Entrepreneur Romy Newman often jokes that she’s the most “corporate” start-up founder you’ll ever meet. She left a high-flying career in media to become the captain of her own ship after realizing that she couldn’t combine work and parenting at the level she wanted within the confines of Corporate America. The result? Co-founding Fairygodboss, the largest online community for women to confidentially come together around career. Romy shares an insider’s look at trending topics among the nearly 7 million Fairygodboss members—including overcoming hiring bias, Zoom fatigue, and burnout at work.
00:05 - 00:35
Welcome to Women and Wealth, I'm Beata Kirr, Co-head of Investment Strategies at Bernstein, and this podcast aims to educate and inspire women to make the right choices for their wealth. Well, I'm so excited to be here today with Romy Newman. Romi and I went to business school now almost 20 years ago. The long arc of life and where it leads you, we remain remarkably connected in that way.
00:35 - 01:01
The reason Romy and I are sitting down today is that Romy is the co-founder of a company called Fairygodboss, which is the largest career community for women to engage and learn about their own career pathways, as well as confidential information around workplaces. So Google shows Fairygodboss as one of a dozen companies to take part in its first accelerator program for female founders recently.
01:01 - 01:27
And I'm really thrilled to be sitting down with Romy today to talk about the Fairygodboss journey and her own personal journey and what Fairygodboss has really shown us about how women are engaging with the workplace. So welcome, Romy. Thanks for having me, Beata. Congrats to you and all of your entrepreneurial success. I've been watching from the sidelines on LinkedIn and otherwise and was so excited for us to come back together to have this conversation.
01:28 - 01:50
Let's go back to... post business school, you had this illustrious career in media. How did you get from there to cofounding Fairygodboss? So it is funny because I always say that I must be one of the most corporate startup founders anyone is ever going to come across. And I did have a very corporate career.
01:50 - 02:21
And then when I look back at what was the reason I left sort of corporate America to become an entrepreneur, I would say there's like 10 reasons and they all just sort of came together. There were certainly personal and life reasons. So I actually made this change after the birth of my daughter, my second child. But what happened was a whole confluence of things where there were a lot of management changes, where I worked, where I was in an industry that was not high growth. And I could see all these kind of ad tech companies that were selling it to me and growing so fast.
02:21 - 02:54
And I saw vibrant offices with foosball tables and I was like, how do I get over there? And then I also think that I found it was difficult within the schedule constraints of the corporate structure, to do the work that I wanted to do in the way that I wanted to do, at the level that I wanted to do and still be a parent in the way that I wanted to do that. And I knew I could do all those things well, I just couldn't do them, like, exactly from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. So I needed something that would give me a little bit more give in my schedule. That's great.
02:54 - 03:01
So you were looking for something with more and the foosball table also had appeal. But how do you move from that to Fairygodboss?
03:01 - 03:31
And how did you connect with your co-founder and where did that brainstorm come from? Yeah, so my last role at the Wall Street Journal, I oversaw all of their digital advertising revenue for all MarketWatch and Barron's, and then I sort of like wasn't sure what I was going to do next. And because I was so drawn to this, there's the whole Silicon Alley thing happening at the time in New York, so drawn to it. I actually decided to just leave the journal and take a leap.
03:31 - 03:59
And I went to go consult at one of our vendors at the time, a Web analytics company called Chart Beat. And so I kind of got bitten by the startup bug and I thought it was so cool and exciting. But I definitely knew that given where I was in my career, my level experience, I wanted to be the captain of the ship. I wanted to run something but didn't know what I wanted to run yet. And then sometimes the world is just full of kind of luck and it throws you an opportunity when you need it most.
03:59 - 04:25
Because my co-founder, Georgene Huang, had been a colleague of mine at Dow Jones, the parent company of the Wall Street Journal, and she had been impacted in one of those big management changes. She actually was fired very unexpectedly. And when it happened, she was two months pregnant, so nobody knew she was pregnant. That was not a case of discrimination, but she ended up having to go look for a job while she knew she'd be visibly pregnant in interviews.
