So What Do You Do, Vanessa Valenti, Co-founder of and Fresh Speakers?

The social entrepreneur talks mixing business with passion, paying it forward and, of course, that viral street-harassment video.

Women have always had a voice. What we haven’t always had is a platform to use it, not a ready-made one anyway. In 2004, Vanessa Valenti and her sister, Jessica Valenti, launched, pulling from women’s legacy of activism, remixing it with a digital interface and providing a media mouthpiece for the gender-equality dialogue.

The site became the largest online feminist community in the world, with its diverse treatments of and approaches to womanhood. Valenti, who spent nearly 10 years as Feministing’s managing editor, operates on an advisory status to the three-person staff now in charge. “The site was created for young feminists. Obviously, we wouldn’t consider ourselves old ladies or anything,” she joked, “but we wanted to continue to push for young leadership.”

The serial social entrepreneur is immersed in her next two business adventures, also co-founded with Martin — Valenti Martin Media, a social-change-focused consultancy, and Fresh Speakers, dedicated to building diversity in the public-speaking circuit. Here, she talks mixing business with passion, paying it forward and, of course, that explosive street-harassment video.

Name: Vanessa Valenti
Position: Blogger, communications strategist, speaker, entrepreneur and activist
Resume: Co-founded in 2004. Served as managing editor for almost 10 years, growing site to more than 500,000 unique monthly readers. Received the Sidney Award in blog journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation and honored by Choice USA. Gloria Steinem called her “one of the young women that inspire her to believe the feminist movement continues.” Along with Courtney Martin, co-launched Valenti Martin Media and, most recently, Fresh Speakers. Collaborates with national organizations, grassroots initiatives, political campaigns and academic institutions to build online movements. Shows clients how to use social media and the blogosphere to effect social change.
Birthdate: August 29, 1980
Hometown: Queens, N.Y.
Education: BA in women and gender studies from Rutgers University
Marital status: Married
Media mentor: “I would say it’s the many women I’ve collaborated with over the years, including Courtney Martin, Jamia Wilson, Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Ann Friedman and my sister, Jessica Valenti.”
Best career advice received: “Falling flat on your face is a forward movement,” from Pat Mitchell
Last book read: Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
Guilty pleasure: Primetime soap operas like Scandal and Revenge
Twitter handle: @vanessavalenti

You co-launched just two years after you graduated from college. What was lacking in the conversation about gender equality that inspired the site?
There was a lack of young women’s voices online. My sister, Jessica, had been working at a nonprofit and her boss had this popular political blog and was trying to convince Jessica to start her own. We had conversations about it, specifically around gender equality and even more specifically, the way young women were engaging around the issues. We researched websites and online communities for young women and young feminists, not just in resources but in actual forums to be able to engage with each other on the issues. We didn’t find anything. There was a gap, especially because the Internet and social media was really on a high. We saw that as an opportunity, so we basically just started writing for free. We created a site out of our own budget. Jessica’s boyfriend at the time helped us put together some of the brand identity. So it was super bare bones and we did it for free for many years until we started getting a large following and funding through blog ads.

Did it set the stage for similar sites? Has there ever been competition among the different blogs for readers, sponsors and advertisers?
One of the valuable things about [] and why it became as big as it did was because we were one of the first feminist blogs out there, but there were also tons of feminist blogs that started around the same time as we did. I definitely never saw them as competition. It created this powerful feminist blog network supporting one another by linking to each other and featuring each other’s posts. Basically, within the network, we were influencing each other. Interestingly, a part of me feels like because of the fact that none of us were making money, we were kind of removed from competition.

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