In the Company of Women, By Grace Bonney, Conversation by Tamu McPherson
We skyped Design Sponge founder, Grace Bonney last month to talk about her amazing new business book, “In the Company of Women” which features inspiration and insight from over 100 makers, artists and entrepreneurs. We also chat about the legacy of her blog and how she measures success. Grab a cup of something good and enjoy our inspiring conversation.
TMP: So, this is so exciting! Congratulations!
GB: I’m so excited, this is my favourite thing I’ve ever done over the last 12 years of running my site. It’s been so nice to be part of a community project, and I wouldn’t have had access to a tenth of these women without the help of other people I knew through the site, so to see it become a real thing, it’s so fun.
TMP: And you really have featured a great variety of women. I feel like you have a great representation of women that are active in designing and creating right now.
GB: The inspiration for the project was two-fold. Thinking about how important visibility has been in my life, and then, about the lack of inclusivity in the design community in particular. I just felt like I know all these amazing women who are doing awesome things, and how come nobody’s writing about them, or at least why is nobody putting them in a business book? Having them in a book that you can return to over and over again is a dream project.
TMP: Our stories are starting to be considered so the timing is great. Did you find that in writing this book that your subjects, or other women you know are starving for this information and inspiration?
GB: I can’t tell you how many women I spoke with who, when I asked them about the role community plays in their life were like, “That’s a huge part of my life, but I wish it was an even bigger part.” I was so surprised to see that even women like Eileen Fisher who’s been in the game for so long and is so established and successful replied, “I still really want to be around other women who run their own businesses because we understand each other in a way that other people can’t.” And it just became clear that people just really needed to have those connections with other women to support them, to inspire them and I think especially early on in the game, for younger women to be able to see how many different options exist. Because I think so many people I talk to when I ask them, “When did you first learn about the career that you have now?” For some people it was three years ago! I mean they just realized that that was an option and so I just kept thinking back to when I was 13, I didn’t know that design was a thing. I thought you could be a painter, or a sculptor or a photographer ,but everything else was just not an option. And it wasn’t until I saw “Trading Spaces,” that old TV show on TLC that I knew that interior design was a thing, and so I just thought about that a lot, about how powerful it would be to see a woman who reminded me of me in some way doing something amazing I didn’t even know I could do.
TMP: You traveled across America to interview these women. What did you notice in your storytelling, from interviewing some of the women face to face? What was the difference? Because you are site-based and yes, you’ve interviewed many people but how was that experience?
GB: It was amazing and it was intense because I don’t typically get to talk to people face to face, and so it made me a lot more nervous than I thought I would be, but I led with my own vulnerability so when I was introducing these questions I would say, “Here’s a mistake I’ve made, here’s a mistake I continue to make, or here’s a thing I’m really struggling with,” and I think that sort of first step into the water of being vulnerable really helped people feel more comfortable. But it really was a range. I interviewed Nikki Giovanni in person and I mean talk about somebody who does not need any help being confident or open or transparent and she just kind of laid it all out there and that was amazing and then you had some women who really kind of needed to be, needed to feel they were in a safe space to talk about those things. On the flight to Detroit where we interviewed Laura Jane Grace, I thought about all the incredible trans people who’ve been a part of my life or a part of our community to sort of come to her with these stories of like, these are people who are so incredibly excited to hear from you, you know? Who can’t believe you’re going to be a part of this project. Like you just speaking up and being yourself and being open has already meant so much to so many people, and I think kind of leading with this reminder of how much their words and their stories will impact people. I think everybody kind of feels the weight of that and the importance of that and it kind of inspires them to be a little bit more open, but I also made the list with that in mind. I reached out to women that I sort of knew had been open to discussing their lives and their work before so a lot of research went into making sure that I wasn’t reaching out to people who were notoriously quiet and didn’t speak. I mean there were a lot of women that I think I had to really build trust with, women who had never heard of me before or anything that I’ve done, it really was a lot of trust-building up front, which happened really quickly because the whole project happened in 2 months.
TMP: Ok, wait. So the whole project happened in 2 months and how did you do your research about who you would… like how much time did you dedicate to doing the research about your subjects?
