BABE #284: NEHA GANDHI - COO + Editor-in-Chief, Girlboss
Neha is the chief operating officer and editor-in-chief at Girlboss, a platform providing the tools, resources and community to help women advance. Her multifaceted executive role includes everything from overseeing and managing the content and creative teams, to writing and editing, and ultimately developing an inclusive, empowering company culture — all while ensuring operations run smoothly. With prior roles at print and digital publications including People, Harper’s Bazaar, Seventeen and Refinery 29, her experience and expertise speaks for itself. We loved getting the chance to chat with her about living boldly, owning our hard work, and ensuring our voices are heard.
Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia
Current city: Los Angeles, California
Alma mater: Princeton
Degree: B.A., English
Very first job: My very first job, truthfully, was working for my dad who runs a construction company in Atlanta. I didn’t really get paid for that though, but we called it a job. My true first job was at American Eagle.
Hustle: COO + Editor-in-Chief, Girlboss
Babe you admire and why?
Oh my gosh, there are so many. Recently I’ve been kinda obsessed with Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of Pepsi. She stepped down last year and recently joined the board at Amazon. If you haven’t heard the interview with her on Freakonomics, she’s so real about the challenges of the work she does, about how she thinks about her more traditional Indian family, about being a mom, about working seven days a week and 20 hours a day — something absurd like that. I just really appreciate that refreshing honesty. She’s accomplished so much!
How do you spend your free time?
I am currently making my way through the Ottolenghi cookbooks. The recipes are very involved and they require a couple days of shopping and searching for ingredients, then prepping things and making everything from scratch. It’s definitely more of a hobby than an approach to sustenance or “feeding yourself.” I do this often, but only on weekends. It’s really fun and soothing and relaxing, and you feel accomplished when you do it.
What’s something you want to learn or master?
Something that I want to master is the art of being present. Not being distracted. Not thinking about where my phone is and what might be on it, and maybe even taking off this watch that is perpetually buzzing at me while I’m doing other things. I’d like to just be there and appreciating what’s happening and getting the most out of it. There is a duality between that idea and this idea of ambition. There’s something about what fuels you—the idea of, I want to be onto this next thing, and then great, this amazing, wonderful thing has happened. I think that fuels you and drives you forward, but it can also be dangerous because it keeps you from enjoying the amazing things that are happening in the present.
Tell us about your hustle.
I am the chief operating officer at Girlboss. We are a community and content platform for ambitious women. We talk about money, we talk about work, we talk about entrepreneurship. We really want to be a resource to women who want to advance themselves. My job is multi-pronged. We’re a startup, so I oversee the content and creative teams; I write sometimes, I edit a lot and I manage a team. We’re about 26 people as a company right now and I see a big part of my role just being managing, leading, making sure everyone on the team has all of the tools and resources they need to be as successful as possible, and thinking about operations and culture to make sure we’re laser-focused on our strategy. [I ask questions like]: What’s the thing that we said we were going to set out to do this year at the end of last year? How do we chop that up into bite-sized pieces? How do we pursue or not pursue those things, and are we holding ourselves accountable?
What did your hustle look like pre-Girlboss?
I started out working in print magazines. I got my start as a People Magazine intern, where the highlights were an interview with Paris Hilton and an interview with Donald Trump (because he was launching “The Apprentice”), both in one summer. That really gives you a taste of what that time was like. I’ve done internships in a bunch of different fields: in my congressman's office, in a nonprofit, etc. I didn’t know what I wanted at first — but once I did, I sort of relentlessly pursued magazines. I took a paid internship for minimum wage at InStyle, and then I went into a couple of other magazine roles: Ladies Home Journal, Harper’s Bazaar, Seventeen. At Seventeen, I started on the print side and then took on the website during my last year there. After that, I was like: I love this digital stuff. I’m going to go over to a place called Refinery 29—which was just a teeny startup at the time. I got to get in on basically the ground floor and join this company of 35 people who were making cool stuff I really loved. I got to build and grow with them. I was there for six years and I started out bringing order to what felt like the “Wild, Wild West” in some ways. I moved from there to building and then managing an editorial team, and growing our operation from a focus on fashion to a generalist focus on anything and everything women talk about—and I got to learn. I took all of these learnings, and brought them to Girlboss, where I got to build.
