How Pizza Parties Inspired Ann Shoket’s ‘Big Life’

How Pizza Parties

Inspired Ann Shoket’s ‘Big Life’

Cover photo courtesy of Krista Schlueter

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Since its launch in 1944, Seventeen has been a beacon of inspiration for teens looking for life advice. When journalism veteran Ann Shoket took the helm of the publication in 2007, it was a time when reality TV and social media had begun their mesmerizing hold on millennial women, creating new standards of perfection and beauty. Shoket, author of The Big Life: Embrace the Mess, Work Your Side Hustle, Find a Monumental Relationship, and Become the Badass Babe you Were Meant to be, embraced an inclusive voice to uplift her readers rather than reinforce stereotypes. She is known for creating “CosmoGIRL! Born to Lead” patch program with The Girl Scouts, launching a national leadership campaign with The White House Project, and even put one of her readers on the cover of the magazine. Shoket spoke to SWAAY about her journey to the top at Seventeen and her continued crusade to empower young women.

1. What did you want to be when you grew up?

All I wanted to do was move to New York City and be a writer, but I got out of school and had this terrible realization that there were no jobs. I thought I’d be a novelist but it sounded very lonely and like I’d never get paid. So I got a job at American Lawyer Magazine, where I would check commas and ampersands. Let’s just say, it was nobody’s dream job, but two important things happened there:

1. It was the beginning of digital.

2. The journalist Steve Brill (founder of American Lawyer) turned out to be this legendary journalist. He created the magazine, a series of newspapers, Court TV and an online service for attorneys, was one of the first to create multi-platform content. He zeroed in on what was important to a group of people and delivered it to them.

2. You became executive editor of CosmoGIRL! in 1999. What was your goal at the time?

I realized how meaningful it would be to have conversations with young women about becoming the women they were meant to be. Every so often they ask me how to get a career that is also your passion. I say get a job, any job – you won’t find it if you wait. I didn’t know that I would be interested in talking to young women about growing up, but it was a very meaningful part of my life. I spent eight years at CosmoGIRL! where I got to pitch stories, in order to become editor-in-chief for Seventeen.

3. Tell us about your pitching process.

By the time I got the call to pitch for Seventeen, I was really confident. Here’s how you know you will get the job: when the clothes you wear for the interview are already in the closet. I was wearing Gucci stilettos, a razor sharp pencil shirt, and a fitted boiled wool blazer. It was all black DVF and it was killer. Despite the fact that I had the idea I could run a major magazine, it takes a long time to become that person, to get that confidence. You must have a bigger vision of what you can do in the world. You can’t just wave your wand and fast-forward to being a rockstar CEO rolling in the money. Every step along the way is important.

4. What was it like being the editor-in-chief for such an iconic teen publication?

I was the editor-in-chief for almost eight years and it was my job to make it as important to this generation of young women as it had been to others. Seventeen is this iconic 70-plus-year-old brand, but now I have to make it make sense to a new generation. In 2007, it was the year of Lauren Conrad. Everyone wanted to be blonde and drive through Southern California, having drama with their friends. Everybody assumed they would be successful and rich, and they didn’t think they had to work hard for it, but then the recession happened. Instead of feeling smaller, an entire generation of women got mobilized and decided to take their lives into their own hands. The rug was pulled out from under these young women and they came into their own.

Here we are with a new dynamic for how women work and it’s a generation who’s rewriting the rules for themselves.

5. You made some major changes at Seventeen in voice and direction, can you share what they were?

When I came on, I re-positioned the magazine to say ‘it’s fun to be 17’ and it was. That was the year we were shopping and we had Chanel and Marc Jacobs on the cover and we were telling girls they should buy Dolce & Gabbana purses. It was a moment of affluence in our country and girls wanted to have a great time so that’s how I positioned the magazine. Then when the recession happened, we all retrenched and I [started covering issues like finance and career] because young women needed to know how to handle their money. There was a more serious tone.

One of my trademarks as an editor is that I take young women very seriously. I never saw them as different from me. I feel like they are my best friends and the things they are concerned about matter. And so we launched really important, substantive, thought-provoking initiatives. We talked about body image, this new idea of YouTube stars and how powerful they are, girl power and it what means to be successful and how that was changing. I put a reader on the cover because we had moved so far away from celebrities being the people we look up to. It was real girls we looked up to. So, it was my job to interpret what was happening in the world for this audience and to make this the magazine that this generation needed.

6. In terms of digital, what was the strategy?

We prioritized our website and we created a lot of digital content. We were the first magazine on Snapchat. We have a massive Instagram and Facebook following, and they were core to the DNA of the brand. I would always say when young women would come to me telling me that their parents told them not to go into the magazine business, that your job as an editor is to have a conversation with young women. It doesn’t matter if that conversation is in print, if it’s on a website, or if it’s on a social media feed. Your job is to figure out how to do that. When I was there the website reported to me and we held hands and walked down the path together. We were both growing in the same direction.

