In the mid-90’s, Aliza Sherman moved to New York City. She had been bouncing around for a while in the music industry, working with artists like Tracy Chapman, Elvis Costello, and Metallica. In New York, Sherman hoped to settle down a bit and explore her newest passion: working with the web. She started a small business designing and developing websites, and put up a personal site under the moniker Cybergrrl.
Cybergrrl was an exploration of Sherman’s own experiences on the web, a mix of links, reviews, and personal musings. Her focus, though, was on something she had noticed early on. There weren’t a whole lot of women on the web.
At around the same time, that issue was also coming into focus for Nancy Evans and Candice Carpenter with a different platform. When Carpenter first introduced Evans to AOL, she saw it as fairly primitive and underdeveloped. But coming from the publishing industry, she knew that the medium become more refined and intuitive. When that did finally happen, they wanted to not just to be there, but to help make it happen.
Like Sherman, Evans and Carpenter realized there wasn’t really a place on the Internet where women could feel welcome. It was a problem they all aimed to do something about.
Sherman had explored the web quite a bit. She had joined a mailing list or two, but couldn’t really find a dedicated network exclusively for women like her. On a bit of whim, she emailed a few women from New York she had only met online in the spring of ’95 and proposed a get together of sorts in a trendy new internet cafe @Cafe. To her surprise, a few said yes.
At the designated time, she watched one by one as women came into @Cafe wondering to herself if any belonged to the group she had assembled. Finally, after a bit of time elapsed, she saw one woman walk in that truly stood out from the crowd with an aesthetic and vibe she understood well. She thought to herself, in her words, “THAT’s a Webgrrrl.” She was right. Her name was Phoebe LeGere. She was joined that night by a few other web designers, developers and bloggers, and their conversation buzzed with excitement for the web.
1995, coincidentally, was the same year that Candice Carpenter came to Nancy Evans looking for help with her new consulting client, AOL. Carpenter and Evans had been friends and professional colleagues for years. They had first met a few years before and almost instantly shared a mutual respect. Over the years, they worked with one another on a few different projects, but never together. With AOL, Carpenter saw her chance.
AOL had kind of a problem. They had done a demographic study of their audience and found that a lot of people coming to their platform were women. With a company that was mostly made up of men (ditto for the entire tech world actually) , there was very little content on AOL for women to explore. Evans, meanwhile, was the editor of a magazine she had herself created called Family Life. Carpenter realized that if they could bring some version of Evans’ work onto AOL, they would be on to something. They decided to start small, targeting parents with a new channel on AOL called Parent Soup.
Fostering A Community
Sherman and the small group from the Internet cafe started up a weekly thing. But each time they met, the number of women in attendance doubled. About six months later, at the end of November of 1995, there were 200 women coming to the meetup every week, and they had to relocate to a bigger space. In the group, there was a sense of camaraderie almost immediately, and even though they all came together from different corners of the web, each member knew they could rely on one another to elevate the whole group’s passion and ambitions.
To make things a bit more formal, the group decided on an official name, riffing off the pseudonym that Sherman used online: Webgrrls.
On the day Parent Soup launched, it was the middle of a blizzard. Evans, living in New York at the time, called down to the tech team she was working with at AOL. Most weren’t even in the office because of the weather. But Carpenter and Evans had made a plan, and they were going to stick to it.
Evans had been carefully crafting the content for months while Carpenter helped workout the details of its implementation. It was decided that there would be two parts to the site. The first was the editorial content. As Evans describes it, this was the appetizer, a way to get people in the door. The real draw though, was going to be the message boards. This is where women on the we could congregate in a safe, welcoming, and creative space created just for them.
The plan worked. When Parent Soup launched in early 1995, it was greeted warmly by thousands of AOL users that had been looking for something just like it. Right away, women flocked to the message boards to share their stories and show their support in acts of solidarity. Carpenter and Evans realized that this was going to be bigger than either of them imagined. So they decided to rename their site to iVillage.
Growing and Growing
Webgrrls, meanwhile, had started going national. Sherman even got calls from a few women in San Francisco who had heard about what she was doing and wanted to start their own chapter. Other chapters soon sprung up in Austin, DC, and Tampa. They stayed connected through a central Webgrrls site, and a loosely connected ring of mailing list and blogs, supporting one another as they grew. It wasn’t long before Webgrrls had to become something more official. Sherman created a corporation for the organization, staffed by members from her own business. And as more chapters started up, they offered free web resources and connections to get started.
In November of ’95, there were 200 women in Webgrrls. Exactly five years later, in November of 2000, there were 30,000. If you were a woman on the web in the mid to late 90’s, you just had to be a Webgrrl. It was a place to level-up, to connect to colleagues, to learn, and to have a little fun. It is hard to overstate the importance of Webgrrls, it was the entry point into the web for thousands and thousands of women.
As the organization grew, so did their mission. All across the country, chapters hosted networking events, and small conferences, and even launched mentorship programs to start teaching the next generation about the web. It was the cornerstone and foundation of women working with and on the web, and the inspiration for dozens of similar efforts that would come next.
It was more of a virtual community that guided iVillage. By 1996, the site had moved from AOL to the web, bringing along with it a tone, voice, and direction that was guided by the content of the message boards. Visitors filled the boards with discussions about relationships and parenting and being a woman in the information age. When one user, for instance, decided to try and not bother her teenage kid for a week to see if that might help him behave, dozens of others joined in on the experiment.
This energy encouraged Evans and Carpenter, and they took their cue from the community. They allowed the conversations of their message boards to dictate the direction and editorial vision of iVillage as a whole, and crafted content that would keep these conversations going. They were, in turn, rewarded by a base of loyal users, visitors that returned to the site daily and helped boost it to one of the most visited sites on the web (consistently at number 6 actually). And when competitors like Oxygen and women.com came along, the community stood behind the iVillage and made sure it was number 1.
The women of iVillage helped to make iVillage. It was a place where they felt they truly belonged.
Creating a Legacy
Alas, all good things, etc.
Sherman, feeling burnt out from running both Webgrrls and Cybergrrl, stepped down as CEO to hit the road and travel for a bit. She handed off control of the organization to the CEO of Cybergrrl, who happened to be a man. Some chapters, that already felt betrayed when Webgrrls made the decision to become a for-profit corporation, split off and created something independent. Today, there are many offshoots of Webgrrls even as the main group continues to operate.
iVillage, meanwhile, was pushed towards an IPO by its investors, resisted from the beginning by Evans and Carpenter. They knew that after the company went public, they would be forever beholden to its stakeholders. They were right. While iVillage did hold one of the most successful IPOs of all time in 1999, it’s popularity took a major dive after that, and eventually Evans and Carpenter decided to leave the company (which eventually sold to NBC).
It may seem odd to mention these two sites together. Their goals and targets and milestones were quite a bit different. And though both eventually found a home on the web, neither started out there. But they both got started at the same time and have at least one thing in common. They created a lasting and welcoming space for women on the web when no one else would. They served as a both sponsor and safety net for these women with large ambitions and imaginations. They carved out a unique spaces, massive ones at that, and proved that the web truly is for everybody. That’s a message that is undeniably important. It’s one worth spreading.