Really Rad Rachel

Girlstart's accidental executive

Rachel Muir
Rachel Muir (Photo By John Anderson)

It is 4:30pm on a Thursday at Girlstart, and the girls are playing a game. The game is to add an alliterative adjective to your name -- "Awesome April," "Crazy Cathy" -- and one of the youngest, 8 years old, is struggling.

"What could your adjective be?" Sharon, who runs the afterschool program, asks.

The little girl's face turns red, and she shrugs. She buries her chin in her jean jacket.

Across the room, another girl's hand shoots up.

"Do you have a suggestion?" Sharon asks.

"Uh. I forgot," the girl says, smothering her smile with her palm. It is the first of maybe 30 times she will raise her hand over the next hour.

They gather here once a week after school, just regular girls with overalls and glasses, girls with braids and butterfly clips, little shirts with hearts on them. They giggle and fiddle with their hair and sing pop songs.

And today, they program robots.

This is Girlstart, the nonprofit Rachel Muir started in 1997 to "empower girls in math and science and technology." In addition to robotics, girls here learn Web page design and how to make a movie. They meet female math and science professionals and learn about careers they probably never knew were possible (ride engineer at Disneyland?). It's about keeping your options open. It's about reminding girls that being smart is being cool. As Muir says, "Being smart is what it's all about."

Muir is not only an entrepreneur but also a bona fide media darling who has been profiled in Glamour, Texas Monthly, and Southern Living, to name a few. She has appeared on CNN. She has been on The Oprah Winfrey Show, for crying out loud, where she received the hundred grand "Change Your Life" grant from the Queen Bee herself. At last year's SXSW Interactive, Muir received the Dewey Winburne Community Service Award.

Muir is not your typical business leader. She is easy with smiles, she is loud of laugh, she often describes things as "fun" or "awesome." She is part of a new wave of female executives proving to a younger generation of not-yet-women that you can work and play. In fact, you can do both things at once. As she says of Girlstart, "I mean yeah, there's Hello Kitty, there's cotton candy, but there's real learning going on here."

Austin Chronicle: Why do you think Girlstart has enjoyed such media attention?

Rachel Muir: I think part of the reason is that people don't get tired of hearing about girls succeeding. Girlstart does speak to people's sensibilities. They understand why it's important, and they can get behind supporting it.

AC: Do you have a message you'd like to relay to the Internet community?

RM: We've all been jolted by the events of September 11 and the recession. But smart companies are investing in their future, and they are investing in their research and development. Those are the companies that -- when this is over, and we both know that it will be over -- are gonna come out ahead. Even though these things have happened, we have to think about our work force needs and education and technology. We still have to think about these things.

AC:So you've been leading Girlstart for five years now. What was the hardest thing you had to learn?

RM: It's all been hard. Raising money is a big challenge. It's like putting gas in your car. Every week at least, you have to put more gas in your car. I might raise $100,000 one day, but I know that the next week I have to go out and raise another $25,000.

AC:Speaking of raising $100,000 in one day, how did you get to be on Oprah?

RM: A close family friend wrote a letter to Oprah and pretty much right away we got a call from her producer. They said, "Don't get too excited, but we got this letter." And then bam! It happened really fast.

AC:Are you an Oprah fan?

RM: You know, Oprah's amazing. I think that people can connect with Oprah and they can speak to her and, more importantly, perhaps, that she speaks for them. The neat thing is that for an hour after the show you can hang out and talk to her. The whole audience can. She has such a personable, small-town spirit to her. People say about politicians, "When he looks in your eyes, it makes you feel as though you're the only person in the room." That's Oprah.

AC:So what are some of your goals for your 30s?

RM: I want to write a book about being an accidental executive. What you do when you're in a position where you want to take your business to the next level. How to have the confidence in yourself and your ideas and have a lot of fun along the way. Then when people say, "How did you do it?" I can say, "Read the book!"

AC:So do you ever get that complaint about why isn't there stuff like Girlstart for boys?

RM: Surprisingly, not very often. When we do, what we respond is that giving opportunities to girls doesn't take away opportunities for boys. It makes both of them have more opportunities. There's nothing wrong with some healthy competition. end story


Rachel Muir received the 2001 Dewey Winburne Community Service Award at last year's SXSW Interactive Festival. This year's winner will be announced on March 9, 2002, at the conference. A full list of nominees can be found at www.sxsw.com/interactive/dewey_award/nominees.php.

An editing error caused inaccuracies in this article to appear in our print edition. It has been corrected for the Web.

Keep up with all our SXSW coverage at austinchronicle.com/sxsw. Sign up for our South By-specific newsletter at austinchronicle.com/newsletters for news, reviews, and previews delivered to your inbox every day of the Fest. And for the latest tweets, follow @ChronSXSW.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
SXSW Panel: The War at Home: Trump and the Mainstream Media
The War at Home: Trump and the Mainstream Media
How to report and consume news under siege from the White House

Michael King, March 16, 2017

SXSW Taps FBI Director James Comey
SXSW Taps FBI Director James Comey
FBI chief will discuss privacy and cybersecurity at March fest

Chase Hoffberger, Jan. 26, 2017

More Screens
Pressing the Flesh
Pressing the Flesh
The world's leading adult toy manufacturer for men wants to take the stigma out of sex

Dan Solomon, May 11, 2012

Get Schooled
Get Schooled
James Franco-produced Web series tracks UT Film students

Kimberley Jones, April 13, 2012

More by Sarah Hepola
Raiders!
Raiders!
What if you remade a Hollywood blockbuster in your mom's basement?

March 13, 2015

Hollywood Is Calling
Hollywood Is Calling
Celebrities on Your Cell

Aug. 15, 2003

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Girlstart, Rachel Muir, Oprah Winfrey, Dewey Winburne Community Service Award, SXSW Interactive, SXSW 2002

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle