Series 07: For the Love of Women Who Built It | Episode 06
Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls Co-Founder, Meredith Walker, On The Unscripted Path
Closing out our For the Love of Women Who Built series, we have Meredith Walker, the Co-Founder of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, an organization which is dedicated to helping young people cultivate their authentic selves. They emphasize intelligence and imagination over “fitting in.” Meredith Walker began her television career producing the Peabody and Emmy award-winning Nick News with Linda Ellerbee, and then went on to head up the talent department for Saturday Night Live, where she met and became fast friends with Amy Poehler. They shared tales of their own upbringings and dreamed about how great it would be to create something to help girls get through their own awkward teen and pre-teen years. They started Smart Girls with a “mix of great planning, and luck, and not planning,” and now they help girls all over the world navigate the choppy waters of adolescence. Meredith shares her personal story of following the “unscripted path” and encourages those of us who have had an unconventional life’s journey to embrace what we care about and recognize the value we add to our world.
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people, every week, on this podcast. Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey everybody. Welcome to the show. This is Jen Hatmaker, your very happy hostess, and this is the For The Love Podcast.
This is called For the Love of Women Who Built It, and we have been talking to women who are building companies and organizations and nonprofits and leadership consortiums, and they are smart, and they are interesting, and they are ambitious, and they are big-hearted. They’re actually just really making a difference in the world.
So, I’m super excited to introduce you to today’s guest. We have on Meredith Walker today, and you may or may not know her, but you are going to love what she is building.
Meredith began her television career producing the award-winning Nick News. Do you remember Nick News? With Linda Ellerbee. So, Meredith traveled to literally all 50 states to interview kids who had really interesting stories to tell, and this sort of became this foundation for her deepening interest in the lives of young people. So, she went on to become the head of the talent department at Saturday Night Live, my favorite place, and there she met and became best friends with Amy Poehler.
So, follow all those crumbs, because Meredith now serves as executive director of the organization she and Amy Poehler co-created together, called Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, and it’s headquartered right here in Austin, Texas, my hometown.
Smart Girls is so cool. Anybody raising any daughter is gonna love this. Anybody who just wants hope for the next generation is going to love this. Smart Girls is dedicated to helping young people essentially cultivate their authentic self, so they emphasize intelligence and imagination over fitting in. They celebrate curiosity over gossip. It’s really a place where girls can be their weird and wonderful selves. Isn’t that lovely? Don’t you wish we could join it as grown adults?
They are supporting girls’ STEM education, and it’s just a … We’re gonna talk about all this, and you’re gonna love it. So, Meredith is constantly on the road. She’s Smart Girls’ number one spokeswoman, spreading the word, hosting all kinds of events all around the United States, so she delivers the Smart Girls message through workshops and camps and online materials and curriculum. She wants to ensure that the mission of Smart Girls is going all the way around the globe in the real world.
She’s just a phenomenal leader, plus she’s funny and fun. I’m excited for you to meet her.
Let me tell you this right before she comes on. I’m gonna just tell you in advance. I’m sorry for some of the fuzzy sound you are going to hear in this episode, and here’s why. This is just real life. I am hosting a wedding in my backyard next weekend, which is so exciting. It’s our first wedding ever to have at the house, and a bunch of my friends are here today, and they are outside my office, power washing my disgusting sidewalks and porch and getting it ready, and it just is what it is, and there’s too much work to be done to stop, so if you hear what sounds like a waterfall, it’s just my house getting ready for a wedding, and you know what? You guys already put up with the train in the background on this podcast all the time, so I figured you could handle a power washer over one episode.
So, sorry everybody, that’s what happens in a real-life scenario. Okay, without any further ado, I am super, super glad to welcome to the show, Meredith Walker.
Okay, Meredith, welcome to the show. I’m so happy you’re here.
Meredith: Oh, I’m so glad that you asked me to do this. I’ve been looking forward to it.
Jen: Well, you and I spoke together at Together Live. When was that? Last fall maybe? September?
Meredith: Oh gosh. I guess it was in the fall. It was in the fall, yes-
Jen: So, we were kind of special guests for the evening, and I hadn’t known you yet or known about your work. I remember sitting in the front row listening to you thinking, what in the world?
This woman lives in my town. Like, I need to know her and everyone needs to know her.
I just found a way to convince you to get on this podcast. You fell for it. Thank you. You did.
Meredith: I totally fell for it.
Jen: You did. My powers worked on you. Listen, we could not be more thrilled to have you on this series, Women Who Built It. You’re so perfect for this. We’ve had some really phenomenal entrepreneurs on this show, and women who’ve built other nonprofits that are really changing the world, and you and Amy are squarely in that camp.
So, in a minute, I definitely want to talk about Smart Girls and how you built that from the idea stage to where it is today, but I would love to talk first a little bit about essentially how Meredith was built, because your story’s really interesting. I’m really intrigued that you have been such an important part of raising the voice for women and girls in our culture through your work in entertainment. You just have a really interesting niche by which you came up.
First of all, let’s go back in your story. I read that you’ve had a variety of interesting jobs before you were fancy, before you were like a fancy entertainment person, like you worked in Montana for example, and … Just tell us a little bit about your story, kind of where you started, and how that led you up to television.
Meredith: Well, what I call it is the “unscripted path,” because I knew a lot of friends and people I went to high school and college with who had these maps to follow, these little scripts, which is fine for them, but I didn’t have one, and so I just kind of fumbled forward, and I said yes to things before I was ready. The job in Montana being a great example of that. They were recruiting people from my college, and needed a cook. And I really wanted to go, so I applied…without telling them I didn’t know how to cook.
Jen: Whoops–just one small caveat-
Meredith: I know, right?
Meredith: This is before the internet … ’cause you can’t just catch up and watch how-to videos for two weeks. But I ended up going and learning on my feet, and that was kind of the beginning of learning, like you can just move forward and do the best you can as you go. You might be embarrassed and flop around a little, and that’s okay, but so yes, I have said yes to things that sound as fun as that, but I’ve also said yes to things that were under fluorescent lighting in a cubicle with shoulder pads…
Jen: Totally. Right. With shoulder pads. How old are you? Are we the same age?