04:26 - 04:49
So she started to do all this research online and try to understand how could she find out what a company was really like for women, not just what they said, but what was the experience that women were having? And at the time, Glassdoor was really taking off, but it didn't seem to speak to specific experiences of women. So she said, I'm going to build a solution that helps women share this kind of information with each other, kind of a whisper network.
04:50 - 05:10
And she had this idea of Fairygodboss, but she wanted a co-founder that would help her monetize. And she actually, we hadn't stayed in touch, but a mutual friend put us together and we started working together in sort of an experimental project this way, and then it was just... it clicked and it's very hard for me to believe it's been six years because it's just flown by.
05:10 - 05:25
And I think I'm extremely fortunate in that we are perfect co-founders for each other. We've had a really wonderful, solid and kind of constructive relationship for six years already, which I think is not very common, actually. That's awesome.
05:25 - 05:46
What a great story. I also joined Bernstein when I was pregnant, so I'm fascinated. I hadn't heard that story about your co-founder. And I also have a co-head and I'm very grateful that we are great partners. And I do think this model of cofounding or co-leading is a wonderful thing. And if you fit together, it's great to have each other.
05:46 - 05:58
So tell me more again about Fairygodboss. I think I read you have seven million women now in your community. Tell me about your vision for Fairygodboss and where you've come from for these last six years. Yeah, exactly.
05:58 - 06:20
So we started out with this idea of being anonymous job reviews for women by women, but then we realized that... it was an important solution, but it was a transient solution because it only helped or applied to women who were actively seeking jobs. And we started to realize that there... until we came along, there was no dominant place online where women came together around career.
06:21 - 06:33
When you look at something like BabyCenter or you look at like Goodreads or you look at all kinds of travel sites, gardening sites, there are robust and dynamic digital communities around so many subjects.
06:34 - 07:48
But where is the one about women and career? So we realized there was a real opportunity to be that and that the career kind of feather in our cap that was going to help us be successful in that was anonymity. Because the issues that women have around work are not issues they want to put their names next to. Right. They have questions and concerns, the situations they don't know how to handle. They feel in our user interviews, we often hear that women, especially as they rise up, feel isolated. They don't have a peer, they don't have a mentor they can seek advice from. So where are they going to go? And so we want to be that community that provides that level of support for women in the workplace. One of the examples I use is we see it more often than you would want us to is, for example, a woman gets promoted to run a team only to find out that her new comp as the manager of the team is still lower than one of the men who's working for her and who did not earn the promotion. We've seen that happen a few times. So somebody has that situation. They come to us and they say, this is what happened to me. What do I do about it, right? We have editors and experts on our team. But really what we want to do is create a community where women are coming in to give each other advice. So instead, there's a huge comment thread giving this woman advice about what to do.
07:48 - 08:12
That's great. And I hadn't realized that aspect of Fairygodboss. And I see the aspect of helping employers obviously connect with your community and given such an importance placed on DNI and increasing diversity in the workplace, you're really find yourself, I'm sure, at the intersection of a lot of demand for corporations looking to identify those women in your communities. So it's great to have seen the community grow so much.
08:13 - 08:33
So let's pivot to being a female founder and seeking capital, because we've talked to other entrepreneurs who have told us about their journey. And we've also talked to venture capitalists who invest only in female founders or other diverse founders and talked about the unique ways that women are different. Tell us about your story.
08:33 - 09:07
How did you get started when it was the two of you? How did you think about funding and where are you now in your experience of fundraising? We did bootstrap a little bit at the beginning as far as we could go, and then we set out to fundraise. And I have to say that in the initial conversations we had, especially this is back in 2015-2016, the concept of a website for women around career was like seemed bizarre and unnecessary to everyone in a way that it never seems now. The world has changed very much since we started this and we were fortunate to be right ahead of that curve.