GB: Well, essentially a length of time, because this whole book… this book began as a sticky note on top of my laptop that I’ve had for probably like 4 or 5 years. At the top of the sticky note it said “Bold women” and it was like this reaction to… in the design community in particular I feel like women are sort of treated like these beautiful, delicate objects and were encouraged to be like gentle and sweet and soft and that’s not how I operate and it’s not really what inspires me, so I kept writing down these names of women that I like for being bold, having strong opinions, not afraid to speak up and that list grew from 5 people to 50 people really quickly and then I transferred it to a document that was actually in my computer and then when this project sort of became a reality I really quickly off the top of my head expanded it to be like 200 people. And I think I spent all my day thinking about people that I follow or read about or am inspired by and then I spent probably a really intense 24-7, like two weeks kind of researching every interview these people had done to make sure I understood how they speak, their hesitancy with certain topics and I think I am somebody who can really geek out with research and if I like something I forget about sleep, I forget about eating, I just do it. And with some people the research process continued during the interview.
TMP: Ok, so for women who don’t have a project like this in the pipeline, would you suggest to them as creators to always have a dream project in mind? These projects are special, but you don’t necessarily know they’re coming. And how do you prepare for surprises? Surprise opportunities?
GB: I think it’s one of those…what is that old saying, “opportunity needs preparation” or something… I feel like this has been a project that’s been building for years, maybe not in book form, but I started this series in 2008, I think called ‘Biz Ladies’ where I used to travel across the US and put together these informational, get togethers for women who ran their own creative businesses. They were totally free and they would get advice from a financial person, a legal person, a marketing person.
And we would sit down round robin style around, eat cupcakes and talk, and have the same space to talk about work issues. Those sessions became a weekly column on the website in, I believe 2012, because I just couldn’t afford to go around the country, and then I loved that column and kind of how it grew from there. Then there was this boom of business books for women like “Bossy Pants” and “Girl Boss.” All these books were about girl power and I loved it, like the momentum building, but I still felt like they weren’t telling the diverse range of stories that I wanted to hear. So, I think it had kind of been in the back of my head, and then this book was actually supposed to be a DIY encyclopedia. I had a contract for this book and it was supposed to be something completely different, and I just never wrote it and so I guess maybe two and a half months before the book was due I met with my accountant and I was like, “It’s not happening, I can’t put my name on something that I don’t feel excited about.” And I had to make the plans of getting my advance back and was just like, I was so embarrassed and so crushed and I was ready to do it, and I talked to my wife and I was like, “I can’t believe I’ve made this mistake, I’m humiliated.” And she was like, “Wait a minute, is there anything else you’d want to write?” And I was like, “Well yeah, I’ve always wanted to write this business book, and I had pitched it before and nobody was interested in it, and so I just felt like, “Well why pitch it again? This just seems like a waste of time,” and she was like, “No, the world is different now. Pitch it again and see what happens.” And she helped me in the course of two hours make another one-sheet to pitch it. I sent it to my publisher and I said, “I’m willing to give my advance back, I can’t put my name on something I don’t believe in, here’s something I do believe in. What do you think?” And a day later, she wrote me back and she was like, “I love it, this is great, but you have the same deadline, so if you can do this in two months, you can do this.” And I was like, “Bring it on!” I love, I love a challenge like that.
But I think everyone whether or not they know it, they kind of have a project like that brewing in the back of their brain, and I think it’s just about staying in touch with your gut to seize on that moment and this just felt like this time. I mean I can’t even touch on the American political moment happening right now where women are, more than ever, realizing how important their voices are. It just felt like this perfect moment for this book to happen.
TMP: In interviewing all of these women, what were the notable similarities that you found?
GB: Almost every single person when I asked them what they wanted to be when they were little said something that involved a performance. So like a ballet dancer, an actor, a singer. We almost didn’t end up including most of those answers because they were all pretty much the same. What I found fascinating was that whether you’re a creative artist, or whether you’re an entrepreneur, there is some element of performance in running your own business because you are the face of the business, you are the voice of the business. I think in some way all those careers kind of brought themselves together in these women because a lot of them, you know they’re speaking on stages, they are the face of their business, they’re in their own ads. I think that sort of thing has a very big performance element that I honestly did not see cominG. I really didn’t think that would be something everyone had in common, but they did.