What draws you to the startup environment?
It’s the opportunity to build. You can see a great idea, or you can see an opportunity, and you can see a need. At a startup, when you feel like there’s a gap, you can address the problem instantly. You can say, I can change this. And not only that, but I can do it quickly. You can have an idea and institute it instantly; you don’t have to write six memos and get three layers of approval.
What’s the company culture like at Girlboss?
Culture is something that’s been really important to both myself and Sophia [Amoruso], from the outset. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot and something we talk to our team about a lot. We’re really transparent about our culture. It’s essentially a manifestation of our values and things we want to show up in the outside world as standing up for. All those things we want to bring women on the outside, we want to do for our team. That’s about treating people like adults, about having respect, about leading with wit and humor, about not taking ourselves too seriously—but also being kind, supporting each other and being a team.
Why is female empowerment important to you?
I don’t love to use the word “empowerment.” It sort of takes the agency away from the person who’s having it, and I think women empower themselves. Women are the ones who have the power, and need to harness it, and need to take control of it and use it for all that it’s worth. Our role in that process is not necessarily to give them the power, but to just give them the tools to better take advantage of it. And that, to me, is a given and a no-brainer. We should all be doing that for each other.
How do you think being a woman — and more specifically, a woman of color — has affected your professional experience?
It’s interesting: Being a woman, I started out working in magazines that talk to women. I’ve never felt like a minority in those work environments—but being a woman who is not white has always made me feel like an “other,” especially in those environments. For years working at magazines, I certainly didn’t see other women who looked like me. I also didn’t see other women, for the most part, who didn’t come from a very privileged background. It was sort of a place where you saw a lot of socialites, or socialite’s kids, or people “who so-and-so is the kid of so-and-so.” That, I think, always made me feel a little nervous when I was in junior roles—that I was never actually going to be able to advance. As a result, it’s a huge priority for me to make sure I’m hiring not just women of color, but women who come from different spaces and experiences than even I do. Women who really represent true diversity—of ideas, experiences, backgrounds. Because that’s how we do our best work.
How do you strive for accuracy and honesty in the media you help produce?
Well, we’re not in the news space, so I actually don’t make it true effort to stay unbiased—we’re not reporting the news. (I actually think that’s OK. I’m not working at a news station, because I want to run a values-led editorial team.) I think accuracy is really important, fact-checking is really important and the truth is really important. The only way to be accurate is to take your time, to not rush through your work, not try to make too much and to pay fact-checkers. That’s a really hard thing in media today, because it’s sort of a race. If you’re racing to scale, the only way to really do that is to make a lot of content. Making a lot of content, you’ve taken some venture capital dollars and probably are also thinking about how you can optimize it so you can make the most amount of money — so you can eventually have an exit. I think that’s one of the really hard things about being in media today; if you’re trying to optimize a venture-led business, you can’t optimize for quality, and quality is everything.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
It’s not enough to just put your head down and work. Sometimes people will just notice you did an amazing job and they will reward you for it, and that is a magical, amazing thing we should all strive for. That’s the kind of manager I strive to be; I want my people to feel like they don’t have to shout from the rooftops about their work, because I’m going to recognize it. But at the same time, it’s actually part of the job. Acknowledge the work you’re doing and make sure it’s being seen. Make sure the real value you’re adding is being seen by the people who are going to make decisions about your future. Even more importantly—and this is especially true in startups—look around and figure out where you can add value. Look around and say: Oh, there’s a business need over there that’s not being met. It’s 100 percent not my job, but I am going to propose a solution. That’s not just how you advance, but that’s how you learn and take the greatest advantage out of what a startup has to offer. I went into Refinery 29 as an editor, and I left as an executive. That’s a strategist. If you looked at my resume when I walked in the door, you would have said, “That woman has no business doing that work.” But I learned it on the job because I knew someone needed to do it—and I got it.
In partnership with: Generation W
Generation W is an ever-growing, enthusiastic community and national nonprofit that embraces the guiding tenets of education, inspiration, connection and the power of women’s leadership. Join the BWH team at the next signature Generation W event at Jacksonville’s University of North Florida on Friday April 3, 2020!