Meredith:…They’re not all fun stories, but you do… I’m 49.
Jen: Okay, I’m 43, I’m just behind you, but girl I wore me some shoulder pads.
Meredith: Oh, I bet I was leading the trends for you, you know?
Jen: Oh sure.
Meredith:…and in hot Houston. That’s where I grew up, so … oh yeah. So, I just kept following things that caught my attention for the most part, and that was what really got me moving away from what I thought I was supposed to do. I kept thinking, I’m supposed to find these jobs, and find a husband, and start a family, and do all these things instead of thinking about what I cared about and what value I might be able to add to something. And, that’s when I remembered a course I had taken in college that studied the series Eyes on the Prize, which is a documentary series about the Civil Rights Movement. And I remember just having a fire lit in me by that course and by of course the power story-telling of that.
I remember thinking, “I can’t extinguish this fire because I’m trying to meet the marks set up by I-don’t-even-know-who, and instead follow that I care about this. So, I mean, as soon as I remembered how much I loved that, I signed up for a class at Rice University at night, which you didn’t need credentials … your GPA did not matter, and I started following broadcast journalism, and I was learning about journalists and the women who were changing the way, the attitudes people had about women in the news, and that’s when I decided to write a letter to Linda Ellerbee, who was a legendary broadcast journalist. And from there I became an intern for her, and that was how it all happened.
Jen: Okay, I really like that. I want to camp there for just one minute, because I’m positive that there are a lot of people, women specifically, listening, and I bet you just hit a trigger for them, that there is a difference between working really hard to sort of skip your way through the markers, the very sort of pre-determined, pre-set markers that a woman walks through in the progression of her life. There is a difference between that sometimes, and what’s in our heart, and what’s in our soul, and what is driving us, and what we’re here to bring to the world. And that departure is no small deal.
That requires something of you to say, “there might be sort of this alternative path, or maybe some of these things are out of order. Maybe wife and motherhood is in the cards, maybe it isn’t, but maybe that’s like step seven and eight, not one and two”. I really, I respect that, and I wish more women trusted themselves to listen to their intuition, to listen to their gut, to follow like, where does my imagination go? I really like what you just said.
What would you tell a woman listening that’s got that, she’s got that gut instinct that is leading her imagination somewhere, and yet it doesn’t fit in a template, and she’s worried about it?
Meredith: Yeah, well I would say you have to just kind of practice overriding what you’re … The fear is what makes us kind of shut that down, and I just say follow it. It’s almost like … I read somewhere someone said follow your own, like where you go in the library or the bookstore…
Jen: Oh, I love that.
Meredith: …Think about that.
Jen:… oh my gosh, I love that.
Meredith: Yeah, isn’t that great?
Jen: That is so clarifying.
Meredith: That’s the thing. It’s like, how can you pursue … yeah. That’s the thing, I wasn’t a painter, I wasn’t drawn to medicine, so I thought, how do you figure out what your passion is? Everyone’s telling me about bliss and following my passion, but you know, I don’t understand. And then when you start thinking about, what were the things that felt like it mattered to me? What broke my heart, or just anything. Where did I want to dig deeper? And then don’t put any pressure on yourself that you have to do that for the rest of your life or chuck everything else-
Jen: Great point.
Meredith:…but just, yeah, just gently follow that, and then see what happens.
Jen: That’s good.
Meredith: I think the other thing that’s important to remember for me is that I didn’t feel, when I was younger, I felt very awkward, and almost like I don’t know if I’m one of those people that’s gonna end up meeting all those markers. I felt kind of unconventional, and I didn’t know why, but then when I started learning about other women who were doing things out of order, or doing different things, just seeing that it’s out there. That’s why that story telling can be so important, because that’s the thing, as long as you see it out there, you know you’re not the only one, and then it doesn’t feel as heavy and as strange.
Jen: That’s true in a thousand different ways. That sort of “me too,” in general, is very, very powerful; be it in trauma recovery or sort of forward-facing momentum, or a sort of vision for life. Just knowing you’re not the only one who’s gonna either do things out of order, or skip a few steps altogether is really empowering.
So, let’s go back to Linda Ellerbee. So, you just get out a pen and paper and write her. I’m dying laughing. That is so ballsy. And it worked, it totally worked. Can you talk about how you ended up in television working with her, and then specifically the kinds of things you were doing at Nick News, which is so fun?
Meredith: Oh yes, yes, yes. Well, you know, Linda is from Texas, so I think, I don’t remember what my letter said, but I’m sure there was some wisecrack about us both being from Texas that might have caught her attention. But we exchanged a few letters, and then we ended up talking on the phone and that’s when she invited me to be an intern.
This is what I always tell, when I’m speaking in high schools or colleges, I’m like, while we’re rolling our eyes and just wishing for certain things to be over with, like I did when I was a receptionist during the summers, but it was that experience that made me pretty good on the phone. Then, when I was an intern, and I was good on the phone, that’s what got me noticed, and then I got more responsibilities and things like that.
Jen: Good point.
Meredith: So, I always like pointing that out, ’cause everything’s developing yourself a little bit. Anyways, so that was … We made the show Nick News at Linda’s production company, called Lucky Duck Productions, and to me it felt like such a great next step after that, what I was saying about Eyes on the Prize, ’cause what we were doing there is we were helping to tell stories. We were helping to tell the stories of young people. That’s what we did for the most part. We would do specials every now and then too.
So, I just traveled around the country going in to the homes of kids who were reenacting the Underground Railroad, because their ancestors had done it. Or girls who were trying to change the sports program at their schools ’cause they weren’t allowed to play the sports they wanted to play. Or even somebody who was being persecuted for her faith in her community. So, it was really just a privilege beyond any I’ve had in my life, to be invited into homes and have them trust to tell me their story and make an episode out of it. So, that was the kind of stuff we were doing, and it all … it’s from the top down. It all came from the way Linda said, “This is how we’re gonna do things. These are smart kids, and we’re gonna help tell their story,” and so that’s what we did.
Jen: I love it. How long did you work there?
Meredith: Gosh, I think eight or nine years.
Jen: Yeah, so tell us then, you went straight from Nick News right over to Saturday Night Live. Was that the…
Meredith: I did.
Jen: So, tell us a little bit about that experience because I’m a big fan of comedy, of sketch comedy specifically and improv, and I’ve sort of been a student and a fan of that my entire life. I’ve read a lot about … a lot of things by women associated with the show in your era, what about eight or 10 years ago, more or less?
Meredith: It was a little bit longer ago.
Jen: A little bit longer? Ten to 15?
Meredith: I was there from ’98 to 2002.
Jen: Yes, okay. It sounds like even then, when women were clearly a solid part of the show, a huge key to its success too, that getting a sketch on the show that really related to women was a challenge. And obviously the cast and writers made some strides during that time. You know, Tina Fey eventually became the head writer. What was your view of the climate during your tenure there, and how women’s voices got advanced through the medium during yours and Amy’s time on the show?
Meredith: Well, I was on the other end of the hall for the most part, away from the cast and the writers, ’cause I was putting together the hosts and the musical guests, but what I saw there from my experience with interacting with the hosts and the writers and cast was that it was a real heyday, because Tina was …
That was when she went from head … She was already head writer when I got there, but then she actually went to do the news. And then when they had Amy and Tina doing the news together.
Jen: It was just magic, yeah.
Meredith: It really was. I mean, it was so powerful. It was like these two intelligent and strong, funny women in those positions, so it really seemed … It was a time of power for them.
Jen: It was a time of power to watch two women who were so, so gifted, so, so funny, and they brought sort of this female edge to that portion of the show that I had never seen, and I’ve been watching since I was a kid, so … interesting. So, you primarily worked with hosts and hostesses. Who was your favorite host that you ever worked with on SNL? That’s a hard question. I didn’t prepare you.
Meredith: Oh my gosh. It is. It’s so hard to pinpoint, but I have to say that my answer is Jack Black.
Meredith: So nice, and he really assimilated. You know, when you come in to host Saturday Night Live, we’re all there a hundred hours a day…
Jen: Totally. Oh my gosh.
Meredith: … together all day. It’s this little tight knit group, and so these people come in, and they’re like, where do I sit for lunch?
Meredith: You know, that’s kind of what it seems like. So you have to kind of just be open and vulnerable, and just say, “I’m here. What do I do?” And some people don’t do that. Some people kind of stay private, ’cause it does feel so strange and all that, but he just comes right in…
Jen: I can’t imagine. I believe that.
Meredith:... and is just one of the family, and he’s just a really very kind person. So, it was always really fun when he came on.
Jen: I love that. That absolutely confirms what I would suspect of him. Do we get to talk crap about anybody? Who was rough?
Meredith: No, I cannot do that. I would get in so much trouble-
Jen: No, you can’t do it. I knew you were gonna say that.
Meredith:… but I will with you when we meet in person…
Jen: Yes. Yes, lady. You know what I’m getting at. When we’re off the air, ’cause I know there are some crazies that hosted that show.
Okay, so let’s go back to that. So, you and Amy obviously became fast friends on that show, obviously. So, I read that the two of you spent a ton of time talking about teen and pre-teen years, and how powerful and empowering it was when somebody listened to you and took you seriously.
I was reading that and just making a mental note. Such a good note for us to remember. I’m raising a bunch of teenagers, and I’ve got two girls that are teens, and so they do, they need to feel heard, they need to feel seen.
So, can you tell us a little bit about your friendship with Amy, sort of the kinship that you developed, and when you first started thinking, just about the seed of the idea that ultimately became Smart Girls?
Meredith: I would love to talk about this. It’s my favorite thing.
Meredith: Well, as far as when we met … you know, sometimes you just, you go to camp, or you go to a conference or somewhere, and you meet somebody, and you’re like, there you are, great.
Meredith: You know? And for whatever reason, that just happened with us, and we just were thick as thieves, and just never looked back. One of the things though, when we would talk about our childhood, we realized that we had in common that adolescence had been a rough time.
Meredith: …and then we realized more and more though, when we would talk about it with our other friends, they’d say, “Me too.”
Meredith: And then even our parents, or our moms, would say, “That wasn’t an easy time for us either,” and so that’s what really started it. It was like, you know, everyone kind of feels alone in their own funkiness during that time. It can be very lonely, and so that’s what we were talking about earlier, knowing … no, this happens to a lot of people. And not even where you are, like in the social hierarchy of those times. It doesn’t matter if you’re the mean one, or the one being ganged up on, it’s just not that great, because of all that’s going on with you separating from your parents and all that stuff.
So, we just talked about, what could there possibly be out there in the world to help? How can anybody be helped through that phase. And since then, I’ve read all the books about it and all that, and there really is only so much parents can do-
Jen: Great point.
Meredith:… yes, because of the nature of adolescence. They’re pulling away from you, so who can step in? What can be done? And that’s when we started thinking about it, and thought, you know what? When people … Either it was someone at church, or a babysitter down the street, when they just thought we were just fine and talked to us and asked us questions about ourselves, that felt pretty damn good.
Jen: It sure did.
Meredith: So, we thought, maybe there’s a way, now that there’s this internet out there, you know…
Meredith:…we thought, maybe we could kind of offer that somehow through the internet. So that’s how we started talking about it.
Jen: So, here you were, this really successful woman in the entertainment world, what I would consider something of a dream job. So, you’ve decided to take what you’ve learned and take this passion in your heart for kids, girls especially, which obviously had to have been developed over at Nick News…
Meredith: For sure.
