Rebel Girls CEO On The Importance Of Storytelling, Investing in Women, And Empowering The Next Generation

Image via the Rebel Girls Facebook Page

You already know the book ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’ and probably own a copy or two. You’ve heard the incredible success story from Kickstarter to New York Times Bestseller, to becoming a cultural milestone in the modern pursuit for gender quality for the next generation of girls. But the list of accolades and highlights definitely do not end there. In fact, the book was just the beginning of what is now known as the Rebel Girls company, which has sold 5+ million books, translated into 49 languages in 85 countries, and has 8+ million downloads of its Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls podcast.

The company is headed up by the fearless and inspiring Jes Wolfe, a CEO you need to know as Rebel Girls continues its ever-expanding global reach. Under Jes’ leadership, who previously served as COO at Hoodline before selling to NextDoor, the company plans to expand their storytelling via television and digital, as well as bring a merchandise line to the world that is free from forced stereotypes. She is building a coalition of women who self-identify as Rebel Girls leading the future of children’s edutainment and audio content. 

Rebel Girls has already reached 10 million girls through their books and podcast — making it the preeminent girl-driven edutainment company with the mission to inspire and instill confidence in 50 million girls over the next 5 years. Their next release will be their upcoming book ‘100 Immigrant Women Who Changed the World’ (releasing October 13, 2020) which highlights the stories of immigrant women from all over the world and all walks of life — everyone from Rihanna, Lupita Nyong’o and Gloria Estefan to Yuan Yuan Tan, Anna Wintour and Carmen Miranda. 

We were lucky enough to speak with the top Rebel Girl herself, Jes Wolfe, about everything from her own career journey, to her vision for the company, the importance of inclusivity and diversity in the artists they work with, and why empowering the next generation of girls is a personal passion for her.

Rebel Girls CEO Jes Wolfe

How did you first become involved with Rebel Girls and what drew you to the company?

I met Rebel Girls co-founder Elena Favilli through a mutual connection in January of 2019. As our friend put it, “you two would really get along!” And we did — on a group trip to Tahoe that year, Elena and I spent our days skiing and talking about the company she’d built through the success of the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls book series. I was instantly hooked on the Rebel Girls mission and felt that it stood for key things I believed in: equality, but also the idea that girls should be encouraged to chase their dreams, to be bold, to be daring. I saw such tremendous potential in the company beyond books. I envisioned a media company and a technology company that could provide girls with inspiration in a variety of forms. I’m a big believer in the concept of a double bottom line for companies, combining strong business with strong social impact. Rebel Girls was ripe with opportunities to nail both, and I was excited to be a part of building it. 

The company has a mission to reach 50 million girls over the next 5 years. What are some of the big projects or campaigns we will see from Rebel Girls in line with this mission?

We aim to fulfill our mission strategy by developing products that fall under our 3 pillars: telling powerful stories, designing physical products that revolutionize girlhood, and fostering and developing a global community of self-identified Rebel Girls. Storytelling is at the core of Rebel Girls — it’s what we built the company on, and we’re working to greatly enhance how we tell stories and how many stories we tell. Think more stories, more formats, and more mediums. We’re gearing up to publish three new Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls books, whose subjects fall under specific themes. This October 13, our readers will see ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Immigrant Women Who Changed the World‘ hit the shelves. Like in the books department, our audio content is on track to expand dramatically, moving from 11 episodes a year to an episode every week. Season 4 drops September 15, featuring the stories of immigrant women from our newest book. We also have some more secretive projects in the works, like a TV show, a live musical, a digital app, and brand new physical products. We are reimagining both the bedtime experience and reimagining playtime. Our audience can expect to learn more in the coming months! 

From a community perspective, our aim is for 50 million girls to not only be inspired and confident, we want them to self-identify as rebel girls and to feel like that they are in good company! This October, we are hosting our first annual Rebel Girls United Rally to celebrate International Day of the Girl. We have an amazing lineup of girls and women that we have featured in our books who are singing, dancing, cooking, drawing, skateboarding, etc. You can expect events and celebrations like this from Rebel Girls for every International Women’s Day and International Day of the Girl. 

‘Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls’ author Elena Favilli with young readers at an event at The Wing, NYC, October 2019. Image via The Rebel Girls Facebook Page.

You have had a hugely successful career as an investor in a number of businesses. Can you tell us about the importance of investing and funding specifically women-lead companies and ideas?

I’m an entrepreneur at heart and by practice. I’ve spent time on both sides of the table — raising capital and investing capital. I know first hand how important it is to work with investors who wholeheartedly believe in everything you’re doing. I also know how impactful the right investors can be to your company’s success. I’m passionate about putting my money and advice to support entrepreneurs who are excited about their work and driven to build something meaningful. The world of investing is gender skewed to say the least —  in 2019, research indicated that only 2.7% of the total capital invested in venture backed businesses went to female-founded companies, and only 12.4% went to female co-founded companies. I see investing as an opportunity to empower and support women, tackling the disparity. So many women-led companies have plans to impart change upon society, but they struggle to find the funding they need to execute. Two of my portfolio companies that are creating impact include myTamarin and Curie. Founded by Zarja Cibej, myTamarin connects mothers (and fathers) to childcare that supports the various stages of a child’s development, easing the process for working parents. Curie, founded by Sarah Moret (and named after Rebel Girl Marie Curie!) creates products that are clean, safe and effective, designed for women who move (a lot – like me!). I would encourage you to check them both out!