09:07 - 09:20
But the initial response we got in that first effort was, oh, well, that's... it's niche. It's really niche. Our joke is like, well, it's niche, if you like, as it's only 50 percent of the population.
09:20 - 09:49
So the initial round ended up being an angel round. And I think that was another real challenge that my co-founder and I faced, was really we saw that companies that get that initial angel round know people with money. And we didn't have a strong enough network to find an angel investor within our own networks. We got really lucky in that we just tried to network as much as we could. We got introduced to somebody who helped as an advisor, a paid adviser to help us raise.
09:49 - 10:16
And he made an introduction to us to a man who's been a phenomenal angel to us. His name is William Greenblatt, and he actually built Sterling Background Checks, the largest background check company in the country. And so he came in as our angel early on, and he was a great mentor, great adviser, really helped us scale up and get very serious about having kind of, it was the moment that we went from being an experiment to being like a real business.
10:16 - 10:29
And so that was great. And then about a year later, we then were ready for a seed round where we did sort of like the whole Silicon Valley dog and pony show. And we got a lot of Nos, a lot of Nos.
10:29 - 10:53
I mean, I'm sure you know the statistic that two percent of venture capital goes to female founded companies and we saw it in play. And I think a lot of it is specifically because there are so many men making investments so that they didn't understand the use case. They were not potential users of our site. And frankly, we see this thinking when we're selling into corporate, we're selling for revenue purposes, that the more we can find users, the more they understand what we're doing.
10:54 - 11:15
But anyway, we did find a woman champion who has been extraordinary in terms of helping us advance and grow our business. Her name is Deborah Quazzo and she's with GSV Ventures. And again, kind of not just capital, but a real advisor, mentor, champion who helps drive us forward. That's great.
11:15 - 11:42
So it sounds like you're still in your fundraising journey. We are. We are very much on our fundraising journey, I should say, because we're closing a bridge around right now, like in the next two weeks and then we'll be out for a B later this year. So one thing I have definitely learned about this is the fundraising never ends. But I will say that it was really nervewracking at first. And now I feel like it is just kind of more part of our life as a company.
11:43 - 12:04
And it's a very similar story to Kate Solomon, another friend of ours from business school, the founder of Babo Botanicals for her natural baby care products. Originally, she had shared a similar tale ultimately about the venture capitalists that seeded her were consulting with their wives around the use case for those products and didn't have as much familiarity.
12:04 - 12:25
But as you've said, Romy, in the last six years, there has been so much capital now flowing into identifying diverse teams and diverse founders and more money flowing into the businesses that back them. So I'm hopeful for you, for your Series B, that it will be a different dynamic that you'll see out there and the momentum is really behind you.
12:25 - 12:41
So let's pivot to talking about what the data shows, what your community is talking about. You've got these seven million women there on the chat boards, you are doing events and webinars for them. You're engaging with employers... like, we've done a lot of work on the she-cession.
12:41 - 13:06
At the point that we're recording, we still have two million less women in the workforce than we did at the outset of this pandemic. And that is a notably higher number than men in the most recent labor data. We have seen more women coming back because, of course, more women lost the jobs in the sectors that were disproportionately represented. This has been a disaster for women on really all ends of the economic spectrum.
13:06 - 13:18
We feel that. We see that and we know the reasons why. I'm curious what you're seeing at Fairygodboss, what you're talking about and what you're in some ways doing to help on that front. You know,
13:18 - 13:41
certainly we see women who are dramatically impacted and frustrated by the duration, especially for those that... I believe 60 percent of schools are still either closed or in some sort of hybrid model. And we know that the work of that home schooling does fall disproportionately to women. And so we just see, I mean, the word burnout is just rampant.
13:41 - 13:57
Women, everyone's exhausted. Right. But studies show that women are disproportionately exhausted and bearing the extra brunt of these two or three or four jobs. If you think about housework and you also think about caring for elderly parents or whatever it is, we're all doing many, many jobs.