Jen:...I mean, you’re in the homes of these kids. All of a sudden, you fall in love. You can’t help it. And so you decide, we’re gonna start this. So how did you do it? This whole series is Women Who Built It. So first of all, how’d you hone in on your mission, because there are a thousand layers of just adolescent development and empowerment, and you could have taken a hundred different approaches to it. So what did it kind of look like, what did Smart Girls look like in the early days, and how did it sort of develop, and how did you dial in the vision a little bit to what it is now?
Meredith: Well, it was a mix of great planning, and luck, and not planning.
Jen: Yeah, great point. I like exactly understand what you mean by that. Exactly. I think you just described every successful business venture ever.
Meredith: I think so. I think so. Well at first, like I was mentioning earlier, I was following my curiosity about it, that we have it in common. So, I actually put the time in because I cared about it. So, I read a lot of studies, and I read a lot of books, and I could see some things that were actual solutions to helping girls at this stage, which I think, as altruistic and big-hearted as that sounds, obviously it’s because I’m sure I wanted to heal something within myself, because that was a hard time. And I think that all … I really do think all women carry residue from that time in their life because we didn’t have the tools.
Jen: I do too.
Meredith: I think that’s why this resonates with so many people. So, I think as I was going, I was kind of holding a version of myself in my heart as well about trying to find a way to communicate with and help girls going through those strange years, just to help them feel heard and less lonely.
As I read things, I would see things that would work, and so at first we actually thought about … We were just sitting around, and we said, “Let’s do a camp for girls, except how do you start a camp? Okay, hang on. Who here … Not either one of us? Okay-”
Jen: Right. Who knows how to start a camp? Right.
Meredith: It was pretty funny, ’cause we just thought, uh, we both know how to produce and tell stories and do television stuff, so maybe we should actually head in that direction.
Meredith: So, that’s what we did. We actually started out with a web series, ’cause we wanted to celebrate kind of just the everydayness in the life of a girl who had an interest, rather than it was … We didn’t want to find like the best ceramics artist in the world. We just wanted a girl who really enjoyed doing ceramics to come on and talk about it.
Jen: That’s good. I love that.
Meredith: So, that was the first version of it, was that. And then it grew into its own channel, and then it became more of this social media platform. But we started just producing as we both knew how to do, and it grew from there. And we didn’t know it would. I mean, this has totally evolved.
Jen: So, describe what Smart Girls looks like today. You mentioned it’s now this huge social media platform, which it is. You call it a hub for information and comedy and community, that’s like my trifecta, so how do people experience what you have to offer right now? What does it look like?
Meredith: Well, we offer content that helps girls develop their own thinking. That’s what we hope. We have profiles of women who don’t really … like, society doesn’t define them. They have just forged their own way. And advice, and women sharing their own life experiences, and other young women sharing their experiences. So we are kind offering a springboard for girls to develop their self-identity. That’s what we think of it.
And that happens through our social channels, and the kind of stuff that we can put on, but we also do some in-person events whenever we can. So that’s what it is right now, and then we’re actually looking to, it’s just a matter of timing and all this kind of stuff, to grow that into more live events where we have local chapters and bigger things going on.
Jen: Great idea.
Jen: So, your motto is, “Change the world by being yourself,” which is such an important message to send to our young girls right now. I’m watching the world tell them the opposite-
Jen: … and so it’s so empowering for them to hear that. You’ve said before, and you mentioned this kind of a minute ago, that you considered yourself a late bloomer, and I identify with this. Can you tell us a little bit about what you meant by that, and you sort of alluded to going internal to your own memories and history when you were this age, and sort of what you learned about becoming comfortable in your own skin, and how your own experiences essentially led you to lead this organization?
Meredith: Oh, yes. I mean, I love talking about this so much. I hope you have the next three hours free.
Jen: Girl, the microphone is yours.
Meredith: I am definitely still becoming comfortable in my own skin. I am definitely a lot more comfortable in it. The reason I’m still doing it is I think we’re all fighting that battle between fitting in and being our truest self, because there are certain things you do morph or shift to just be a functioning member of a society, and it’s keeping that balance healthy that can be challenging sometimes, especially if we didn’t question it enough along the way.
So, I try to follow my own advice, and what I mean by that is what we talk about at Smart Girls a lot, and that is, even though something’s hard, keep doing it. Don’t let the fear of messing up make you stop. And also, keep trying goofy new things. A lot of times-
Jen: That’s good.
Meredith:…yeah, people will stop themselves because it might look embarrassing, or they don’t want to get their hair wet in the pool because they don’t like how they look in a bathing suit, or whatever it could possibly be, and it’s kind of like, you have to fight letting embarrassment have that power over you, because you miss out on a lot of joy and novelty and laughter.
Jen: That’s right.
Meredith: Because if you laugh when you fall, it’s a better memory than being very upset about having fallen down. So I try and do that kind of stuff whenever I can, and sometimes it’s not as fun as it sounds when you’re saying it’s something you should do, but I still do it.
Meredith: But it’s true, like you were saying just a minute ago, the world is telling all of us, no matter our age, not to be ourselves. It’s like, buy this thing so that you change this. Change this. And especially things like anti-aging, which drives me bananas. There are a lot of things to be “anti” about. Aging is a big waste of time, ’cause…
Jen: Yes, ’cause guess what? It’s gonna happen. It’s happening.
Meredith: Yes. That’s what I always say. I’m like, it’s happening-
Jen: Yeah, it’s happening.
Meredith: Yeah, but it’s all about just not being yourself and who you are, and there’s so much pressure to morph and to shrink to feel accepted, and so it almost sounds like a platitude when we say change the world by being yourself, that’s our motto, but it’s not. It’s actually a tough direction to follow, and so it’s something to remember doing…
Jen: It sure is.
Meredith:…yeah, and it takes effort, and it takes time, and when I say that I was a late bloomer, it was because of that kind of stuff. It was not discovering the things about myself, I don’t think, where a lot of my strengths were, because I was so worried about all that other stuff for too long. And when I finally just was like, “this is it. This is me and my story,” and I kind of let it start happening, that’s when I actually became, I think, a more interesting person to myself.
