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Stephanie has grown Her Campus Media to reach more college women than any other media company, across its digital, social, and email platforms, hallmark campus chapter network, and InfluenceHer Collective. She also led Her Campus Media’s acquisitions of College Fashionista, the Lala, and HerUni Media Limited and oversaw Her Campus’s first book, The Her Campus Guide to College Life which has sold over 25,000 copies. As a leading force for women’s empowerment, Stephanie and Her Campus have partnered with US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and the Office on Women’s Health.
Stephanie has been named to Forbes 30 Under 30, Inc. 30 Under 30, Businessweek 25 Under 25, Glamour 20 Amazing Young Women, EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women, and she has appeared on MSNBC, FOX25 News, NECN, and ABCNewsNow among others.
Stephanie is a graduate of Harvard University and lives in Boston with her husband, baby, two rescue dogs and cat. She is a proud member of Delta Gamma, a Boston Marathon finisher, and a coffee ice cream addict.
Lindsay Gearheart: I’d love for you to tell me the story of how you founded Her Campus, and specifically, how you grew the initiative from Harvard to a national network.
Stephanie Kaplan Lewis: Windsor, Annie, and I met as undergrads at Harvard running a student publication on campus that was a print, lifestyle, and fashion magazine for Harvard women. We took over that publication, and we decided we were going to make it online to be able to publish more frequently and cut down on printing costs. Once it was online, it started getting popular with college women, not just at Harvard, but all over the country.
We started hearing from a lot of college women that they were reading it, and they said, “I wish my school had something like this that I could read.” And a lot of women also said, “I love reading this Harvard one, but I wish there was one at my school so that I could write for it. I want to work for Glamour, Vogue, or Marie Claire after college and the only outlet I have on campus is the school newspaper. Can you give us advice on how to start a magazine like this at my school?”
So we looked at that and saw the fact that there wasn’t any content out there that spoke to college women that wasn’t a teen magazine or a young women’s magazine. And there wasn’t an outlet or platform for aspiring college journalists to get their feet wet, get clips, and get them experience that would help them land the media jobs and internships that they were looking for when they graduated. We wondered if there was some way to take what we’d been doing at Harvard as an extracurricular, turn it into a real business, and create this national platform written by college women for college women that would have a local presence (because that’s part of what had done well about it at Harvard), but also have a national connecting presence as well.
We entered Harvard’s business plan competition, won it, and then launched Her Campus the beginning of Windsor and my senior year/Annie’s junior year, and ran it for a year as students, then jumped in full time when we graduated. We launched with a national presence and one campus chapter at Harvard, and immediately put something up on the site that asked readers to apply to start a campus chapter at their school.
We started getting a lot of inbound interest and applications from women who wanted to start a Her Campus chapter at their college, and we figured out what that looked like as we went along. It was really us reacting to inbound interest as opposed to us strategically going out and targeting certain schools. I think it was so successful because we hit on a need that was really there. This was something that college women were really hungry to have the opportunity for, and we had hit on that need.
I think if we had had to work really hard to push it out and convince people that they would be interested, it would have indicated that we hadn’t hit on as much of a need as we thought we had. To see how much interest was there right from the get-go was great and affirming, and really the bigger job was figuring out how to manage, grow, and scale it all.
LG: How did mentors impact your transition as you went from college student to entrepreneur and CEO?
SKL: I definitely have had a lot of different mentors and advisors through the years that have been incredibly helpful in advising us at different points and aspects of the Her Campus journey. When I was doing different internships over the summers in college at Seventeen Magazine and Self, and with speakers who would come to Harvard, people I would connect with at events and things like that, I was always making sure to meet as many people as I could, do as many informational interviews and meetings as I could, and then make a point to stay in touch with people and let them know what we were up to.
We ended up creating what we called the “supporters listserv,” which was a listserv of different industry contacts and advisors that we had met over the years, and sending out a monthly newsletter to them for almost the first seven or eight years of Her Campus. We would send updates on business, what we were working on, new and exciting things, but also areas in which we were looking for help. That way, we were able to keep people in the loop without having to individually maintain every single relationship on a monthly basis. And when we did want to reach out to someone about something we thought they could be helpful with, they were up to speed on what was going on, which was nice. I had a ton of really amazing advisors and mentors that I met, especially through those internships that I had done.