13:57 - 14:19
But I think, I have to say that what is especially coming through and is very sad in our community is that women who are in their 40s and 50s losing their job and finding it extremely hard to get back, feeling like they're contending with ageism are just reduced opportunity for changes in terms of the skill sets required.
14:19 - 14:50
And I felt it firsthand because in order to sort of help engage with our audience and just contribute back, my co-founder and I actually ran a job seeker boot camp earlier this year. We were inspired by the boot camp that we actually participated in with Google. And the idea was that one hundred women who had lost their jobs due to the COVID pandemic submitted their resumes and they would get personal mentoring sessions, three each. A total of six women would get personal mentoring and coaching weekly from me and my co-founder.
14:51 - 15:13
So basically, I've been, for the first three months of the year, I sat shotgun with three women who were out of work, trying to help them find new jobs, getting back in. And I can't tell you how hard and frustrating it was, how difficult, how many times they were ghosted, situations where they went through ten rounds of interviews, doing practicals, the many case studies, and then just no answer.
15:14 - 15:42
No answer. So I think there's and you can imagine the fatigue and exhaustion and just sort of like discouragement that comes out of that. And we certainly see that in our community. It is a discouraging situation. And I'm hopeful that somehow there's this shift that goes on in effectively corporate America that's going to enable more flex work, more part time work, more consulting work, and that perhaps there's more opportunity in those settings than in the traditional job world. I hope so.
15:42 - 16:06
I also think there's bias at play. Right, because a lot of these women, they don't need flex hours. They just don't, quote unquote look like the candidate that the company was looking to hire. I think there's some sort of, especially at a certain pay level, that there's an expectation that this person should be more junior, should have had less experience. So I think there is a real kind of bias that we were contending with when a lot of these women go to interview.
16:07 - 16:31
Yeah, one, there's major structural shifts underway in the workplace altogether because of automation and what's happening. And you said yourself in your own career that you were working in media and seeing a sea change, really a seismic shift. The same thing is going on in financial services. It's going on in the service industry. And so the good news of startup world is there are more opportunities, but more risk associated with those opportunities.
16:31 - 17:02
Yes. And a very young and inexperienced workforce. It's not very structured. It's not always very professional. The way that I learned as professional early in my career. It's a whole different kind of workplace culture. Mm hmm. Well, here I am at Bernstein for almost 15 years, so I've been fully part of the corporate culture for my whole career, so I can only imagine how different it is in startup land. The other thing that's been super tough for women, we know about the child care burden. We know about the disproportionate sector influence on women.
17:03 - 17:34
I was fascinated recently when I read, I think it was a Stanford study, that talked about how Zoom fatigue affects women more acutely than men. And all the time when I say I'm exhausted, despite having resources to have help and despite being comfortable in my home working here, it does feel like I'm more exhausted than my male colleagues and I don't know why that is. Yet, the Stanford study made it sound like there's actually a good reason why, and it's how women communicate and how our brains process.
17:34 - 17:47
And there are some differences. So I found that discouraging. Have you been hearing about that? And have you heard in your community any chatter around what women are doing to try and continuously make it through this period?
17:47 - 18:11
So I think I'm living it because I'm usually on Zoom like 9:00 a.m. till 6:00. And it is exhausting. And also for someone like me that needs to be active, it's really hard to just be sitting that whole time, like it drives me crazy. My eyes sometimes burn. And you're right, I'm very busy being trying to be aware of what everybody else is doing on the zoom. And it never kind of lets up.
18:11 - 19:08
Actually, though, one of the things I'm doing is I do presentations. I've started doing this a few years ago to the companies that we work with, for their women employees' resource groups. And I usually give presentations about how we can all advance gender equality at work, which certainly is still a very important topic to me. But the presentation I'm giving right now is called Inspiration: The Antidote to Burnout. And so I'm trying to talk about how, even though it's counterintuitive, we're so burnt out in so many different ways from so many different things. Right. Life is burning us out right now. And so even though it's counterintuitive, how can we actually find inspiration and draw strength and enthusiasm from the time that we're spending doing work, so that instead of work being another thing that's draining us, work is a way that we invigorate ourselves. And how can we sort of redesign our work and our working interactions, our work experience to help us feel more inspired?
