Innovation secrets from entrepreneur extraordinaire Sophia Amoruso

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Sophia Amoruso hustles. Hard. The acclaimed entrepreneur started Nasty Gal in 2006, at age 22, selling vintage clothes on eBay out of her San Francisco apartment. Less than a decade later, Nasty Gal was raking in hundreds of millions in sales, and Amoruso was proclaimed one of the richest self-made women in the world by Forbes, with a net worth of nearly $300 million. She wrote the New York Times bestseller #GIRLBOSS and had a Netflix show made about her life. Nasty Gal eventually sold to British fast-fashion behemoth Boohoo, but Amoruso pivoted quickly and in style, scoring big seed money for Girlboss, her
new media empire that includes a website, an online community, a podcast, and Girlboss Rallies. Oh, and she did it all before turning 35. Read on for Amoruso’s tips on collaboration and innovation.

The digital-media and online-community landscape can feel very crowded at times. How does Girlboss innovate and set itself apart from the pack? 

Girlboss is a digital, professional community for women. It’s open to everybody—it’s a place where women can connect with one another over various interests. Now, when we think of what “professional” means, it actually encompasses your whole life. Girlboss is also a place where a woman, or anyone, can bring not just what she does, but also her career, her experience, her education, her skillset, things that she’s good at, as well as her dreams and her ambitions, and things that matter just as much, like her personality and things that she cares about. Or maybe her style, or the fact that she negotiated a job raise. Things that are beyond the traditional resumé, that she’s able to call out and be proud of. Women can also post and ask questions about everything from careers and entrepreneurship to life in general.

And maybe even plan to meet up in person? In-person events feel so key in this digital era.

A lot of women want to meet up, and that’s something they’re doing very naturally on the platform. Girlboss started with a book five years ago, in 2014, which I took to a dozen cities. I watched thousands of women line up to get their books signed—but what they were really doing was exchanging business cards. These are women who are maybe not executives yet, and maybe have no other way to build their networks so early on in their careers, so they’re using the book events to help them do that. And now, five years later, we’re able to provide them a place to do that every day, and to accelerate their networks in ways they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

Making those connections is so important. How does collaboration help us innovate and get ahead?

Influence comes from every direction, and things move extremely quickly. It’s important to stay close to what your peers are doing, but also to look outside of your industry. Innovating in a vacuum is impossible, so that makes collaboration essential. And it’s something that can be hard if someone doesn’t prompt you or help make it feel safe—to say, “Hey, let’s meet up,” or, “Let’s collaborate, and maybe I can help you”—which is something I hope Girlboss is able to do, both through the professional network, as well as at the Girlboss
Rally. We have an annual conference that starts with 1,800 women from 31 countries who come for two days of programming with 120 speakers. So what we’re doing digitally, we’re also doing experientially. It’s important that the online goes offline and the offline goes online. And collaboration is something that people want, that happens naturally, and we hope we’re giving them a place to do that.

One of Elevate’s missions is to unite the world’s innovators to solve society’s biggest challenges. What are society’s biggest challenges today, in your opinion? What are you excited to try to change?

One of society’s biggest challenges since the dawn of time has been empathy. Just building empathy across cultures, across generations, across industries, across ideologies—political and otherwise. And it starts with education and exposure and listening. Historically, what we think about the state of the world and the things we think we know have divided us as humans. In my opinion, it’s important, regardless of what you believe, to understand the positions of other people. I think there would be a lot more understanding and a lot less conflict if people were just able to stop and listen.

That’s such a big part of Girlboss, too—encouraging that online community and encouraging people to listen to each other and learn.

Absolutely—and fostering empathy and exposing people to different experiences, whether they’re at the beginning of their careers or later in their careers. Radical collaboration really only happens when one person puts their olive branch out and says, “Hey, I don’t understand your industry, and maybe I’m not doing what you’re doing, but I have a lot to learn from your experience, and maybe you have something to learn from mine.”

You’ve been a great innovator in your own life: starting the Nasty Gal empire, and now you’re presiding over the multi-platform Girlboss community. What advice do you have for people who want to become more innovative in their work? 

Part of it is going out into the world and just touching everything: feeling culture and reading a lot and listening to smart people—the smartest people you can get in front of—and just hearing their perspectives. It’s thinking asymmetrically as well. Borrowing from industries and experiences that are unlike your own can help inspire a unique invention. But also, just sitting quietly and thinking, “What doesn’t exist?” and, “What would I want?” So, on the one hand, it’s looking around as much as you can, and on the other, it’s picking and choosing what matters to you and innovating in a much quieter place, without all of these influences that can be so loud and inundate you with too much information.

Another Elevate credo is, “Diversity is our strength.” What do female and non-binary innovators bring
to the table that’s been missing from a landscape crowded by a lot of men?

The world—and especially the work world—was not built for anyone but men, and mostly white men. Sometimes the people in power don’t even know what questions to ask. They live in such a bubble that they need that education brought to them. It’s important for everybody, regardless of gender, ability and race, to show up and make it clear what they need to feel comfortable, embraced, and able to thrive in the workplace.

Who are some other female innovators inspiring you these days? Is there anyone in particular you’ve been learning from? How are they innovating?

I’m pretty fascinated by Ara Katz, co-founder of Seed, a probiotics company. She’s historically been a marketer and a brand-builder who worked in e-commerce, then she switched over to a very science-heavy start-up and collected scientists and experts to build a company that promotes gut health and environmental sustainability—things that feel very far beyond my reach! There’s also a woman named Sarah Paiji Yoo who was just on my podcast, Girlboss Radio. Yoo started a company that’s in the early stages, but I have at least one friend who has already invested in it. It’s called Blueland. So, normally, when you buy a cleaning product, 90 per cent of it is water, and you end up throwing away the plastic. Blueland sells kits with really beautiful glass spray bottles, then you can order these little tablets that you drop in a spray bottle with water, turning it into an environmentally safe cleaner. That way, you don’t have to replace the bottle, and you’re not paying for water. It’s a cool concept. I tip my hat to women working in science and sustainability.

You’ll be making your way to Toronto soon to speak at Elevate. Why are you excited to come up for the conference this year? 

I’ve only been to Toronto once, and I really loved it. It’s a fascinating city. It feels very multicultural. I’m looking forward to spending time in the city and, of course, to hearing from such incredible talent and
sharing stories about what we’re doing here at Girlboss. Just looking at the women on the program, to be among people like Michelle Obama and [Chief Brand Officer of Away] Jen Rubio, who is a dear friend—it’s an
incredible place to be. It’s a best-in-class event, and something that I can hopefully learn from as someone who puts on her own conference.

Sophia Amoruso appears on the Elevate Main Stage at Meridian Hall (formerly Sony Centre, 1 Front St. E.) on Sept. 24.