Stephanie Kaplan Lewis
by Danielle Cantor
Stephanie Kaplan Lewis is the co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of Her Campus Media, the 360-degree college marketing agency and number-one media brand for college women that she created as an undergraduate at Harvard. Her Campus connects clients – including L'Oreal Paris, Microsoft, Steve Madden, and The New York Times – with more college women than any other media brand through its flagship site, on-campus chapter network, proprietary events, and bestselling book, The Her Campus Guide to College Life (Simon & Schuster). Her Campus received the first-ever Partnership Award from the U.S. Office on Women's Health, and Lewis has been named to Forbes' and Inc.'s 30 Under 30, Businessweek's 25 Under 25, and Glamour's 20 Amazing Young Women. She has also been published in Forbes, HuffPost, MediaPost, and more, and served as a judge for numerous entrepreneurial competitions. In August 2019, Her Campus launched its newest platform, Her20s. Lewis, her husband, and their one-year-old daughter now live in the same Boston suburb where she was raised.
Walk me through the creation of Her Campus.
During college, my two co-founders and I had been running Harvard's student lifestyle and fashion magazine. The three of us got involved as an extracurricular, but before long we took over and decided to transition it from an annual print publication to an online magazine, so we could publish more often and cut down on printing costs. Even though it was geared toward women at Harvard, it started getting popular with college women all over, many of whom were contacting us to say that they loved reading the magazine and wished there was one like it for their school. We also heard from a lot of women who wanted to write for this kind of publication. They would tell us, "I want to work for Glamour or Marie Claire or Vogue one day, but all we have on my campus is the school newspaper. Can you tell us how to start something like this where we are?" We realized there was a need in the market both for content that spoke directly to college women – general and campus-specific – and for a platform where they could write, get clips and experience, share their voices, and find a stepping stone to the real-world media jobs and internships that they were seeking. So we decided to take what we'd been doing at Harvard and turn it into a business on a national scale. We entered that idea into Harvard's business plan competition, we won, and then we launched Her Campus in the fall of 2009 while we were still undergrads ourselves.
Certainly Her Campus has evolved since then; how do you describe it today?
Over the past 10 years, we've built out the brand to be so much more than just hercampus.com. In addition to our flagship site, which is written by student journalists across the country and covers everything from style and beauty to health, career, news, entertainment, dorm decor, money, and more, we've created a network of campus chapters at more than 400 colleges and universities in 45 states and 11 countries, where an average of 30 women per campus are creating content and hosting live events. We have a ton of different brand extensions now: Her Conference is a huge career development and women's empowerment event in L.A. and New York, featuring panels, workshops, and big-name speakers. We run College Fashion Week in the fall in Boston and New York. We also have our InfluenceHer Collective, a network of more than 4,000 Gen Z and Millennial content creators, as well as our Campus Trendsetters program, which is another network of tastemakers on campus. Our print book, The Her Campus Guide to College Life, has been a back-to-school bestseller. We do product sampling on college campuses. Most recently, we acquired College Fashionista, which we are maintaining as its own distinct brand and property under the Her Campus Media parent company. We’re able to leverage all of these different touchpoints to help clients like Ulta Beauty, HBO, Deutsche Bank, and Dunkin' reach college women online, through email, in person, and more. We’ve become a one-stop shop for brands marketing to college women.
Tell me about college women as a demographic. Who are they? What do they want? What are their needs?
College women are at the point in their lives where they're out on their own for the first time. From a consumer perspective this means that they're making purchasing decisions for the first time – so they're going out and buying their own toothpaste and toilet paper and school supplies, which is why they're incredibly interesting and attractive from an advertiser's perspective. More fundamentally, today's college women are ambitious, driven go-getters who really want to change the world. They care about things like diversity and saving the environment, and they really see themselves as activists who can and will make a difference. Many of them even see themselves running for political office one day. At the same time, they also care about hanging out with their friends, bingeing TV shows, ordering pizza, and putting on a face mask. I think self-care is really top-of-mind – taking care of themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. We actually did some market research earlier this year on where Millennials and Gen Z diverge, and we found that Gen Z is more diverse, more likely to identify somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum, and more likely to consider themselves activists. After college, they don't want to have to work their way up to doing the job they want to do; they expect to do something that they're passionate about right away – and they want to make money doing it.
Landing a highly-paid dream job right out of school is pretty uncommon. How do you walk the line between stoking young women's ambition and keeping them grounded?
Events like our Her Conference really serve to accomplish that. Some of our speakers are huge names, like Jessica Alba, but also we have panelists who work in marketing or journalism or broadcasting, talking about how they got to where they are today, the steps they took, how hard they had to work, all the hours that they had to put in. We try to bring that realistic representation of what it really takes to become successful. What you hear from every single one of those speakers, no matter what job they have, is the importance of working hard. Nothing's just going to fall into your lap, no matter how smart, connected, or passionate you are. There's no shortcut.
What have been your greatest challenges, and what you learned from them?
We started this company with no money, no experience, and no business education, and while we were able to be successful, those were gaps that we had to fill in. There were a lot of practical business world lessons that we had to figure out, like always getting signed contracts, not getting excited about things until those contracts are signed, navigating business conversations and negotiations, and being sure not to make the same mistakes more than once. Really important was surrounding ourselves with a network of mentors and advisors who could lend their perspective and expertise when things came up that we had never encountered before. Another challenge is that we've completely bootstrapped Her Campus, which is unusual. For the past 10 consecutive years since launch, we've been profitable without raising any outside capital. There were so many times when we were cash-strapped and not sure what we were going to do, but at every turn, we stuck to our guns. Now we're so glad that we did.
What are some of the challenges and obstacles that you see young women facing right now?
Aside from the persistent gender pay gap, there’s the issue of what happens in the workplace when women start having babies. I think a strong maternity policy – which we have – is just one piece of it. It’s been very important to Her Campus to have a parent-friendly workplace where we give people a lot of flexibility and autonomy. About a third of our employees work remotely, and my two co-founders are actually both remote at this point too. Our team is on Google Hangout video calls all day long, we're on Slack with each other, and it works great. I have a baby myself, so this has obviously been top-of-mind for me. So many people on our team have come to us from more corporate companies that are losing incredible talent because they're not able to be more flexible. It's in everyone's best interest to figure out how to make that work.
Your work surely involves a lot of travel; how do you balance that with new motherhood?
I bring my daughter on every business trip. She just came to L.A. with me two weekends ago for our Her Conference event, and she's been to New York with me for work a few times. So she goes where I go, and I figure out a babysitter or nanny through referral in whatever city I'm traveling to. It's definitely not the same as traveling alone – I don't know why I ever thought traveling was a hassle before, because travel with a baby is a whole other story – but it's really fun to have her along, and she gets to see her mom getting business done.
After 10 years, you must be seeing some of the fruits of your labor, so to speak, in terms of the impact Her Campus has had on young women’s lives. Can you share any examples?
This past summer we created the Her Campus Hall of Fame, honoring our alumni who have done incredible things since they've graduated college. One woman, Hannah Orenstein, was our very first intern. She was a rising high school senior at the time and stayed heavily involved with Her Campus after that. She started our high school ambassador program, went on to NYU, and then went on to work at Seventeen, Elite Daily, Mashable, and now she's published two successful novels. Another example is Elizabeth Wagmeister: She founded and ran our campus chapter at UC Santa Barbara. Now she's a broadcast journalist and a senior reporter at Variety – she's actually one of the journalists who broke the Matt Lauer story. It is so fulfilling for us to see these women who went through the Her Campus program living out their professional dreams, because everything that we do is about helping these women to launch their careers.