After the phenomenal success of the ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’ book, the company has become a recognizable name worldwide and is now expanding to merchandize, digital content and audio. As CEO what do you hope to see Rebel Girls doing in 10 years time in terms of influence?

In a perfect world, Rebel Girls at its current mission wouldn’t be relevant in 10 years time. If representation in children’s media gets to a place of equality and accessibility, then we’ve done our job. Right now we’re trying to fill a gap, and mind you, it’s a wide gap to fill. In children’s literature alone, 33% of books showcase female characters, and only 19% showcase female characters who hold a job or career ambitions. Rebel Girls has already made a difference, and we’re building confidence in young girls with every book sold and podcast episode created. As a society, we have the potential to raise girls who don’t think they’re less smart than boys, girls who know how smart and capable they are. The world is changing at a rapid pace, and I foresee our mission evolving before 10 years time. But no matter what we’re doing we will be pushing the envelope in new ways, and we’ll work under the umbrella of being a positive, guiding force in raising children.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Immigrant Women Who Changed The World

What can readers look forward to in the new book called ‘100 Immigrant Women Who Changed The World’ in October, and why are immigrant women’s stories important to learn about?

‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Immigrant Women Who Changed the World’ is our best book to date! It’s filled with amazing stories about women you’ve heard of, and women you’ll be hearing of for the first time (but certainly not the last). Readers will learn about magicians, dentists, neuroscientists, bowlers, sculptors, entrepreneurs, film directors, yogis, referees, and more, all of whom left their countries of birth to find opportunity elsewhere. The book is filled with vibrant portraits that capture every subject’s magic. And I’m proud to say the talents behind the book are just as representative as the book subjects —  we worked with 70 female and non-binary artists from 29 different countries. We’re telling immigrant stories for a number of reasons.

Firstly, this is a badass group of women who have achieved incredible feats, in the face of adapting to a new country. In many cases, that meant learning a new language, fitting into a new culture, leaving friends and family. Also, we believe it’s imperative to celebrate immigrant women as a means to tackle xenophobia and raise kids who are more accepting, more curious, and more empathetic to the plight of people around them. Lastly, this is a nod to history, and what makes this country (and others) so special – the United States is a vibrant and multicultural place to live because of immigration.  

What do you think it is about the Rebel Girls brand and message that is striking the right note with millions of people worldwide?

The Rebel Girls brand is so compelling to so many people because we bring diversity to the forefront of the content we create. There’s such a wide range of women in the stories we tell from careers to countries. I mean, where else do you find stories about female pirates, spies, architects, and filmmakers in the same place? And the artwork is so diverse, each page looks and feels different from the last. Parents are taking notice of the content their kids consume, and how factually it represents the world around us. Plus the stories we tell are honest, they don’t skim over difficult topics, they can act as conversation starters between parents and kids. We also are intentional about towing the line between entertainment and education. Our books are fun to read and our readers are left feeling satisfied because they learned something. Rebel Girls is full of positivity, it’s uplifting, inspiring, and making measurable changes in society — don’t we all need a little more of that right now?

You are dedicated to building a coalition of women who will disrupt and dismantle harmful stereotypes in the world and in our culture. Why is this mission important to you?

Building a coalition of women who support one another is at the heart of our brand’s forward looking appeal. On a personal level, I can pinpoint moments throughout my childhood that were full of harmful stereotypes – most women can. When I was a kid I was a competitive swimmer. My grandmother would ask me “what boys thought about my big muscles” and “shouldn’t I stop swimming?”. I’ve heard versions of “girls can’t do that”, “girls are lessor”, and “girls are weak” my whole life. We’ve made progress from when I was a kid, but we’re still far from living in a gender equal world. Ultimately, the goal is to become a happier, healthier version of society, but we can’t do that if inequality is so pervasive. The coalition we’re building brings us one step closer toward that goal, and we’re starting with the youngest generation, putting a stake in the assurance they don’t grow up the way we did. 

Can you tell us about the impact of having more women non-binary and trans folks be seen in media and entertainment, from your experience working with Rebel Girls?

My hope is for society to embrace all people for who they are and the contributions they make, regardless of gender identification. Part of making that dream a reality means inclusivity in representation. Rebel Girls tells the stories of incredible people in the LGBTQIA+, and supports the work of writers and illustrators in the community. We’ve told the stories of people like Billie Jean King, Frida Kahlo and Josephine Baker. And telling these stories does have a perceivable impact. After Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls published, we heard from a number of parents whose children were able to see themselves in Coy Mathis, a young transgender girl featured in the book. We’re only just beginning to scratch the surface of this impact and intend to greatly expand on the stories we’re telling about people in the LGBTQIA+ community. 

We normally ask interviewees “What makes you a powerful woman?” but we’d like to ask you, what makes you a Rebel Girl? 

What an amazing question! We define being a Rebel Girl as being inspired, confident, and empowered to pursue one’s dreams. I’ve self-identified as a Rebel Girl since I was a kid. I’ve had big dreams, and big goals (that have evolved over the years). I’ve been lucky enough to have had the confidence to pursue those dreams. That confidence is my secret weapon, it lets me chart my own course and harness agency. That same sense of empowerment through confidence is what I wish for every girl.

Girls and their parents at a Rebel Girls event at The Wing, NYC, October 2019. Image via the Rebel Girls Facebook Page.