The epiphany that would serve as the genesis of Career Girls — an online hub connecting young women to a library of video interviews with female role models and other educational resources — struck founder and executive producer Linda Calhoun while working as a consultant in the then newly independent country of Kyrgyzstan.
“I remember thinking what an amazing gig this was, to help a society evolve into a free-market economy,” she says. “Then looking around and realizing that I was one of only a few women in the room, and the only person of color.”
It was at that moment that Linda decided to marshal the skills she’d developed throughout her own career to inspire girls to dream big and turn their professional and personal aspirations into reality. In collaboration with her husband, Ed, Linda began creating video interviews with accomplished, professional women from a wide range of careers and backgrounds.
Launched in 2004 and revamped in 2011, CareerGirls.org offers free access to more than 500 role models and 7,000 video clips, available to anyone with an internet connection across the globe.
We recently chatted with Linda about how the advent of the internet age changed her approach, the importance of role models and the wisdom she’s gleaned interviewing them.
You started working on Career Girls in the early days of the internet. What was your original vision?
I knew we were going to produce videos — that was a skill in my wheelhouse from my experience doing documentary work. Initially, we burned DVDs for distribution, but that raised the question of who would be the gatekeepers... So we just kept collecting interviews, building up our library of role models and waiting for the internet to catch up to our vision of free, high-quality videos available to any girl who could benefit from them. That became a reality in 2011 when we went live with an early version of the site we have today.
I’ve always envisioned Career Girls as being a part of an educational toolkit. By doing these interviews, we’re getting women to talk about real-life applications of things they study in school. For example, we have a movie set designer from Tyler Perry studios who said, “I use math every day,” which demonstrates how that skill is relevant in the real world and important to learn early on. One school counselor told me that the girls who use the site are coming to her and being more specific. Instead of saying, “I want to be a scientist,” they say, “I want to be an immunologist” or “marine biologist.”
You've embraced the power of a role model in helping shape a person. Who were your early role models?
My parents split when I was young. My mother had to focus on the practical aspects of family life as a single mother — she worked two jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over our head — so she was an inspiration in the sense that she worked hard to provide for our family. In terms of someone who broadened my understanding of what you could accomplish as a woman professionally, Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek made a big impact on me. Whether I understood it then or not, there is something powerful about being able to relate to someone who is recognized in society.
Why is it so important for girls to have access to career role models?
The impact that women role models have on girls in their education is pretty well-documented — they help girls stay on track academically, particularly in math and science. It’s more important now than ever that we fill imagination gaps and open girls’ eyes to careers they may not even know exist. I studied mass communication in college, for example, but the job that was most instrumental to me finding my own path was database design consulting. Had I known that profession was a real, viable possibility, I would have done the thing I really loved a lot sooner.
How have you been able to capture such compelling interviews from women around the world?
In the beginning, I would just cold call people. Getting successful women to share their experiences has not been hard at all — and that’s been humbling.
To save on production costs, we set up in a single location two or three times a year and do about 25 interviews; then we come back and edit them into short clips. We’ve been in about 14 cities and just came back from a video shoot in Rwanda where we filmed women in tech from 17 different African countries.
Which videos are among the most popular?
One of the most popular videos features Dr. Dawn Thompson, a pediatrician in New York. A clip about her typical day has about 70,000 views. A fun fact about her is that she is also the aunt of Golden State Warrior guard Klay Thompson. We also have an interview with a couple of petroleum engineers in Houston talking about taking a helicopter to an oil platform; one woman lived on the rig for three months and was the only woman. One of my personal favorites is the head of the genetics department at the University of Texas. When she talked about visiting the garden where Greg Mendel, the father of genetics, did his experiments on pea plants, I was jumping out of my chair.
What are some common themes that emerge out of these interviews?
The first is, you need to discover what you’re passionate about and get the skills you need to be successful at it. That comes up over and over again. Another common theme is that these women are good at advocating for themselves. They don’t take no for an answer. We ask every role model how they overcome obstacles and often the answer is: “You need to step back, analyze and come up with another way. Is it something you can go through, under, over or around?”
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would tell myself to take calculus in high school. I wasn’t bad at math, but I now understand that so much of decision-making involves quantitative analysis, and being able to allocate time and resources. I would also tell myself to participate in more team activities. I was used to being the lone wolf who could produce, whether it was in ballet, track or school. Then I got into the workplace and realized that it’s not always about how fast you understand something or how fast you work. It’s all about your team, and you are only as successful as your least-successful team member.