Interview with Rachel Thomas, Lean In

Rachel Thomas is President of the Lean In Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to offering women the ongoing support and practical skills to lean into their ambitions and achieve their goals. Before joining Lean In, Rachel cofounded and served as President and CMO of Subtext, the first collaborative reading platform for K12 schools. Prior to Subtext, Rachel was VP of marketing for Playdom, a leading social gaming company acquired by Disney in July 2010. Rachel has also led large-scale strategy and marketing initiatives for a number of well-known consumer and technology brands, and founded and ran a successful Web 1.0 recruitment firm called BrainTrust. Rachel currently serves as an advisor to Callaway Digital Arts, a developer of mobile and tablet products for children and their families, and lives in Palo Alto with her husband Scott and two young children Gavin and Haley. Rachel graduated with honors from Georgetown University.

BT: Lean In began essentially as a message to women, in its original incarnation. How have you gone about articulating that message in a concrete and tangible way, and how did the Lean In circles help bridge this gap?

Rachel Thomas: The original message is twofold – one is about women and what we can do, our ambitions, and how to empower ourselves; and the second is about men and how men as husbands, men as managers, and men as coworkers can support women. And I guess thirdly, how we can all understand the blind spot perceived around gender. The overarching message has always been those three core messages – women empowering themselves, men supporting women both at home and in the workplace, and all of us understanding gender bias and the small things we can do to about gender bias to level the playing field.

BT: Absolutely. So the Lean In circles – the way I see them, they’re a way to evolve from an idea to actual reality. Can you speak more about how they work to articulate the message in a more tangible, even physical way?

RT: Let me give a little bit more framing for this- the reason the foundation exists is because we didn’t want the book to be the endpoint but rather, a beginning point. So the purpose is exactly how you say; how do we move from a message to ongoing support for women? And one of the major ways we do that is with Lean In circles. The way I see or describe Lean In circles is part peer classroom, part peer support group. So there’s lots of research that tells us that if you look at adult learning, if you just read something you’ll generally absorb about 10% of it. As an adult if you read something then talk about it then exercise an activity link to it, you can retain as much as 90%.

So a big part of this is our lectures, that are available for free with lots of practical skills. We think these lectures are valuable for women and men, but many of them have a gender lens, because they bring them into the circle and they learn together. And then the other piece of it, which college students would be very familiar with, is that another one of the benefits of big groups is that kind of support and challenge that you get from the peer dynamic. We think that is very powerful as well, the idea that women and men are coming together and learning from each other’s best ideas and shared experiences.

And one of the things that has been really interesting – I am amazed by the types of circles. There are military circles, father-daughter circles, LGBT circles, we have a circle of Asian men at Harvard – they feel like a lot of the bias that women face is very similar to a lot of the bias that Asian American men face, and so they have a circle. And there is also an increasing number of co-ed circles, and so it’s been interesting to see all the ways people are taking the idea of peer support and making it their own. And we are thrilled about two things we think about the college audience: one, I just think it’s a great time in life to put together a personal support peer group; it will really help to enter the workforce with a lot of confidence and support behind you.

The second thing, what we hear time and time again from circles of older men and women, is that they’ve never been in an environment where they have been able to talk about gender so openly, and men are loving it, women are loving, and so we think co-ed circles on campus could be particularly powerful for exactly that reason. When do you really talk about gender seriously? And so this is a great way for men and women to come together. It’s a pretty touchy subject. We have one CEO with us and he would rather talk about his sex life in public than gender.

BT: That’s actually a very fair point. Something I’m interested in is how leadership is really fundamental to Lean In’s mission. That has so many different iterations and interpretations; how do you all define leadership and specifically female leadership?

RT: A couple of things related to that. One, our mission is to empower women to achieve their ambitions. And if you were going to add something on to that, it would be whatever they might be. I think the definition of ambition and leadership varies from person to person, and it’s about what you want to achieve. That said, two other points related to that.

One, we believe that the more you get women into positions of leadership, the more things happen and the more the stereotype of a female leader begins to fall away. It begins to break down, the more female leaders you have. The second thing is that people should know that female leaders actually make better decisions for their organizations, and they’re more interested in the next generation. Often their policies are more family-friendly, so there’s also practical benefits for both women and men from getting more women into leadership roles.

