On Monday evening, the Yale School of Management and the New Haven chapter of Google entrepreneur community Startup Grind hosted Christene Barberich, co-founder and global Editor-in-Chief of women’s lifestyle site Refinery29.
During the event, Barberich spoke about building her 331 million audience members-strong business and raising $45 million in the latest round of funding in August, filling Refinery29’s coffers with a total of $125 million in capital since its founding in 2005. As well as discussing her journey growing Refinery29 from the ground up, Barberich also shared her experience as a female entrepreneur which often includes navigating more than 150 new stories each day across Refinery29’s media platforms.
Since founding the company with three other co-founders, Barberich has established Refinery29 as the premier online destination for every aspect of a woman’s lifestyle, retaining the candid voice and inspirational spirit unique to the website. She also highlighted the company’s international presence; Refinery29 has offices in Germany and London and has its sights set on Asia in the future.
“Christene’s story is incredibly inspirational; building a readership of 0 to 225 million subscribers and raising $125 million in capital is no mean feat,” said Startup Grind Connecticut State Director Adam Muniz, who interviewed Barberich at the fireside chat.
Jackson Zhu SOM ’17 described Barberich’s talk as the perfect opportunity to bring SOM closer to the wider Yale and New Haven startup communities. Zhu, a member of the SOM Entrepreneurial Club, explained that his organization was responsible for publicizing the event to SOM students and providing “on-the-ground support” on the evening of the event.
Fellow member of the SOM Entrepreneurial Club Anudeep Yegireddi SOM ’17 said that students, not only those interested in entrepreneurship, have a lot to learn from Barberich’s success in managing the increasing complexity that comes with scaling the size of a company.
Coming from a financially restricted background, Barberich said she always had jobs growing up and was eager to learn from any mentors she had. Prior to starting Refinery29, Barberich worked at The New Yorker when Tina Brown had just taken over the publication. Barberich described Brown as a “real editorial hero” who made historic changes at the magazine, setting the stage for what The New Yorker is today.
Barberich’s experiences at The New Yorker and Condé Nast informed her venture into a digital only publication.
“We like to provide a cross section of different storytelling formats, and we can credit new digital programming organizations like BuzzFeed and Vice that are trying new things,” she said. According to Barberich, Refinery29 was one of the first companies to produce infographics.
Beyond traditional media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, Barberich described Refinery29’s venture into Snapchat as a research-intensive operation that turned out to be a “fantastic” success story.
“Figuring out how to strategize in real time is such an important element in not just succeeding but finding your own way in the uncharted territories of digital,” she said.
Barberich cites Refinery29’s increasing of reader engagement, even 12 years on, as something she is proud of, as she said it is unusual for a company to grow in engagement over time. She said Refinery29’s success is built on its “peer-to-peer” personality that represents a departure from how magazines and newspapers speak to their audience. She added that this casual tone did not disqualify the value of information that was thoroughly researched, copy edited and from an authoritative space.
She also cited removing the negative and superficial stigma surrounding fashion as a key objective of Refinery29 as she does not believe that having an interest in fashion or beauty makes anyone less interested in politics and the economy.
“We don’t want to play up the stereotypes that people hate about [fashion], such as that it is only for the richest and thinnest in the world,” she said.
At the five-floor headquarters of Refinery29 in the financial district of New York City, she said, the company’s meeting rooms are named after Refinery29’s previous, less-glamorous offices as a reminder of how much progress the company has made. In the firm’s starting years, Barberich and her colleagues worked out of a basement.
Finally, she said the poaching situation in the fashion industry is fierce but added that it is important not to feel overwhelmed by the competitive, cut-throat nature of working in fashion and digital. In particular, Barberich described her disillusionment with other women during her ascent to success.
“When I think about how little encouragement I got from other women early on in my career who could’ve been my mentors but instead decided to be competitive, I realized that it comes from fear,” she said.
Correction, Dec. 8: A previous version of this article misstated stated the number of audience members Refinery29 has. It has 331 million, not 225 million. The article also incorrectly stated that the company would be expanding to Asia next year. It has no definitive plans to do so.