In her new book, Girls Who Run the World, Diana Kapp tells the stories of the female CEOs of today inspiring the leaders of tomorrow.
It’s 2019, and the question Beyoncé posed with her hit song in 2011 is no longer a question at all, but a rhetorical statement: Who run the world? (You know the answer.)
In every corner of social, cultural and industrial progress, we see girls and women leading the way — from the global activism of Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai and Emma González, to the founders of tech companies like Rent the Runway and 23andMe changing the way we live, to the freshman women of Congress demanding accountability from people in power, to the historic number of women — FIVE! — who entered the 2020 presidential race. Never have we seen women take leadership with such force and purpose than right now in this moment.
When working on her new book, Girls Who Run the World: 31 CEOs Who Mean Business, author Diana Kapp was fueled by this surge of girl power. The gorgeously illustrated page-turner shares the stories of women CEOs in fashion and beauty, technology, medicine, science, food, construction and design. Sixteen are based in the Bay Area.
“The actual aha! moment for the book was walking home from work listening to my favorite podcast, How I Built This,” says Kapp, who shares her Presidio home with her husband and three children. “It was an episode with Sara Blakely. This was two years ago. I didn’t really know who she was. She is such a badass. When she couldn’t afford a lawyer, she wrote her own patent. She drove across three states knocking on doors of manufacturing companies to get Spanx produced, convincing these men to give her a chance. She doesn’t ask permission and doesn’t take no for an answer. That’s the story that inspired me, and I knew there must be more.”
“THERE HAS HONESTLY NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME TO BE A GIRL.”— Diana Kapp
Kapp’s experience as a business reporter covering everything from stem cells to AI yielded valuable contacts who helped her land subjects like Emily Weiss of Glossier and Rachel Haurwitz of Caribou Biosciences. Her alumni network from Stanford Business School led to gets like Stitch Fix CEO Katrina Lake and Stephanie Lampkin, CEO of Blendoor. Kapp’s book shows the rise to success of these women, but also their failures, which prove to be the greatest inspirations of all.
“All of these stories are full of failures and screwups,” says Kapp. “Most of them have no business doing what they’re doing. They learned by just figuring it out, asking lots of questions, or just Googling it. I want girls to see that this is possible. These people are not rock stars. They are a lot like you. Once girls let go of this idea that you have to be some superstar, it all of a sudden becomes more realistic and possible and accessible.”
Inspiration is one thing, but changing an ingrained mindset is another. The truth is, we have a long way to go to move the needle on gender equity. Just over 6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Roughly 2 percent of VC dollars go to woman-founded companies. And, of course, women still face that ever-present wage gap in every industry.
“I believe the issue that girls still don’t believe in themselves as leaders is a very current-day problem,” says Kapp. “Did you know that 23 percent of middle school girls say they will never achieve their dream career? And that number doubles by high school? And most girls underestimate their IQs and boys overestimate theirs. My view, and reason for this book. is that you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Kapp is borrowing some of the business savvy she gleaned from her subjects to promote her book and its message. She’s raised $80,000 from VC investors and founders in order to give 10,000 girls a free copy of her book during two upcoming incubators in Los Angeles.
Kapp is also putting her message where her mouth is and speaking up when media and culture reinforce the idea that men are the leaders of the world. When Forbes released its “America’s 100 Most Innovative Leaders” list with 99 men and one woman in September, she penned an open letter that called out the sexism.
“Those kinds of moves wipeout these thoughts of possibility. They send incredibly strong signals about where you belong in the structure of things,” Kapp explains. “I’d like to think of my book as an antidote to that list.”
More than 169 CEOs have now signed on to Kapp’s letter and call to action, including Stella McCartney, Meg Whitman, Maria Shriver, Lisa Sugar and Ellen Pao, and the group launched Day of the Girl on October 11, with events and social media campaigns to “inspire a girl today to be a CEO tomorrow.”
The truth is, we have come really far in a lot of ways,” Kapp says. “I tell my daughters and girls today that there has honestly never been a better time to be a girl. There is so much opportunity, there are incubators, pitch competitions and access to mentorship. Girls have to not just believe but expect to succeed, andI truly believe that they will prevail.”