LG: Today, how do you ensure that Her Campus showcases diverse perspectives for the diverse audience that each college has?
SKL: Diversity is top of mind for us in everything that we’re putting out as a company: our content, events, programming, social media, imagery. The defining factor of everything we’re doing is that it all ties back to college women, but college women themselves are a super diverse group across many different dimensions.
A lot of what informs everything we’re doing is the Her Campus community and network that we’ve built, especially through our campus chapter network. We have campus chapters at over 400 colleges and universities all around the country and around the world as well. A lot of what we’re doing is informed by the community and students, with them telling us what they’re interested in and what they’re looking to see more of. We’re looking to them to be the experts on what this audience cares about and how we can best serve them. It’s something we’re really conscious of with everything from racial diversity to sexual orientation, but also political diversity, as we’re gearing up for covering the 2020 election, making sure that we showcase diversity of thought. College women are not a homogenous group by any means.
LG: Talk to me about your decision to “bootstrap” the company rather than seeking private funding for Her Campus.
SKL: We’ve taken a super unusual approach in the startup world and in the media world these days which is that, as you said, we’ve completely bootstrapped the company for all ten years. We’ve taken on zero outside funding whatsoever, the only outside cash we’ve taken is the $50,000 grant we won in 2011 with MassChallenge, and we’ve been profitable every single year since we launched, operating on our cash, making sure we make more money than we spend every single year, quarter, and month.
LG: That’s an incredible feat, let me say. Congratulations!
SKL: Thank you! I think for us it was really important that we get to be the stewards of our brand, and we get to be the ones making the decisions, calling the shots, doing what we felt was best for the community, our audience, this demographic of college women, and for the company, rather than having it be steered and guided by investors. We felt like we understood this audience really well. We wanted to be able to make their decisions.
But also we felt like we wanted to create not just this content business or this amazing community, but create a viable, sustainable, profitable, successful business, in the most basic understanding of the word business. A company that supports itself, that makes more money than it spends, and that has a business model that actually works. Especially in the media world these days, and going back for the past ten years, where so many media companies have been trying to figure out how they can be profitable and survive without print, without all the changes coming to the industry. It was really important to us that we operate a proper business in the traditional sense of the word.
LG: I also wanted to talk about your recent acquisitions. At the end of 2019, Her Campus acquired Spoon University, its third acquisition in recent months. Can you talk about how these acquisitions will impact the future of the company?
SKL: 2019 was a huge year for us, since as you said, we made those three acquisitions, acquiring the Lala in May, which we rebranded as Her20s, then College Fashionista in August, and then Spoon in October/November. For us, this is a transitional time of going from being a one-brand company with Her Campus, being one-in-the-same with Her Campus Media, to growing into this portfolio brand. Her Campus Media is now a portfolio of the strongest, most authentic, most engaged brands in the millennial and Gen Z space.
We acquired College Fashionista and Spoon, and opted to keep them as their own distinct brands, properties and entities within Her Campus Media. Really, the Her Campus Media of 2020 is this portfolio of leading millennial and Gen Z brands. Across those, we have fashion and beauty-centric content with College Fashionista, food-centric with Spoon, and Her Campus is more of a holistic lifestyle brand. It gives us so many more opportunities to serve our audience through different events, content, and career opportunities that we’re able to bring them. And of course, for advertisers as well, we’re just opening up more doors and more ways to reach this audience across different platforms.
LG: I’m sure you’re asked all the time what advice you have for young women who want to be successful in business. Instead, I wanted to ask what advice you have for others who want to be allies to young women in business?
SKL: I think that you should be giving of your time and your relationships. We’ve definitely learned over 10 years in business that connections can come in handy in so many ways that you never expected. There are connections that I made in the early days of Her Campus that now, years later, are turning into something really helpful for us because of where the person has landed, or what they’re working on, or someone that they’ve met over the years. I think opening up the networks that you’ve built and making warm introductions is one of the most helpful things that people have done for us.
It’s something that I try to do for other people now when they come to me for advice or to talk about their business. I think wrapping your head around what someone is doing so that you’re in a position to be able to make smart connections and introductions for them because you just never know which one of these introductions you make will turn out to be the one that’s really pivotal for the company.
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