19:08 - 19:14
Well, you can't just give me that headline and not tell us how you actually tell people to do it. So what's the secret?
19:14 - 19:34
How do you get there? I think a lot of it is about identifying which parts of your work give you flow. Are you familiar with the concept of flow, this idea that there are actually some activities that are right in the sweet spot between the things we find challenging and the things that we find boring? And when we do them, it actually helps reduce anxiety and builds self-esteem.
19:34 - 19:56
And so if you get really aware of what activities give you flow and then kind of reorient your day to ensure that that's the most of your day and maybe even go one step further and reorienting your job to make sure that most of your job gets you in the flow zone and that you even understand your body schedule. So like I am a morning person, I'm much stronger in the morning. I have much more brain power in the morning.
19:56 - 20:13
So I try to take care of the activities that don't give me flow first thing so I can knock them out. So for the rest of the day, I could kind of feel a little bit better about what I'm doing. That's an interesting strategy, understanding, just being very aware of what is there to give you a flow, how do you align your job or even maybe change your job or move into a different job
20:13 - 20:40
that gives you more flow. And then there are all kinds of other things you can do during your day that help you find, if not flow, relief. So connecting with friends, like you and I are connecting, helps kind of reinvigorate you, giving, being an ally or giver, donating your time. So I mentioned the job seeker boot camp and those hours that I spent with those women helped reinvigorate me. And then even like making sure that you find time for joy in your day. If you want, go and spend a half hour watching a Netflix show.
20:40 - 21:05
Right. Like, that's OK if it helps reinvigorate you. How are you protecting yourself and making sure that you're not just like, on this ongoing to-do death march? So all those things, like you can control your work experience, you can reorient it to find more inspiration and more joy, and then you will help bring that to others. That is awesome advice, Romy. And I think you're right. A lot of us feel like we are on a Zoom death march.
21:05 - 21:30
I hadn't used that term before, but I think I hear you on that, that controlling your calendar and really saying, here's my 30 minutes of joy. If you stick that on your calendar, what is it that's going to take? And if it's something that is going to develop your career longer term, like you said, reconnecting with friends, we've lost that walk to the lunch or a time in the taxi or time in the airport where I would always call people.
21:30 - 21:54
And instead, it's all day on. And I know our company is struggling with the policies here, too. I think a lot of companies are thinking about what to do next, and we are thinking about making sure that people know that they can have video off and it doesn't have to be on all day, for example. Giving people focused Fridays or a Wednesday afternoon where there is no meetings, potentially company wide or SBU-wide.
21:54 - 22:22
What are some of the policies that you've seen emerging and some of the companies that you feel have been leaders in this space and really not just addressing Zoom burnout, but perhaps in addressing kind of really attracting diverse talent and through their policies, effectively creating a workforce that is vibrant and diverse. Have you seen some real leaders in the space and what is this policy? Well, certainly the leader that I always point to in the space is Microsoft, hands down.
22:23 - 23:22
Diversity at the team level is built into their management level objectives and compensation. So managers without diverse teams don't get their full incentive compensation. Right. And I just think there's no stronger point. There's no stronger way to emphasize that. Salesforce is another leader that is just emphasizing and amplifying diversity and inclusion at every step, whether it's, they've done all kinds of compensation audits to equal out men and women's comp. They also have protocol around meetings and making sure there's enough representation and meetings, all kinds of good stuff there. In terms of work life balance. I could tell you about Citi, who is now doing Zoom Free Fridays and has made a big stance on well-being. PWC is another company that really has made great strides in allowing people to choose the way that they want to work and take reduced hours if that's what's required for them, especially right now during the pandemic. Oh, I'm definitely seeing a lot of good things out there from leaders in the space.