Jen: Yeah, me too. I wish I could go back and convince my teenage self to believe that and to follow that path. You know, my second kid, she’s a senior in high school, and I’ve watched her have to, she’s had to work really hard to hang on to her individuality and just sort of dance to her own song, and I’m looking at all the teens right now … Four out of my five kids are teenagers, so oh my gosh-
Jen:... I know, just whatever. And so, I think this message is just as important for parents to hear. My parent brain is on fire right now because I think some kids encounter this sort of “fit in” pressure, the kind of “don’t fail” pressure, this sort of “don’t risk it” pressure, from their parents. I think in many cases, we’re the ones sending the message that everything is high stakes, that their success is absolutely dependent on every day of their freshman year in high school…
Jen:… and they are either building for failure or a future. It’s so much pressure, and I don’t know that we give our teenagers a lot of room to be silly, to be different, to follow their hearts and their instincts, because I mean, hell, we’ve been told, this is the template. Like if you want your kid to succeed and move out, you better move them through this specific story, and yet it’s not right for everybody-
Jen: So, I wonder if you have an ear with all of these girls’ parents. Are they listening too?
Meredith: I think that there are a good number of parents, and at least people who care about these girls who do listen, but I do try and go into schools as much as I can because whenever I talk about this and bring it up, I will look out, and there will be girls crying, who will come up to me afterwards and just say, “There’s so much pressure, and just hearing that it’s okay to change my mind about my major or change my mind in my 40’s, it’s such a release on that pressure valve.”
So, I hope to reach even more parents, because it’s true. It comes from a good place. Of course, you want them to be able to provide for themselves and have fulfilling lives, but it is that they might be missing out on chances to actually be living their life because they’re trying to meet expectations.
Jen: Totally. I also like to dismantle this idea that … the pressure comes, it trickles down, and so yes, I do understand the good intention behind telling an eighth grader that “these are the things that will prepare you for college,” but also, they’re in eighth grade…
Jen:... so when do they just get to be an eighth grader? Why do they have to be preparing to be a 20-year old when they’re 13? I get the sentiment, but at some point, I don’t expect an eighth grader to be making decisions that a 20-year old would make, and so I just love the idea of releasing a bit of that pressure, and to some degree, letting our kids, letting our girls specifically, let them be who they are. Let them enjoy their childhood. Let them enjoy their adolescence. Let them take some risks and fail. That’s a good teacher, actually. That’s one of the best teachers they’ll ever encounter is failure.
Meredith: Definitely. Oh, it’s the best.
Jen: It’s the best. When we’re cushioning every blow, I think we’re actually doing our kids a disservice, and so I love your messaging.
Another thing that you’ve said that you’ve worked really hard to create is this place where, as you say, a safe haven for girls to engage in intelligent conversation, and to look for those qualities that make them more alike than different. I like that for a variety of reasons. I wish you could … Could you teach that to the world right now? Could you teach that to Washington D.C.?
Meredith: Oh yes.
Jen: If there’s any way, if you have a phone number that you can call. I like this. Tell us about some of the things girls … how girls can experience one another, and I’m assuming that the reach and the scope of girls that are connected to your organization is very diverse, right? You have every kind of girl?
Jen: Can you talk about that a little bit?
Meredith: Oh, for sure. The thing about Smart Girls is … Well, okay. It kind of starts with I come from, my father was an Episcopal priest, and he and my mom were both civil rights activists, so I … And I remember so distinctly when I was in high school, and Aids cases were first being reported, and my parents were so noticeably inclusive and welcoming to people who had been diagnosed. And I just remember witnessing that, being kind to people who others were not being kind to, it really made an impression on me, and as a result, inclusion is incredibly important to me.
So, we put a lot of effort into building this community as an inclusive one. And so really what matters the most to me is that we have people around who are as curious about other humans as they are about themselves, and that they are curious about themselves, ’cause there’s also, there’s so much that we just kind of assume, like that’s just how it’s always been done, or that’s how my family does it. Whatever kind of thing you can identify with. So we just think it’s really important that we all see that there are these common threads of humanity among us. Even though there are differences, those don’t outweigh the commonality in our humanity. So that’s just always been a big priority for us.
Jen: I respect that so much. And I think when teenagers can learn that, not just learn it, but practice it in adolescence, what it does is it helps create the kind of adults we are hoping to pass the baton to…
Jen:...When we don’t get these very clueless and sheltered young adults entering the world, just deer in the headlights, having no idea how to connect or understand people that are different from them because they were raised in such an echo chamber, or they were raised in a place where everybody looked the same and sounded the same and thought the same.
Jen: That is a recipe for disaster.
Meredith: It is.
Jen: I mean, that is where we see some of the fragmented bits of society I think that we see now, where literally we cannot understand each other. We just cannot understand that your perspective or your experience or whatever the thing is. So, to me, the work that you’re doing around that specifically is, it’s kind of a monumental cultural shift that I am so glad to hear of. I think that’s gonna produce the next generation of young adults that we’re kind of hoping for.
Meredith: Oh yeah.
Jen: And I’m sure you’ve seen them coming up. You must encounter phenomenal, phenomenal young girls, don’t you?
Meredith: I really do. I mean, actually every single one of them, you know, in their own way. And whether it’s in a way that’s recognized by a large number of people, or just by the people that are near and dear to them, there is … something’s going on. Something big is going on.
Jen: I think so too, and I think it requires leaders like you who are willing to do the hard work of mentoring and of raising hard discussions. It’s so funny. I see a lot of parents almost unwilling to broker challenging or difficult conversations with their kids.