So one piece of it is that leadership is more traditionally defined. And then the second, which I am very passionate about, as is everybody on the team, is, how are you a leader every day? Whatever your job is, if you’re working at home or working at a school, what is it that we can do to give you more confidence, more practical skills, and a better understanding of gender dynamic, so you can feel more powerful in anything you do? I want a woman, no matter what she does each day, to “check in” for the day so that she can get more out of the day.

BT: Absolutely. Something you touched on earlier but I’d like to return to, your message has traditionally been targeted to professional women but you’re expanding onto college campuses now. How does this fit into the overall strategy of the organization and how are you tangibly speaking to get your message out on college campuses?

RT: Good question. So in order for us to have a big shift around gender and leadership roles, we need a very big community to join the conversation and be interested in the topic of women and leadership. That includes men, women of all different backgrounds, international audiences. We’re very passionate about inviting younger women and men into the conversation because the earlier that we can get the message out, the more we can get people to start thinking about gender and get women to feel more comfortable in their skin and with leadership roles, and the better off we’ll be. One of the first of many things you’ll see us doing is targeting younger and younger audiences.

BT: Now more of a general meta-question, if you will; there’s been a lot in the press about Lean In and there’s been a lot of talk about feminism, which historically has been a very loaded term. How does the organization conceive of its role in the feminist dialogue?

RT: So I think some of that is for other people to think about and discuss. What I will say is – when I think about myself, I think of myself as a feminist and actually, studies show that if you survey Americans asking if they are feminists, defining it as equality for women and men, a majority of Americans say yes. So I believe strongly in feminism and what it stands for. That said, as long as younger women, younger men, older women, older men are hearing the right messages and thinking about the right things about gender and doing the right things related to women and gender, I don’t feel strongly about what they call themselves. Would I prefer they call themselves feminists and identify as feminists? Absolutely. But I’m more interested in “Are they doing the right things and thinking the right things?” and if that’s going to influence positive change.

BT: Absolutely. In our last few minutes I would love to hear more about your personal journey and how you got involved with the organization in general.

RT: Sure. So I got involved as a volunteer; everybody did. While the book was being written, the volunteers were very passionate about the subject, so we got together and there was a moment when we realized, “Wow, we could get some real momentum. This could be very exciting. Dare we say that this got a bit bigger than we thought it might be?” And that’s when we decided that this required a full-time team and a full-time investment. So I’ll be celebrating my first-year anniversary in a week and then as you know, we launch on March 12 with the book and for me, just like a lot of people, my “Lean In journey” began with walking into a TEDTalk and really getting it in the heart and the head and knowing that a book was being written. And “leaning in,” I’m inviting myself to be a volunteer.

Volunteering at the time I was running a K-12 ed-tech startup. Here in the valley, we were just really passionate about the message and the ideas behind it, and really dissatisfied with the inequalities between women and men. So I started as a volunteer and a year ago, I got the call asking if I would run this. My joke is that I got the call in the morning, I was having a cranky day, I never talked to my husband, he arrived later that night, and so he asks, “Oh, what did Cheryl call about?” And I say, “She asked me about Lean In” and he says, “Oh great! We should sit down and talk about it.” And I say, “It’s a done deal already.” So he laughed and the one story I always do like to tell and I will share it with you, even if it may or may not fit in. That night, my kids were like, “What is it? Why are you doing it? Why are you so excited?” And so I said to my son Gavin, who’s eight, “Gavin, what if I told you that mommy and daddy work the same job, for the same amount of hours, who’d likely make more money?” And he says, “Mom, that’s not fair.” And then I said to Hailey, who is six or five at the time, “What if I told you that if mommy gets more successful, less people will like me? And if daddy gets more successful, more people will like him?” I thought she was going to mimic her brother and say it wasn’t fair, because you may or may not know this from having nieces or nephews, but fairness is a really big deal when you’re in grade school. And instead she looked at me and said, “Well then I’d be less successful so more people like me.”

And it really hit me because that’s a pretty rational choice. If someone asked you if you want to be more successful or have more people like you, she said that she would rather be better liked, and that’s why I think this is so important. This links back to why bringing younger men and women into the conversation is so important, because I don’t want them to grow up having to make that choice. The more we get this message out to younger women and give them the support, I think that’s what’s really going to move the dial over time.