Veteran entrepreneurs Amy Parker and Gina Pell have been in the business of building communities for women, both online and offline, years before social networks were created. They are the founders of The What, a weekly newsletter with exceptional recommendations and a private community of 38,000+ women. Their mission is to create a global sisterhood of women lifting each other up.
This week I had the opportunity to chat with Parker and Pell about maintaining cofounding relationships, building authentic communities, and cultivating a genuine network of reciprocity. As an entrepreneur myself building Lunchclub, a meaningful offline professional network that makes curated connections for 1:1 lunch or coffee meetings, I hugely admire Parker and Pell as entrepreneurs and have learned valuable actionable lessons from them. Below I highlight some of the key takeaways from our conversation:
1. Maintaining Cofounding Relationships
Pell and Parker have maintained a strong cofounding relationship over two decades and three companies—no easy feat. Interestingly, their relationship did not begin with friendship. Parker joined Pell’s company Splendora as a cofounder in 2001 and they developed a friendship through the difficult process of making the company successful.
“We became best friends through surviving all of the hardship. What makes our partnership work is that we have a lot of respect for each other and we know how to ‘check’ each other. We’ve been able to successfully do that for almost 20 years. We check each other on, ‘Hey, you need to get over yourself’ or ‘Hey, you’re not pulling your weight and need to push yourself.’ We also respect that we have lives and families,” Parker said. They believe being brutally honest with each other about all aspects of their lives has been key to their successful cofounding relationship.
Both Pell and Parker have worked for companies with cultures where employees were only respected for their work and not treated as holistic people. They intentionally chose to create a different company culture at The What. “Our personal lives and our families come first before the business. The business takes up 90% of our waking hours, but if something happens within our personal lives, then everything has to stop and we help each other through it,” Pell said.
2. Building Engaging Online Communities
Pell and Parker were early pioneers in creating online communities for women. “We’ve always been in the business of creating community for women,” Pell exclaimed. Their first company Splendora was a luxury city guide for San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. They ran the business for a decade before selling the company.
The What is their third venture together. They wanted to create content for ‘perennials,’ or people of all ages with a mindset of curiosity and growth. Pell coined the term ‘perennials’ in a 2016 blog post titled, “Meet The Perennials” out of frustration from the feedback she was receiving from investors whilst fundraising for The What. “We were met with so many no’s. Investors said that if we weren’t creating content exclusively for millennials, then they weren’t interested in what we were doing. I was frustrated by how 20th century that thinking was,” Pell said. Parker explained that all three of their businesses were built for perennials.
After creating The What newsletter, Pell and Parker created a Facebook community “The What Women” which grew to 5,000+ members overnight. They were worried about how they could maintain a safe and trusted online space. Their guiding philosophy is a classic: “If you don’t have something nice or productive to say, keep it to yourself.”
They have set clear guidelines for behavior within their community and have a one-strike-you’re-out policy with no tolerance for judgement or shaming. “We call these types of women, ‘women who want to pounce,’” Parker explained. Parker and Pell personally approve every single woman who applies to the group. They moderate posts for redundancy, tone, and content that might trigger folks.
After two decades of experience building communities for perennials, Parker’s biggest takeaway is that community builders need to project their authentic selves within their communities through conversation. “People say that they want the community they are building to feel authentic. You know what? You don’t want it to feel authentic, you want it to be authentic. Being authentic means being your authentic self, being real, and putting yourself out there,” Parker said.
3. Cultivating A Genuine Network Of Reciprocity
Throughout their careers, Pell and Parker have created a network of helpfulness, openness, kindness and generosity. They believe mentorship is a dirty word and it makes them cringe. “Don’t approach networking with self-serving transactional needs like ‘I need to find a mentor.’ Instead, think about how you can be open and helpful to people, and most likely, they will be open and helpful to you,” Pell advises.
The What has managed to create this beautiful offline experience of human connection and network-building that is entirely unique. I attended the inaugural The What Summit last year in San Francisco, an invite-only women’s event which brings together a group of 200 women from different industries to have an immersive experience designed for real human connection. I have attended over a hundred conferences and summits, and The What Summit was the most extraordinary summit I have ever attended.
The What Summit 2019 will occur this October at Skywalker Ranch in California. “It isn’t a summit about achievement, even though there will be a lot of high achievers there. We’re all trying to figure it out and figure out what’s next. People describe us as ‘the Bohemian Club for women.’ The Bohemian Club is this tradition of men getting together in the woods, and you have no idea who you’re going to meet, but most likely it’s going to be someone extraordinary. It’s not about the promise of what you’re going to take away from it—but about the promise of possibility,” Pell said.