Whether it’s that we’re too resistant to tension, or we think they don’t know, or we think they don’t see this, or it doesn’t affect their lives, or we’re unsure of our own space in it, I think kids are so much smarter than they are getting credit for. They’re smart, they’re paying attention, they’re not blind, and they’re not deaf. So, we are able to look around culturally and see sort of the breaks in our communities, and so when no one’s willing to step into those hard spaces and say, “Let’s talk about this,” or “Let’s see how we can change the story in our own family. How can we inject kindness into this hard place,” it’s just a vacuum. They’re just left in a vacuum.
So, I think your leadership is really important for more than one reason, and that is definitely one of them. I love the kind of community that you’re building, and I think it’s so important, and so I’ve said a thousand times that I think women lifting up other women just makes all the difference. I mean, this is such a time to be a woman in this culture.
I’m curious. When you look at our current culture, and all the things going on right now, the Me Too movement, this really important discussion of pay gaps, obviously not only in entertainment, your world, but across all industries between men and women, and then even between white women and women of color, and this sort of what feels right now like this swift action being taken by companies and organizations to sort of honestly clean house, and to right some of these wrongs, and to separate themselves from offenders and refuse to keep protecting abusive behavior. I think your work and the work of others like you doing similar mentorship has been a part of this slow build, kind of drawn out for years, that has finally broken through. It feels like that to me.
Why do you think, just in your opinion, that now is the time? Why does everything seem to be catching lightning right now? Why the momentum? Is it just a perfect storm? And what do you think all of this means for the generation of girls that you’re mentoring? And then finally, how can we capitalize on this momentum and keep it moving forward? That was a lot of questions. I don’t know if you remember even the beginning of it. Okay.
Meredith: It’s a lot, but I get it. Well, I think it is … I don’t know if it’s the perfect storm or if it’s the accumulation of … We stand on the shoulders of women, and they stood on the shoulders of women, who have fought so hard for … first, to have a credit card, to be able to vote, to do all these things, and so everything has been building and building and building, and it’s all based on courage, of course, especially with Me Too. What it takes to come out and tell your story, and its volume, because when it all happens, and when those stories can be told and heard, it really starts building into something.
So, I think that it’s the accumulation of a lot of courage, and I think what we do is we just keep supporting each other, keep supporting women. That’s how it’s staying so strong, and that’s how it will continue. That’s what I think.
I also think it’s important, you know, you were talking about with parents and kind of subjects that are addressed or not addressed, there are so many great tools out there too for how to talk about, whether it’s gun violence or the Me Too movement or anything, that are really well told from different perspectives. So, you can see, this is probably why these people think that, and this is why these people think that. They probably all want this, peace or whatever it is, but because of this, they think this is the way. That’s all you gotta do. Don’t be scared of the subject, just try and understand they’re probably coming from their angle for this reason … It’s that kind of openness that I think will really make the difference, and might even be making the difference now with these Parkland students. Who knows?
Jen: Yeah, I mean what a movement. We are watching in real time right now, student-led, you know, which goes back to your entire premise, that these are smart and capable and intelligent and vibrant young adults. This is a wonderful generation.
I just hear a lot of crap being talked about them a lot. There’s just been a lot of ink spilled about how lazy they are, and how entitled, and how disconnected, and yet, that’s not my lived experience. That’s not what I see. That’s not what I see of my kids and their friends. It’s not what I see of their peers and their classmates. I feel really hopeful about this generation rising up. I mean, you obviously agree. You spend your life mentoring them. But what do you see in this next generation that everybody else seems to be missing?
Meredith: Oh my gosh. Well first of all, kind of the not as deep and meaningful, one is just the fact that technology for them is just a part of their reality, that they know how to do it.
Meredith: I was just listening to some of them the other day, some of the students talking on TV, and the way they react to the cruelty online is even different, because I think some of us, a lot of us personalize it. When something’s nasty, my heartbeat will go up. My breath will get short. And they’re not immune to it entirely, but they’ll say, they realize it’s just people who use their anonymity to say the meanest thing. It doesn’t mean it’s true.
Just knowing that they navigate those waters better is I think why their message is getting across so clearly and accurately. But I do, I think there’s still just like … there’s still misogyny all around us. There’s still a lot going on around us, but we’re in the middle of the wake-up call-
Jen: Good point.
Meredith:... and I think that through mentoring … and mentoring can always sound like such a fancy kind of like networking word, but really it could also just be hanging out with, you know? And so what young people need are just examples of what they can become, and they just need to be reminded of their value and, I don’t know, I just think we show them, and I’m sure you do this, showing that younger people, they have the right to forge a life of meaning on their own terms.
Meredith: They get to decide what success is. They don’t have to do it according to what somebody else says. They get to decide what the happy ending looks like.
So, I think that anytime people like you, and me, and Becca (Stevens) << link to interviewand Jo Saxton << link to interview, or all the wonderful people, whenever they’re accessible to anybody really, but especially to young people, that it really helps this entire thing. It helps them see strong women who are writing their own stories.
Jen: That’s so great. Something you just said was really interesting to me, and just worth noting for those of us who are older, that our kids literally grew up with technology. They don’t have a different reality. They don’t have a memory without it, and so I think a lot of our generations, we’re clutching our pearls, and we’re just so verklempt over … Because we are the generation in which technology was introduced, and so we have this shared history before it, and so we’re famously so bad at change.
So, the adult generation is saying, “Yeah, but we didn’t used to do it like this,” and “Yeah, but we used to just sit across the table,” or “Yeah, but we used to just pick up the phone and call one another,” and that was our childhood. That was our shared young adulthood, and so we sort of project this negative stereotype onto our kids because they are connected through technology, and they are living their lives upon technology, and yet that’s all they know.
So, it’s not some nefarious departure from what used to be better…
Meredith: Oh, perfectly put.
Jen:... you know what I mean? It can be. It can be, just like anything can be good or bad…
Meredith: Right, but yeah.
Jen:…They’re not some garbage generation simply because technology is an integrated part of their life. This is the only life they’ve ever lived, and so we’ve got to do better about that.
Meredith: That’s right. I agree.
