I was recently asked to talk with Wellesley Underground, a website run by alumnae of Wellesley College. Its goal, to "highlight the myriad of alumnae experiences," dovetails nicely with our own mission to share the stories of women with diverse career paths and backgrounds. I had a great time talking with them about some of my inspirations for Girls Like You and Me, Wellesley memories, and what it's been like starting this exciting new chapter!
Julia Collins ‘05 is a Jeopardy! champion and founder of Girls Like You and Me, a platform highlighting stories of women working in fields and jobs they’re excited about. Check out the interview between Hoi-Fei Mok ‘10, WU managing editor, and Julia below.
WU: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Julia! What inspired you to create your new website, Girls Like You And Me?
I’ve never known what I wanted to do with my life, and after I was on Jeopardy, I had a lot of people asking me, “What comes next?” It forced me to think more critically about what I wanted to be doing. I thought asking other women how they got a handle on it was a way to turn that lack of direction into something productive.
A strange element to all the attention I got from Jeopardy was how people seemed to find it odd or unusual that a woman would be recognized for being smart. I know so many smart, interesting women; how could people be surprised by that? I realized that it was because I just happened to be very visible, while so many other women aren’t. I also realized I have an easier time naming women from the past who have worked in many fields (like the sciences) than contemporary ones, or that contemporary women I know about are often Baby Boomers or older. Those women have wonderful, valuable stories to share, but also often came up in work environments that don’t exist anymore, for better or worse. I wanted to put smart, interesting, contemporary women in the spotlight.
In developing my vision for the project, I kept coming back to two quotes. One is from Katharine Graham, owner of The Washington Post, who said, “To love what you do and feel that it matters-- how could anything be more fun?” That’s the dream, isn’t it? But I had questions about that: How does anyone find something that hits that sweet spot? What kind of work do they do? Do girlhood interests carry into adulthood?
The other one might be familiar to anyone who was a student around the same time I was (from 2001-2005), since it was on the homepage during those years. It’s from Lynn Sherr’s 1999 commencement speech: “If anyone, ever, should ask whether you know your place, the answer, of course, is yes: My place is everywhere.” Maybe it was seeing it probably a thousand times, but I internalized that message. And I thought that having women tell their own stories was a great way to show that women’s place is everywhere.
I was also very inspired by projects like Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and Rookie. “Change the world by being yourself” is just an incredible motto. But, I also thought, what about the girls and young women who are at loose ends as to how to do that, especially as they’re considering what comes after high school? How do you figure out how to channel that energy and enthusiasm?
WU: Who have you featured so far on the site and how might alums get involved?
I’ve featured 25 women who have all kinds of jobs, including a farmer, a financial planner, professors, a programmer, an entomologist, and a few Wellesley alums, like Monica Byrne ’03, Kelly Suzanne Saulsberry ’00, Lizy Dastin ’05, and Beth Merfish ‘05.
Not surprisingly, Wellesley women have been instrumental in helping me get Girls Like You and Me off the ground, lending an ear and giving feedback in the planning stages, being interview subjects, and very generously connecting me with women in their own circles, and that is invaluable to the success of the project. (Also credit goes to Monica Verma ’03 for her invaluable brainstorming input.)
Highlighting women of diverse backgrounds as well as diverse careers is central to my mission. I’m interested in diversity just about any way it can be described: race and ethnicity, religion, geography, family background and structure, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, career path, type of work, and anything else I haven’t mentioned. My primary criteria are: 1) liking what you do and 2) having enough work experience that you know your field but are closer to mid-career than late-career. If you know a woman who loves what she does, please email me at Julia@girlslikeyouandme.com!
WU: Where would you like to see Girls Like You And Me go in the future?
I originally planned to do a podcast and it’s evolved in a different direction. But I’d love to add a podcast. I have rich, interesting, pretty long conversations that I would love to share. I have to condense them down to a readable length, but it cuts out some of the energy and spark the women I interview bring.
Ultimately, I want Girls Like You and Me to grow enough to be a resource for girls and young women that functions as a searchable database where a girl could say, “I love to sing and write and perform. What kinds of jobs could I do?” Or, “I want to do something in STEM that isn’t science. What are some jobs people can do?” And have a range of stories to look to.
WU: You did a TEDx talk last year about gender and achievement. Tell us more about this experience!
I was invited to speak at a local TEDx Women event. I’ve given talks that were more narrative about my experience on Jeopardy: how I got on the show, what it was like being on TV, etc. The TEDx talk was a good opportunity to talk about some of the ways I was perceived and treated very differently from male contestants on the show by the media and the general public. I experienced every type of sexism- that I was successful solely due to luck or favoritism, that I wasn’t very smart, that I was overly ambitious and greedy, that what I was wearing was a factor in my success, that I wasn’t the “perfect female champion.” (Sound familiar?)
It was great to have a forum to address that sexism, especially after having about a year to process the experience. I had done dozens of interviews, but it was different to feel totally in control of the message I was putting out.
WU: It’s been two years since you became a Jeopardy champion. How is life post-Jeopardy nowadays?
It’s great! It’s different. Jeopardy! gave me a chance to think more critically about what I wanted to do with myself, without feeling like I needed to find a new job immediately because I was worried about money. That’s a luxury I never imagined I’d have, and I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to do this. Some people are able to do that critical thinking while working, but I never managed it.
WU: What are your most memorable Wellesley moments?
Sledding with my friends during wintersession my senior year. We had tons of snow; it was quiet on campus; and no one had that much work to do.
Another was working at reunion my junior year. The alum experience didn’t mean a lot to me until I saw reunion in action. And going to my own reunions have certainly been some of my happiest Wellesley memories.
WU: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered so far in your journey?
I never knew what I wanted to do, and trying to figure that out has been very challenging. I tend to think if I don’t like something or that I’m not interested in it that I should just learn more about it, which has its upsides. But I eventually also felt like I had invested too much time and money to switch gears. Trying to figure out what I’m good at and what I can do with that have been the biggest challenges.
With Girls Like You and Me, it’s been a tie becoming a better self-promoter and figuring out a balance between what I can do myself, what I should outsource, and what I should put on hold for now.
WU: Running your own site is a big deal! What do you do for your self-care?
I’m still trying to figure out the balance and establish a routine. I’m naturally a night owl and I end up working at weird hours, so I don’t feel like I shut off work at the end of the day, which is a little bit like being in school again. But the flip side of that is that I can take advantage of things I want to do during the day, and get outside for a walk and some fresh air when I get stir-crazy. I love the conversations I have with the women who contribute to Girls Like You and Me, but I’m usually mentally exhausted by the time I hang up the phone, so I like to step away from my desk for a little while afterward.
WU: Any last thoughts for our alum readers?
Trust yourself. I ask everyone I interview for advice, and although the words differ from person to person, they almost all boil down to that same idea. Pursuing a career path to please someone else doesn’t work long-term. At the same time, if you think you want one thing and you’re not feeling it, sometimes a “pivot” or “a yes in a different direction” (to quote two of the women I’ve talked to) might be all it takes to find your niche. You probably do love numbers or teaching or whatever it is, you just haven’t landed on the right way to do that for you yet. It may take a while for things to click, but when it does, it’s worth the wait.