Christen Brandt & Tammy Tibbetts of She’s the First on why your team is a crucial element of your success and writing their first book

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Describe your business in a few words?

She’s the First fights for a world where every girl can choose her own future. We team up with local organizations to ensure girls everywhere are educated, respected, and heard. 

We began as a media campaign in 2009 and registered as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2011. We now have offices in New York and Nairobi, and we reach more than 130,000 girls each year.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

We saw the incredible work being done for and by girls around the world — and that  students and young professionals had no easy way to join the movement! We wanted to create a campaign — and later, an organization — that created a groundswell of support and funds for girls’ rights. We were young at the time, and felt invincible. We weren’t relying on that first iteration to pay our salaries, so we had no reason *not* to go for it.

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

We were both journalism majors. Christen was in college at Syracuse University when we first launched, and Tammy was working at Seventeen magazine. Our backgrounds in creating content and telling stories really helped us to launch STF in a powerful way, and our research and interview skills came in handy when we needed to learn the everyday details of accounting, HR, and nonprofit management.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

No; we both wanted to be magazine editors! It was only after running She’s the First as a side hustle for a few years that we decided to take the plunge. We were spending 50 hours per week at work (Tammy at Seventeen, Christen at Glamour magazine), plus spending another 50 hours working on STF during mornings, lunch breaks, after work and on weekends. We were reaching a breaking point, and we knew if we wanted STF to grow, we needed to give it our all. That was back in 2012!

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

STF was born in 2009, in the early days of social media. We knew students and young professionals resonated with the cause — especially those of us who were first in our families to go to college — but they didn’t see how they could get involved when they didn’t have a lot of extra cash. We decided to tell the story of how an everyday person can get together with their friends and fundraise for this incredible cause; essentially, we pitched them on crowdfunding before those platforms existed. We primarily used Twitter to spread the word, and it worked! Soon, there were events popping up across the country for STF, including at colleges and universities. We still believe that passionate supporters are the best and easiest way to grow. You need to find your people.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

We brought our first employee on only a year after we ourselves started working full time, and there was a moment when money got tight. For the first time, we were responsible for someone else’s livelihood, and it was a heavy responsibility. We were still learning how to create a healthy pipeline and cashflow, and when we realized money was getting tight, we created a plan to cut off our own salaries in order to keep our employee on until we could secure more funding. In the end, we (thankfully) didn’t need to do that — a donor pulled through at the last second — but that moment showed us that we were each fully committed to the success of this organization. That commitment is what allowed us to survive and thrive as co-founders. At the end of the day, we’ve seen exactly how committed the other person is to this cause. We share a North Star, and that gets us through any disagreements or difficulties along the way.

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

Twelve years later, some of the girls we originally worked with are now women themselves, and leading incredible careers. Two of them, Ellie and Cynthia, are now in their 20s and leading organizations of their own, impacting 440 girls each year in their home communities in East Africa. Seeing that ripple effect immediately warms our hearts, and knowing that we played a role in that trajectory is one of our proudest accomplishments. But anytime any girl, anywhere, stands up for her rights or achieves a goal counts as a win in our book, even when we don’t get to claim any credit for it.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

The most illuminating question has always been “Why do you want to work for She’s the First?” 

We want to work with people who want to work with us, who see themselves reflected in our goals and our mission. They understand our values and want to uphold them, and they already have the internal motivation to succeed, because we already hold a shared vision. 

Once they’re on the team, we always give new hires a “90-Day Roadmap” that outlines what success looks like in the first three months. It’s become a critical document for every new employee, because it walks them through their onboarding process and sets benchmarks for progress in their new role.

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Many girls around the world have been out of school entirely or learning remotely for the past year, and experts say 11 million girls may never return to school, given increased rates of teen pregnancy and child marriage. At the same time, many donors held back in 2020, nervous about the future of the economy and the stock market, resulting in a half-million-dollar dip in our projected revenue for the year. But this year, we’ve seen donors respond to the new needs of girls globally,  and we’re optimistic about the future of philanthropy and girls’ rights.

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

We just wrote our first book, called Impact: A Step-by-Step Plan to Create the World You Want to Live In. It was a true labor of love because over the years, so many people have asked us how they, too, can start to create change. We don’t have time to sit down with every person who asks this question, but we know so many people have it — so we wrote this book as a guide to answer it for yourself.

At She’s the First, you’ll see us working with our grassroots partners around the world to ensure girls’ return to school is as smooth as possible, and implementing coaching and trainings for organizations to overcome obstacles as they work to ensure girls’ rights around the world.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

Your team is such a crucial element to your success. We knew this prior to 2020, of course, but the resilience and dedication our team showed, and their empathy and concern for one another, really underlined the importance of hiring the right people. It meant that not only were they able to complete their projects each week, but that they also supported one another through the many crises we all faced, ultimately allowing STF to succeed through a global pandemic.

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

YES! And as leaders, we know it’s our responsibility to instill this in the culture at She’s the First, too. We have flexible hours at STF, a generous vacation package, and a remote work policy. We ask employees to arrange their work schedule in a way that works for them — if they have an afternoon gym class, we want them to be able to fit that in. We know that healthy, balanced team members work better, and that goes for us, too! This year has been a difficult one in finding work/life balance, since so much of life and work happened within our own apartments, but we each found ways to carve out time and recenter ourselves. Tammy began walking her dog for an hour every day at lunch, Christen started yoga in her living room each morning. Our biggest advice is to build a schedule that sustains you: Find a way to move your body that feels good to you, find time to get outside, and find one thing each week that really lights you up. Make those non-negotiables in your schedule, and if you lead a team, give them the same opportunity.

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

Though she’s now a public speaker, Tammy was voted Most Shy in high school! Christen didn’t own a passport until 19, but she’s now up to 23 countries and prior to the pandemic, you could find her on the road for more than 1/3 of the year. She’s the First has forced both of us out of our shells in the best way!

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

  • Set an agenda. Both of us swear by the power of a to-do list and blocking time on the calendar when you really need to focus. 
  • Get physical. Take a phone meeting when you’re out for a walk, or squeeze in your favorite workout before you settle in for the day. Moving our bodies keeps the ideas and energy flowing. 
  • Sign off at the end of the day. Burnout is a real threat for entrepreneurs. We all have days that run long or projects that take extra time, and that hustle helps us find success. But you need to make sure your weekly schedule works for you so you can sustain it for the long term.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

It means always finding a path forward, no matter what!

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