Another version of that is just like, I think it was President Obama who said, “We need to start teaching coding in schools as we used to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We need to add one now.” Because it’s just in them. It is the world. It’s another part of our language now, and so you’re so right. We shouldn’t look down on them just ’cause they’re using this thing that’s been introduced as their normal way of doing things and communicating and learning. It’s such a good point.
Jen: Totally, like we invented it. We invented the internet and all of its devices, and then we disparage our kids for using it all. Adults have to do better on this.
Let’s go back to Smart Girls. I heard you say that, correctly, that women and girls continue to be very underrepresented in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math. You are right. You also say that you think girls are discouraged early from seeking a profession in these fields. Like you mentioned a minute ago, obstacles are still up. Misogynistic, socioeconomic, or cultural, and I think you’re right on all three.
Can you talk to us about how you’re helping to tear down those walls by advocating and emphasis on STEM programs for girls?
Meredith: Yes, I would love to talk about that. I think also just the whole issue of gender inequality, it’s critical, ’cause it has to do with value. It’s a value as a human being. If we’re not of equal dignity in one place, then we could be devalued and we could be dismissed in other places. So, this isn’t tough. It’s important that we do this ’cause it’s about our dignity.
So, based on that, what we like to do is try and introduce STEM to people in our community, just in ways that maybe they hadn’t even known before. You know, there are so many people, myself included, there’s physics and engineering and all kinds of cool stuff all around us, but you just don’t know that that’s the thing behind it, whether it’s the traffic system, or whatever it could be, but it’s all around us.
So, we just like to highlight or profile people who are involved in this, and then talk about the jobs they have and what got them into it, and what sparked their interest when they were younger, when they kind of felt like they were drawn towards this kind of thing. And some people aren’t. They say, “I wasn’t, and then what changed was … blank.”
So, we just like to share those stories, and we also just work with a lot of organizations like the Jet Propulsion lab at NASA that will let us do little videos there just to kind of … so you can see what they’re doing, and how cool it is.
Jen: That’s so great.
Meredith: Yeah, isn’t that cool? And then we also … I think we’ll get to this, but we had a Fear of Failure Summit, and most of the women who joined me as panelists were from the STEM field. There were a lot of girls in the audience who just, they hadn’t heard of women like this before, just for whatever reason.
Meredith: So, it’s just like the introduction and the representation. That’s where we also really try and swirl things up a little bit.
Jen: That’s so important because girls are no less gifted or predisposed toward any of those areas. They have the brain capacity, the want to and the desire to succeed in the STEM areas as much as boys, except I can just say categorically, starting young, boys are steered in that direction, and girls are steered towards the arts and the humanities, which are also … I mean, obviously, that’s where I make a living too, but I like the … representation matters.
Meredith: It really does.
Jen: It really matters, and it matters for women, it matters for people of color, and so you can’t look at our U.S. government right now and see, whatever it is, 90% white men, and by any stretch of the imagination say that is a representative government. You just can’t do it.
Meredith: Not at all. Not at all.
Jen: So, you’re picking up that thread in this area for girls, and it really does matter. You know, those girls only need to see one phenomenal female scientist to give them permission to love what they love, and to do what they’re gifted for.
Meredith: That’s it. And the other thing that’s great about it being on social media platforms at times, is a young girl saw our Instagram story, I think it was about an astronaut or a NASA … somebody very important, and they started exchanging information. They started just messaging each other through the Instagram post, and it was a young woman from India, and that’s what she said. She said, “There’s no one I’ve seen in my world that is doing this kind of stuff, so now I’m in touch and I know which books to read or which videos to watch.” So, that’s the other cool thing is the communication that can open up.
Jen: Oh, I love it. Okay, so a second ago you mentioned one of the Fear of Failure Summits. This is one of my favorite things that Smart Girls hosts. Can you talk about those a little bit more, what those look like on the ground?
Meredith: What we do is we just put together a little event; we choose some women, we plan out some other little activities, and invite young women from whatever community to join us.
It all started because we all do better when we’re bolstered to stick out the tough moments and the challenges of life, and so we want to motivate anybody in attendance to take more risks, and like I was saying earlier, not let the fear of feeling embarrassed or not having it perfect, don’t let that stop you.
I think, even the bigger picture is just to learn to be okay, to start to learn to be okay with the unknown, you know? ‘Cause that’s the other thing, when things are unfamiliar, we can kind of stay away from them. And so since we, the panelists, have lived enough years to know that failure doesn’t define you, we know what it’s like to fail many times over, we talked about that through our experience, just letting whoever was listening know that it’s not a bad thing necessarily.
So, we just told our stories with the hope of showing that mistakes and slip-ups and what you call failure, it’s a way to grow and develop. It doesn’t mean it’s not a bummer. It doesn’t mean it’s not a setback, but you do have power over how you interpret it for yourself, and what you take away from it. And so that’s what we just try and talk about, and we do that … So, we have women share their experiences, and then we also have little skill-building workshops that we … It’s kind of like sneaky vegetables. You do it while it’s something fun, so kind of it’s like improv exercises that are actually teaching you about how to say, “Yes and,” in life, and leadership training and things like that.
We also give the girls that are there a chance to talk to all the women, so it’s kind of like individualized mentorship that’s happening all around. And the girls really do, they come away from this experience, from these summits, with thoughts about their own becoming, their own identity, that they can help form it along the way, and what some of the options are, and that there are ups and downs along the way. That’s really what they’re for.
Jen: So fabulous. I love everything about it. So, listen, we’re gonna wrap up this show with three questions that we’re asking all of the women who are in the How I Built It series. Here’s the first one, and you can just answer off the top of your head.
Who is a person or people, whatever, in your life, that’s making you not just a better leader, but a better person?
Meredith: Okay, I would say that that is anyone who’s challenging me and inspiring me, even though the challenging part is not always fun. But, I would say that’s definitely Amy Poehler, and definitely my immediate family. It’s the same kind of thing. They can tell me like it is, but they can also recognize when I’m doing stuff that’s pretty good.