And the second thing which I think more profound and meaningful is they all had given up on the concept of work-life balance, and that’s something that I have spent a lot of my career kind preaching about and being like, “Yes, we can find this, we can do this.” And then I spoke to all these women, especially the women who were in their seventies who were like, “No. Let it go, that doesn’t exists. It is a seesaw, it is always going back and forth and if you hold yourself to that standard, you are never going to find it, because life and business are constantly changing and the idea of balances is stasis. It’s like this thing that doesn’t move, and if you’re not moving you’re not progressing and you’re not evolving.”
And I was like, “Oh! Oh, yeah that’s true.” I feel like the idea of trying to achieve balance is again holding women to this standard of: we have to be able to multitask times a billion and figure out how to keep everything else just sort of level and that’s never going to happen. Like there will always be days where you don’t spend enough time at home, or you don’t spend enough time at work, or you miss a call, or you miss a soccer game or like something that you want to be present at. And that’s life, I mean half of these women in this book are working moms and that was something they all really struggled with, but the more women they had to talk to, who were also working moms, that sort of guilt really started to go down.
TMP: Oh my gosh!
GB: Because they were sort of seeing everybody have that. And there are women in this book who have money, have nannies, have help and they still feel that way. So if you have all the resources possible and you still feel like you don’t have that balance, then why are we all holding ourselves to that standard? I think it really let me put my shoulders down and I was like, “Oh! Oh, ok, no one has it figured out. Let’s stop holding ourselves to that this standard and instead try to just think about how we stay in touch with our happiness, and what makes me feel like things are moving in the right direction. And so it became more about moving forward rather than standing still in this perfect balanced place.
TMP: Thank you! Preach! No, that’s a super evaluation and piece of advice because many women I know, including myself, definitely struggle over that.
GB: We expect way too much from women. Like I hate doing the like, “Men don’t do this and women do this” but it is kind of that situation where like there’s no guy at a corporation who’s like, “Oh no, I can’t get home for dinner, I have to take the kids…” It’s expected that they won’t be there, and I feel like women are like, “How can I not be in 10 places at once?” Like no one can be in 10 places at once so why do we feel like a failure when we can’t do the thing we know we can’t do?
TMP: Have your business goals changed after writing the book, and from what we just said, maybe your expectations have changed.
GB: Yeah, they really have. I’ve been pivoting away from the things I originally founded the blog to be about, and I’ve always embraced the fact that the blog will change every few years. It started off as purely this product blog talking about stuff, and then I moved away from that to talk about people more and working on these stories and I love that, but there’s a part of me that just doesn’t look at design in the same way anymore. Now that I pay a lot more attention to cultural issues and social justice issues, talking about houses doesn’t seem the same anymore. I’m much more interested in all the things that affect how you get into that house, than how it looks on the inside. My personal interests have really started to change and this book was an extension of that. I mean I started the blog when I was 23. I’m 35 now and I feel like, “How on earth am I supposed to be the exact same person with the exact same interests? But that’s what your community wants, which is hard. They want me to stay the exact same person I was when I was 23 and I just, I’m not.
This book has been a good pivot point for me. Jodie Patterson who’s in the book made a good point at our New York City panel. She said, “This is the company. What you do on the outside isn’t your company, you are the company, and everything else that happens are just like legs and extensions of that company.” And she’s had so many careers where she was like people would think that you know “I’m flaky” for doing different things every 3 or 5 years, but she was like, “No, I’m just embracing how I evolve and all my different interests.”
And I was like, “Oh! That’s ok. It’s ok if I walk away from something or change something that was successful for a while, but that doesn’t change my identity, it doesn’t mean it’s like a failure, like, for some people who have lots of interests or changing interests, you’re going to need to move away from the thing that no longer fits you anymore. And so, this book for me has really been about stepping into the next chapter of how I run the business, what the business even looks like. I think Design Sponge can evolve to be more about meaningful, substantive topics and we are having those conversations, but I think me as a person outside of Design Sponge will probably continue to push to do writing and work outside of the site that has nothing to do with design; which is terrifying but exciting.
TMP: How are you going to communicate that to you core readers?
