Tips From The Top: One On One With Jes Wolfe

I spoke to Jes Wolfe, CEO of Rebel Girls, about her journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people? 

Jes: I’ve self-identified as a Rebel Girl since I was a kid. I’ve had dreams, and plenty of confidence to chase them – however off the beaten path they might be. I grew up on a farm in Oregon and used to chase cows on a 3-wheeler (which later turned into riding motorcycles). In college, I took a few years off to move to Sweden to dance the Lindy Hop, play water polo and well, learn Swedish. As an adult I’ve picked up to move across the world about a dozen times. But, here’s a lighter fun fact: I’ve had just about every hair color on the planet! While my hair is natural (brown) right now, I still like to have fun with it. We have all-hands meetings twice a week, and every time I show up with a different colorful wig to add a little light and laughter to the meetings. Because if you can’t have hot pink hair at a Rebel Girls meeting, where else can you sport that look? 

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth? 

Jes: Life is, by definition, challenging! What I’ve learned is to accept that there will always be challenges, and to have the confidence and tenacity to keep going. When I was younger I used to be a competitive swimmer. Some days we would swim 30,000 meters in a day. It was all I could do to take one more stroke, and then another. I learned to visualize what success would look like – whether finishing that brutal training day or standing on the podium at a race. I’d use that to motivate myself to get each progressive lap in, regardless of the physical pain. 

Another challenge I faced in high school was when my family’s house burned to the ground. It was a traumatic experience for myself and my family, to lose everything except the clothes we wore that day. It also was an incredibly liberating experience. It gave me perspective on the things that mattered; family, people, experiences, attitude, resilience, hope, change, and taught me to place a lot less emphasis on material possessions. Having lived through that experience as a 14 year old, it gave me the confidence to be bolder because I knew that no matter what, I would not only survive, I would thrive. That confidence led me to travel and work all over the world (70 countries and counting), and to combat fear and uncertainty with a grin. This perspective helps me as an entrepreneur, so that I focus my attitude and my energy on finding solutions in an ever changing world rife with obstacles waiting to be turned into opportunities. 

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level? 

Jes: I believe that one of the key tenets of leadership is ownership. Leaders take ownership of everything they’ve done and haven’t done — the good, the bad, the ugly. Effective leaders own their beliefs, they own their mistakes, they own their actions, and they own the results. 

Another key tenet is transparency. I’m a big fan of leaders who do what they say, and say what they mean. Having one’s word be bound is powerful, sets a precedent for integrity in an organization and does wonders to build a team’s trust. 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders? 

Jes: Be your most authentic self and surround yourself with a team that embraces your authenticity and draws energy from it (which will in turn, give you more energy).  

Find joy in what you’re building. It’s a long road with many ups and downs, and focusing on the positive and what brings you joy helps with the ride. Believe in what you are building and remind yourself of its importance every day. Celebrate the small victories, the milestones, and have gratitude each day for what you’ve already built, and what you’re working towards. 

View everything through the lens of problem solving – this will unblock you, your team, and will help you move faster. If you can embrace challenges and be in perpetual iteration mode – you’ll be able to experiment, learn, problem solve, and ultimately end up in a better place a lot faster. 

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams? 

Jes: Hire the smartest people out there. Focus on hiring people who are different from you, people who bring new strengths to the table. Identify the missing pieces in your organization, and hire people who fill the gap. Then, trust them to do good work and focus your time on unblocking them.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received? 

Jes: “If you try to be everything to everyone, you end up being nothing to no one.” I think this is so important when creating new products. It’s so easy to want to be everything to everyone. This advice is all about focus: be something really special to someone – pick a segment and build a magical product for that segment. Sure, others will be disappointed or left out or not get it, but you’ll have a key group of customers that love what you are doing, and you’ll have a guiding force to help you make product decisions. 

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward? 

Jes: Read Rebel Girls books to every little girl (and boy) you know! By the time girls are in the first grade, they think they are less smart and capable than boys. It’s our job to change that. For the girls in your life: support their aspirations, encourage their ambition, and cultivate their curiosity. Introduce them to women – both current and throughout history – who can serve as role models in their lives. 

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you? 

Jes: Spending time outdoors is the number one thing that grounds me, settles my mind and makes me feel connected to the world. I’m a big outdoor enthusiast. I love to climb mountains and ski down them. I love to surf, hike, bike and kayak – really, anything that gets me outside. I grew up swimming competitively, so I need strenuous physical activity to feel sane. Plus, when I’m in nature, I do my best thinking, I solve problems and I find the energy I need to get through the week.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share? 
Jes: Rebel Girls has a lot in the works — this fall (October 13th) we’re celebrating immigrant women in our newest book, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Immigrant Women Who Changed the World. We’re telling the stories of women like Rihanna, Madeleine Albright, Marjane Satrapi, Yuan Yuan Tan, and many more, some of whom our readers will be introduced to for the first time. We’re also getting ready to release the next season of our podcast, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, where we’ll be featuring stories about extraordinary immigrant women from the book, narrated by equally extraordinary women you’ll recognize from a variety of fields. We think this is our best book and the best podcast season that we’ve created. We hope you’ll tune in, listen, and read along.

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