7. Can you speak a little about what your goals were after you left.

When you’re the editor-in-chief of a magazine, everyone just assumes you are going to write a book. Everyone would say to me: ‘what are you going to write about?’ When I left Seventeen, I knew I had something to say to young women about their future. This was a generation of women who had grown up with me. I wanted to help them move to the next stage of their lives. I didn’t understand why we had been having these deep emotional conversations about becoming the person you wanted to be, and then when your subscription ended or you turned 20 years old, those conversations ended. Nobody was taking their emotional lives as seriously as I was. And so, I started a series of dinners.

When I started to put the book together I thought there were things I didn’t know. I didn’t get to talk about grown-up relationships and sex so much when I was at Seventeen so I wanted to ask some young women over.  I made a killer cheese plate, opened a lot of bottles of wine, put in fancy frozen pizzas and we sat down to talk with seven young women who were around my dining room table. We spoke about relationships for about five minutes and then the rest of the conversation was about ambition, how the idea of work is different than your parents’, sisterhood, and the things that keep you up at three o’clock in the morning. We talked about the pressure to be perfect and to hide your struggles so much that it becomes self-destructive. After that first dinner I thought ‘this is so powerful and so meaningful’ and I have to do it again, and so I did. And over the course of two years, I had over two dozen dinners and I’m still doing them. I host different women each time, but the formula is the same.

8. Are there any themes you noticed from the conversations?

I asked the same question at the beginning of every dinner: If I could solve one problem for you what would it be? And so of all the hundreds of women who’ve been at my house, only four to five questions would come out of it: How do I find a career that is also my passion? How do I get respect from my bosses who think of me a lazy, entitled young woman? How do I find a partner who honors my ambition? Will I have to take my foot off the gas of my career if I have a family? Will all this trouble be worth it? One of the takeaways for me is that what millennial women are going through and the the way they are crafting their lives now for the first times is phenomenally important for all of us to continue to remember. It’s a time when we are being asked to prepare for careers and lives that are more unpredictable than we had expected.

9. Please tell us how the book materialized.

I knew very early that the [content from the dinners] would become a book, but the part I didn’t know is how the rest of the platform would evolve. I launched The Badass Babes newsletter because I wanted to connect dinner 1 and dinner 7. The dinners became a thing and now I have a guide on my website where everyone can do their own dinners with their own friends and I will Skype in if I can. In regards to the book, it took me about a year to figure out what I wanted to say. I had to do my research, I had to talk to a lot of women. It took about five minutes to sell the book, and then it took me nine months to write it. And now for the last couple of months I’ve been really focused on building the platform– the newsletter, social media and I’m speaking and bringing The Big Life to various companies. I am looking to make it bigger.

10. What is your future goal for The Big Life?

This is the thing that needs to be said to young women. This is the conversation they want to have. What I’ve been so rewarded by is how hungry everyone is for real life human interaction. We spend our days on a news feed that fills us with [information overload]. You don’t even know where it’s coming from anymore, you don’t even know what you’re reading. People want to share a moment with other women who see the world they do and who are struggling with the same things they are. And that is the core of The Big Life and The Badass Babes. I come from big media and I have big plans for rolling this out.

11. What is one thing you would want people to know about millennials?

This generation of young women is made up of game-changing rockstar pioneers rewriting the rules of work and life and love for everyone. Yet they get hung up on some very old ideas of the way things should go. People still walk into my house and they still say that 30 is the deadline by which they should have the big job and the partner and the baby plan all sorted out. They also see having a big family and a career simultaneously as a competition with each other, rather than seeking solutions for how to make that happen. Though they are making great strides in changing the way work works, they feel less empowered in their personal lives to make those same changes.

12. Any thoughts on the future of media?

I have been most interested in media businesses that have a real-world component to them. I spoke at Beautycon last year and I was amazed by the connection the audience had with the YouTube stars and the bloggers and how important that was to them. It’s amazing how you can build a whole business around making that human connection. That kind of connection we used to feel around traditional media brands is moving to a new place. I would never talk down the big brands. They have a lot of resources and a lot of people working on solving the giant problems of the future, but right now that’s the corner of the world that I think is the most interesting and dynamic.

Belisa Silva

Belisa is an editor with more than 10 years of experience. Prior to SWAAY, she worked as freelance writer, covering lifestyle, fashion and beauty industries. Belisa was a Market Editor at Women's Wear Daily for five years, where she interviewed rockstar business women like Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez and Iman. Belisa also contributes to Cosmetic Executive Women, where she highlights female executives making an impact in the beauty industry.

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