GB: I think I’ve been communicating it for a while. I think that back in 2013, I came out publicly. I’d come out privately like a year-and-a-half or two years before that and I think that moment of being like, “Hey, here’s this really, really, really personal thing,” and it’s changed the way that I look at everything and it’s going to change the way we talk here, it’s going to change who we talk about here. People either got on board or hit the road. And that was a big moment for us, and I think a lot of people stuck around who were like, “Oh, there’s going to be a conversation around here that’s not just about couches and pillows and stuff.” And that was a really good moment, and since then I started writing more essays. I wrote a huge essay on Black Lives Matter earlier this year where I thought, “Ok, we’re going to lose (a certain) audience, but oh well!” And it was really, really nice to see that a lot of people understood the connection between social justice issues and home, and how if you feel like you can’t get home safely, how can you even care about the things inside your house? So I feel like a large percentage of the audience is coming with us on that journey, and the ones who really just want to talk about wallpaper will find another place to do that and that’s ok. I think with the way the ad market is changing so much of our traffic is split up among social channels and the main website and rss and newsletters, that it’s ok for the main blog to change. Our evolution kind of happened without announcing it and it’s been working. The readers that we’re losing along the way are going to different sites, and we’re getting new readers who are kind of interested in how all these things intersect.
TMP: Do you feel that with age and experience and exposure that you have been able to accept that and move on? I turned 40 this year and I feel like at a certain point I woke up on my birthday and I was like, “Well, if my friends aren’t going to be there for me, that’s alright.” It’s not that I don’t care, I just kind of accepted that that’s a part of life and maturity and that you should be evolving, right? Because even your readers are evolving, they’re getting older.
GB: Oh yeah, our readers, I mean when I started the site all of our readers were under 30, none of them had kids, and now the majority of our readers have kids and the majority of our readers are like in their late 20s and late 30s so they’re growing up with us. Life has been one giant lesson and finding compassion, everywhere and so I think the more I understand readers coming and going, and understanding that all these things, that maybe felt intensely personal in the beginning, are not. Like somebody reading a site and not reading a site is not a condemnation of who you are as a person, it’s just a change. And the same way I evolve and change, our readers do the exact same thing. They might move on to read more mom blogs or read more political blogs or whatever it is, and their interests change. I feel like that has become a part of understanding and accepting my own change. It’s like this big circle of, “Ah ok, they’re growing and changing and moving on to something different so that means they hopefully will understand I went through the same thing.” And so I feel like the more compassion and the more room I give people to change and leave and come back, I extend that to myself and I think like, “OK, it’s ok for you to do the same thing.” That’s just part of being a human being.
TMP: Ok so I just wanted to ask you one of the questions that you ask in the book. What do you do as a form of self-care or building yourself up?
GB: Sure! So, I think one of the most important things in my life are very long dog walks. In January of this year I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and I had to learn how to take insulin like a billion times a day and it’s been this massive life adjustment. And one of the most helpful things for both my health and also just my mental health is just taking long walks. I find that everything I start the walk with, stress-wise is left on the road. So whether that’s concerns about traffic or the book project or stress about travel, it is left somewhere around mile 2. It is a very important moment of clearing my head and starting the day as present as possible.
TMP: Ok, the last question that I wanted to ask you was another question of yours. What does success mean to you?
GB: My definition of success is constantly changing. I think in my 20s it was about being able to pay my bills and achieving certain levels of notoriety for the website. And then I turned 30 and everything changed and it became about “Am I doing something important in the world, and am I doing something that’s needed?” I just didn’t want to spend any time doing things that I don’t think are having a positive impact so that’s when I started writing more personal essays on the site. I started sort of shifting the site to focus on inclusivity. I started working a lot less and not giving up all of my weekends for my job because my personal life was lagging way behind my professional life. I kind of just made my own happiness a priority, which you literally have to put on a calendar and focus on, because I realized I was totally finding the time to schedule work events all day, but I never scheduled time for myself. So I think in my 30s success is very much about trying to prioritize my personal life and realizing that family, friends and my health are the things that are going to last for a very long time… and business concerns will come and go.
Grace Bonney portrait by Christopher Sturman.
Book portraits by Sasha Israel.