the President of not just the local news, but the national news. Wendy is known for rolling up her sleeves and fixing what needs to get fixed. At the same time she is a visionary that invests in innovation. It’s really rare for a leader to take a legacy business and bring innovation to it. To do that, you have to restructure and grow at the same time which is a hard thing to do. 

UFW: Women have been working to achieve gender parity across all sorts of industries and in all sorts of structures for decades.  What, do you think, remains one of the biggest impediments to gender equity? 

JW: From my Rebel Girls lens, the single biggest predictor of a kid's success is the level of confidence they have. Age 6 is when girls start thinking they aren’t as smart or as capable as boys are. The real question is why do they have less confidence? What is the systemic cause? There are many studies that show parents today continue to treat boys and girls differently. They encourage boys to pursue STEM and engineering three times more than girls. They encourage girls to do baking and dancing three more times than boys. Our teachers, the media, and the stories we tell kids broadly reinforce these biases.   

The very best thing we can do to have a more gender equal world is to get more women to the top of everything as fast as we possibly can. We need women in decision-making roles because they need to have the power to change the system. We need 50% of venture partners to be women. We need 50% of Fortune 500 CEOs to be women. We need 50% of Congress to be women. It's a system with a broken cycle that we need to correct. And while we’re getting women into positions of power, we need to simultaneously make sure the next generation of women are raised with the same level of confidence as the next generation of men.