Really Rad Rachel
Girlstart's accidental executive
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.
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.