23:23 - 23:32
Yeah, that's great. Well, we're doing a lot here at AB, too, and diversity is front and center as an initiative for us and a real commercial imperative to your point.
23:32 - 24:00
Well, so let's close out our conversation and talk about your own money journey. We always ask our guests these questions around your kind of money lessons and making money meaningful as well as funding your favorites. We talk about being intentional with financial decisions. So I was curious, what does funding your favorites mean to you? How have you thought about being intentional with your finances? Well, I don't know if it was smart or not, but my biggest investment is called Fairygodboss.
24:01 - 24:32
For what it's worth, I like that I feel in control of the company because I'm an investor as well as an operating executive, and I work harder because I know that I'm fulfilling my own destiny. Yeah, well, how have you thought about, I know you had a really powerful mother. I remember you telling me about her back at Kellogg, and she was in the insurance industry as a really senior executive. So I was curious, when you were being raised, when you were a kid, when you're younger, what were some of the money lessons that you learned from not just her but from your family?
24:32 - 24:53
Right. They were profound, I will say, because my mother worked for only commission, a hundred percent commission, and we were very acutely aware of it. So it was very clear that if she didn't bring in new clients, there was no money. And so we all would sit around the table working on her proposals and we'd all be in it together if she won the business or she didn't win the business.
24:53 - 25:18
And I think it was a remarkable lesson that certainly helped prepare me to do what I'm doing now. And I actually think if you want to take any silver lining of this COVID fiasco, I feel that my kids are having the same kind of exposure now because they sit behind me while I am working and they're very aware of what I'm doing and how I do it and what it means to run a company. And even my son said to me he wants to buy something.
25:18 - 25:49
And he's like, Mom, what can I do to earn 56 dollars? So I gave him a whole list of what he could do to earn 56 dollars and he's working through it. But my kids are really very engaged on the topic of like how do I earn money, how do I get money. And then I even, I felt badly. I had to spend a day with my son and I ended up having to do a sales pitch on it. And so I told them that if we won the business, I'd give him part of the commission. And so I gave it to him. I think those lessons are really important to learn early on.
25:49 - 26:14
That's fascinating about your mother and the... I can picture the dinner table editing... that was probably not PowerPoint then. No, definitely not. A Google Docs. But it's great to bring people into the circle, you know, bring your family into the circle early on. Well, Romy, it's been great to sit down with you. Thank you so much for sharing your story and the story of Fairygodboss. Really looking forward to hearing more about the company and more of your success.
26:14 - 26:39
Are there any parting thoughts you want to leave our listeners with? You know, sort of random because we haven't talked about this. But one thing I'll say is, since I'm here, being a founder has taught me that I really need to be relentlessly self-promotional to the point that is not comfortable. And I also, I would say that I think that's just true of what it means to have a successful career right now in general. You don't have to be a founder for that to be true.
26:39 - 26:57
And so I urge anybody who's listening. If you really want to advance yourself, advance your career, it's really important to build a personal brand and think about that personal brand and kind of invest in it and put time toward it. So I encourage your listeners to do that and that will sort of increase your equity in yourself. Great advice for me.
26:57 - 27:21
So I'll leave our listeners with a quick summary of your takeaways. Focus on the intentionality of your brand. Leave time for fun, if that's Netflix or connecting with an old friend and find the flow in your work around shifting the day, shifting the day toward more inspiration and fun and still getting everything done. So really great pearls of wisdom there. And again, all the best to Fairygodboss. Thanks again, Romy.
27:25 - 27:50
If you enjoyed the podcast and haven't subscribed to our show, please go to Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you listen to subscribe and rate us. You can also find us on Twitter at BernsteinPWM, or find me, Beata Kirr, on LinkedIn. Bernstein: Making money meaningful for individuals, families, and foundations for over 50 years. Visit us at Bernstein.com.
- Beata Kirr
- Co-Head—Investment Strategies