It's hard to imagine a digital world without Refinery29.
When the site first launched in 2005 the focus was city guides only. Now, the globally recognized media company, which serves as a go-to for information, community, and inspiration for millennial women scoping out news on everything from fashion and health, to technology and politics, boasts an audience of over 493 million across platforms. It's a bonafide global success. In many ways the site gave women the tools needed to become their own Anna Wintour. It was one of the first steps in democratizing fashion, moving the conversation out of the realm of luxury and into the realm of real life.
But without the guidance of Executive Creative Director and co-founder Piera Gelardi and Christene Barberich, co-founder and Global Editor in Chief, there would be no Refinery29 as you know and love it today. These two woman are powerhouses in the media, they shaped Refinery29 to be a true competitor, and they embrace change and collaboration in a way that continually moves the content needle forward.
Oh, and give their new podcast a listen. It just hit the airwaves last week and there is so much more to glean.
Read more from the visionaries below.
What has been the most challenging and rewarding aspect of your careers thus far?
Piera: The most challenging aspect of my career so far has been going from being a maker to a manager… going from being a sassy solo saxophonist to the conductor of a huge orchestra. It was an education for me to learn both how to lead in my own style, but also how to really enjoy leading and to find the creativity in it. Now, leading a team is one of my favorite parts of my job because I’ve found my own style that leverages my imagination, creativity, and empathy and I’ve developed fun, unique management systems that connect me to my own creativity while bringing out the ideas and creativity in others.
Christene: I've learned that launching a company is a ceaseless series of start-up moments...starting at the beginning, rewriting some rule that no longer applies. Almost 12 years after we launched Refinery29, we're still having to move quickly, adapt, be creative and often unorthodox in our problem solving...I know now that that never goes away. And sustaining the energy and motivation to constantly be thinking in new ways, challenging your own convictions and beliefs about how to do things, can be extremely challenging...but it's also what fuels growth—professionally AND personally. The startup spirit, if you're really conscious of how the company and its people are doing, never goes away.
Are their creative/content comprises that had to be made that you wish you would have stuck to your guns on?
Piera: I truly believe the greatest creative work is accomplished when you let your guard down, open your mind to new ideas, and focus on being inclusive of fresh ideas and thoughts. There’s a beauty in tension between ideas and often that creates the best results. At R29, we seek to challenge convention, and in order to do so, you must believe that great ideas can come in all forms. If/when I’ve had to make creative compromises, its been for the better. You have to make mistakes to learn. It’s about moving forever forward.
Christene: If other people have a stake in something, as millions of people do in Refinery29, compromise is essential in everything, so I don't spend too much time dwelling on moments where I might have given too much. I'm focused on the long game.
Refinery29 started with city guides. It is now a go-to site for females for everything from fashion to politics to tech. How do you see Refinery29 continuing to be a pivotal voice in the online space?
Piera: When we launched R29, so much in fashion felt like it was engineered to exclude and make people feel bad with rules and “don’ts.” We were all about thumbing our nose at the canons of fashion, instead celebrating personal style, and reveling in people who were going their own way and expressing themselves unabashedly.
Eventually, our perception of style evolved beyond beauty and fashion — we believe style is how a person chooses to live their life and the ideals they align with, and that includes everything from politics to technology, food to entertainment. We are continuing on our mission to make inclusive content that represents a diverse range of women’s experiences, voices and perspective. I see R29 continuing in the same path we have always been on, but with even greater ferocity, passion and a continued push to ensure our global audience feels seen, heard, and represented in 360 degrees of their lives.
Christene: To see principles and beliefs that Refinery29 has embodied from the beginning—body positivity and diversity, pay equity, a non-judgemental space to appreciate and explore a woman's passions and interests AND express herself without scrutiny...to see those values embraced and expressed globally, in the mainstream, that's progress.
How has your relationship to your career changed in the last five years?
Piera: Once I identified who I wanted to be as a leader, I focused on being courageous enough to hold onto that vision for myself, even when faced with doubt. Sometimes I ask myself, “Is what I am about to do a reflection of who I am and who I want to be?” I have told myself “I can’t do this” SO many times over the years but, despite that, I have done it. I have learned and pushed and grown and it’s been hard and it’s been amazing. My relationship to my career has evolved to where I have the ability to constantly grow, learn, and discover new things about myself and the world. I believe that life is a work in progress, and therefore nothing is ever finished or perfect.
Christene: I accept more fully the great responsibility I have to provide a critical platform for others, and, like most things, I see my ambitions and goals as a work in progress. To know that success is not a destination or an arrival somewhere, but a constant pursuit of knowledge, understanding, growth, transformation, and activism...thanks to all the remarkable women I'm surrounded by, the sky's the limit.
What does female empowerment mean to you?
Piera: At Refinery29, women’s empowerment is our mission; We want to be the catalyst for women to feel, see, and claim their power and, as a result, create a world where women can reach their infinite potential.
Christene: It's knowing that gender doesn't prevent, inhibit, or limit our ability to achieve ANYTHING. Empowerment comes from within, but it also comes from seeking out, identifying, and acting on the places where discrimination, in all its forms, exists.