If you've heard that Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg leaves work every day at 5:30 p.m. or that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer doesn't consider herself to be a feminist, it's at least in part thanks to Dyllan McGee, the filmmaker behind "Makers: Women Who Make America," a series of online videos and documentaries produced in partnership with AOL and PBS.
Next week, McGee will be getting out from behind the camera and in front of the crowd at a three-day conference that will take the Makers project live to an invite-only crowd featuring the likes of Gloria Steinem, Gabby Giffords, Martha Stewart and Sandberg herself.
The conference is just one way McGee, AOL and PBS are planning to turn their project into a global brand focused on the issue of women, leadership and the workplace. The ultimate plans include not only the conference but international versions of the videos, a project with Yang Lan (known as the "Oprah Winfrey of China"), an app for viewers' devices, as well as a yet-to-be-announced initiative to let more people contribute stories of remarkable women. "There’s a hunger for this kind of content," McGee says.
A brand built around women's empowerment and leadership might have been unusual several years ago. But the expansion comes at a time when gender workplace issues are having their own cultural moment. A Pantene advertisement about gender stereotypes exploded on the Internet in December. Last week, the screen rights for Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg's wildly popular book-turned-media-phenomenon, were reportedly obtained by Sony Pictures. And one of President Obama's most memorable lines from the State of the Union speech last week was not about foreign affairs or the economy, but about the gender pay gap: "It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode," the president said.
The Makers effort also joins a growing number of conference events and networking groups focused on the issue of women's empowerment. Magazine editor Tina Brown announced in the fall that she plans to take her Women in the World conferences global. Last year, former Citigroup and Bank of America executive Sallie Krawcheck purchased the women's networking group 85 Broads. Sandberg is taking her "Lean In Circles" peer groups to college campuses and writing a book oriented to college grads that's coming out in April.
"I think it just boiled up in the zeitgeist to a point where this is on everyone’s mind," says Maureen Sullivan, president of AOL.com and the company's lifestyle brands. "In the documentary, we talked a lot about how [the women's movement] was the largest social movement of all time. Ultimately, it affected everyone. I think we sometimes forget that and minimize that."
The idea for Makers started with McGee, who approached feminist icon Gloria Steinem about being the subject of a documentary. Steinem turned her down, telling her she should make a film about the women's movement instead. McGee began doing just that, but "in reverse," she says, first filming more than 100 interviews with female leaders that were posted online through a partnership with AOL. These were then used as raw material for the documentary, which aired on PBS in three parts early last year.
In addition to Mayer and Sandberg, some 200 trailblazing women have sat for interviews, many of which are candid and revealing. Interviews range from former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Conner saying, "I think of myself as an old lady who's had a pretty darn good career," to Oprah Winfrey sharing how she made less than half what her male co-host made in 1980. The team is planning six more documentaries to be released later this year on PBS, each focusing on female leaders in different fields, such as politics, business or comedy.
AOL got involved early, Sullivan says, after CEO Tim Armstrong met McGee in 2010. Through its data, AOL could see how many people were searching for content about women's issues and knew how popular online videos like McGee's could be. "This is what people care about and are talking about," says Sullivan, noting they've been surprised to find that roughly half of viewers are men. "I think that's why you see more media companies creating content like this."
AOL owns and operates the Makers Web site and uses the content on its other lifestyle sites. Private donors provided seed money to get the project going (Warren Buffett's daughter-in-law was an early supporter); it is now funded by advertising revenue and AOL. Conference attendance fees, says McGee, will help to support future production costs.
Already, the Makers project is tapping the PBS network to help schools use the content in educational settings and hold contests to discover notable local women who should be interviewed. The ultimate goal of the project, McGee and Sullivan say, is to assemble as many stories as possible by extending ways for the public to contribute. "We want to be the largest collection of women’s stories ever assembled," McGee says. "You never know where you're going to find the most inspiration."