Jen: Love that. Okay, how about this. Somebody in leadership, like you, do you consider yourself to be a good follower, and if so, how does that affect what kind of leader you are?
Meredith: Ooh, what a good question. Well, I don’t think you can be a good leader without the capacity to be a good follower.
Jen: I agree.
Meredith: Yeah, ’cause otherwise it’s like you’re too involved … It’s your own ego and your own needs more and more. I think you need a capacity to see and appreciate the gifts that other people bring, and so-
Jen: That’s great.
Meredith:… and I would say within that, it’s kind of like, you could either build an echo chamber, or you can actually build a counsel.
Jen: Dang, that’s really good.
Meredith:... yeah, so go for the counsel side.
Jen: That’s really good.
Meredith:… and that includes some following, yeah.
Jen: And it’s gonna be harder, that’s harder to hear, ’cause you’re not surrounded by “yes” men or “yes” women, but it’s the wise path. That’s the good and the mature path of a true leader, honestly.
Meredith: It really is.
Jen: Okay, last question. We ask every guest on the show this one, and it can be as serious, it can be as silly, as big, or as small as you want it to be. We’ve literally had every kind of answer.
Jen: But it’s a question that Barbara Brown Taylor posed. You may know her. She’s also an Episcopal priest.
Meredith: Episcopal priest, yeah.
Jen:… yeah, BBT, we love her, and she asked this question: What is saving your life right now?
Meredith: Oh, okay. Okay.
Meredith: I would say definitely my two rescue dogs, because they’re not on Twitter.
Jen: Oh, babies. They’re not on Twitter. You’re here. Yes.
Meredith: There’s just like that unconditional love. It doesn’t matter what kind of day you’ve had or what happened in the news, they are just the same, so that saves me.
Jen: Oh, no. I’m a dog person. That’s real. That’s not trite.
Meredith: It’s so real. No, yeah. It’s so real. And then I would say the intelligence and soulfulness of the people around me who I love the most, and that’s like Amy and my life partner Tom, and my family. Being around people with intelligence and depth helps me get through days that I feel like things are not going as well as they should right now.
Jen: Totally. Yes, that’s a beautiful answer. Yes, the humanity of the people around me that I love the most, it saves me all the time-
Meredith: Yeah, that’s so good.
Jen:… just watching them live a life of integrity and faithfulness and honor in the midst of chaos, I’m like, okay, we’re gonna be okay. We’re all gonna be okay.
Meredith: I want to say what you just said. You just said it so well. Tack that on.
Jen: Same, same. We basically said the same thing. That’s really, really great. So, Meredith, thank you for being on today. I’m so excited about how many people just learned about Smart Girls.
Meredith: Oh, thank you so much.
Jen: Everybody needs to know this. So many of us are raising girls, whether they’re teens or not, they’re coming, and this is really good work. What an amazing use of your skills, of your experiences, of your partnerships. I think this community that you’re building, it matters. I think it has depth and breadth and it gives me this sense of comfort, that there are such smart, talented, successful women building into the next generation. I’m like, oh, we’re all just doing our part. We’re all just … we’re grabbing hands, we’re locking arms, we’re determined to build a world that we want to pass on, and I just applaud you for your amazing capacity for this work and your dedication to it. It is phenomenal.
Will you tell everybody where they can find you and your resources and Smart Girls stuff, and where do they go to discover all this goodness?
Meredith: Well, you can find us on our Facebook page, our Instagram page, you can go to Twitter if you dare, and also our website is AmySmartGirls.com, so that is it.
Jen: Okay, lady. Cheering you on big time. Don’t forget-
Meredith: Well, I’m in great company, ’cause thank you. You’re the same. Watching you at Together Live, I just thought, I was like, we are all in this together, and we’re making life better for us too, so thank you.
Jen: That’s the thing. That’s the thing. A rising tide lifts every boat in the harbor, I’m convinced of it. And here we are in Austin, and so it’s just real dumb that we haven’t even gone to have coffee, for crying out loud.
Meredith: That is gonna change so soon. Once we’re both off the road, we will definitely do it.
Jen: Let’s fix that. That’s exactly it, whenever that happens.
Meredith: See you next year.
Jen: Okay, sis.
Meredith: Thank you so much for having me. This was really fun.
Jen: Thanks for being on today.
I love these conversations. I just feel like we are in short supply of a lot of hope. Isn’t it so hopeful to hear about women building into the next generation and empowering them to be smart and fun and courageous? Smart Girls is great. I would love for you to go to their website and see all the amazing content they are putting in front of girls right now.
If you’ve got a girl, if you’re raising a girl, if you are a girl, this is just a wonderful resource and organization, and I was so happy to introduce you to Meredith. You guys, as always, we will have all of her links, like everything to Smart Girls and to Meredith specifically over on my website, at JenHatmaker.com underneath the transcript page.
I am sorry to beat a dead horse, but I surely hope you guys are using the transcript page. It’s such a great resource. My assistant Amanda builds it out every week with an enormous amount of labor, and it has pictures and bonus content and memes and links, and everything you could ever want. Any episode that you seriously love, you need to hightail it over to my website and get more of what you like at JenHatmaker.com.
So, we’ll have everything you need from this episode over there too. You guys, thank you for listening. Thank you for your great feedback. This podcast community is growing and building, and I love it. I absolutely love it. And so you are not gonna want to miss next week as we continue the Women Who Built It series. I mean, this is just … This one has so much depth and excitement for me. I love it.
Interesting note, by the way, Meredith told me before we started recording, and I had no idea, that on this series, Jo Saxton, and Meredith, and Becca Stevens all went on an influencer trip to Haiti together. Like I had no idea. So, three out of the five or six women we are highlighting took a trip to Haiti together. That’s just crazy serendipity, so … Okay, universe, love it.
You guys have a super week, and meet me back here same time same place next Wednesday.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!