Alex Wolf is the 23-year-old founder and CEO of Bossbabe Inc., a members-only online community for millennial women looking to build their own business online. At 19, Wolf dropped out of Berkeley and parlayed her Internet obsession into a job as a self-taught social media coach. Soon, she was making $100 an hour helping others build their online brands. In late 2014, she launched the Bossbabe Academy to share her entrepreneurial learnings with other women looking to eschew the debt and time commitment of a four-year degree in favor of financial independence. Now she has a growing membership willing to shell out $10 a month to join her "girl gang."
Members get access to a highly curated treasure trove of career advice, tips for growing a business from the ground up, valuable contacts, and moral support. "I’ve had girls say, ‘This is more important than what I learned in all my marketing classes,’" Wolf says. Bossbabe now boasts a social media following of close to a quarter of a million people, and a subscriber base that grows by 30% every month. With her next venture, Project Think, Wolf will coach big brands on speaking "millennial" without sounding like a tone-deaf outsider. Fast Company asked Wolf about what millennial women want from work, life, and the brands that so desperately want to get their attention.
Fast Company: Alex, what has your community taught you about what millennial women want from their careers?
Alex Wolf: I think a lot of millennial women today are craving creative space. That’s not to say the women prior to us didn’t want that. But the work culture was completely different then. Now, because of the Internet, it’s opened up this whole new war chest where more creativity is allowed, there’s more of an ability to actually be yourself. A lot of the time in corporate America, you have to fit into the company’s agenda or take away part of your personality to be a part of a bigger brand, right? But millennial women, especially seeing the YouTube stars and social media stars, it’s always constantly in front of us that, wow, we want to be part of this movement of people who can inspire other people online. I’m deeply into that world.
It’s part of why Bossbabe is so much about personal branding. We see a demand among women to figure out how to become this online personality where there’s a mixture of actual love for what they’re doing and genuine value they’re giving to people in exchange for money. This is the first time this has been able to happen on such an individual level, and it’s so irresistible. Imagine your own online world where people want to hear what you have to say. There’s so much validation in social media. Millennials get a bad rap for being obsessed with "likes," but it’s a way for the world to say, "Hey, I want to hear what you have to say."
Do the women you work with want something different from their work/life balance, as well?
What represented freedom to our parents represents traps to us. Like a corporate job, a house, a mortgage, a car payment. Millennials hear that and want to run in the other direction. We want the exact opposite. We want the ability to work from anywhere. We’re all about the Airbnb culture and the "I’ll pay for this when I need it" culture. So, I think the dream millennials are these "online-preneurs" who get to travel to Egypt and Greece and Japan and still get paid very well and also have an audience of people who are excited to watch them. That’s the thrill right now. That’s the most desired lifestyle.
You dropped out of Berkeley after deciding it wasn’t going to give you the life you wanted. Is college still a key part of career advancement and fulfillment for millennial women?
What makes Bossbabe different is that we’re not ignoring this pink elephant in the room that the traditional higher education system is painfully outdated and misaligned with a lot of what most millennials want in their life. And this is a taboo topic still for a mainstream audience, and I think why Bossbabe took off is because we aren’t afraid to say, "Hey we know you feel confused and can’t reach out to your parents and say you’re considering taking a year off," or even to your friends, because there’s a peer pressure there. It’s an outdated system and it’s not aligned with what the millennial person, the millennial woman, wants.
I noticed this was a real thing for young women and there wasn’t a lot of space to talk about it. When I was going through it personally, I didn’t have a place to talk about it. My dad refused to talk to me for a while because I didn’t go to school. That was really hard on me emotionally. I’m not anti-college, but I am anti-pressuring really young people in a transitional time in the economy and the job market to sign up for and commit to what’s almost like a marriage. It’s like you’re signing a huge contract saying you’ll pay all this money, and you don’t even know what the next big thing is going to be in social media or business or otherwise. Do you want to spend $50 grand on something you might want to do in five years? Is there space for me to say "I don’t know"? Bossbabe is a space for support.
Your new venture, Project Think, will consult big brands on how to advertise to millennials. But do millennials, and particularly millennial women, want to be advertised to?
Yes, when it’s done right. Part of the Internet and the amazingness of it is there’s a whole new level of inbound marketing that is waiting to be discovered. I definitely think a lot of people are doing it wrong. Here’s a little story that’s relevant: At Bossbabe, we had a billion-dollar company contact us and buy ads with us. And the ads they wanted us to post, my team member had to explain to them why it wasn’t going to work. And this is a billion-dollar company. I’m sure they’re paying a marketing team very well, but we literally came up with their ads for them to post on our platform. It ended up doing really well, but this has happened more than once, and it’s part of the reason why I’m doing my new thing now, Project Think. I’m starting to realize how much money is being thrown away.
You use a lot of memes on Bossbabe. How do you think brands can tap into web culture to reach millennials now?
There’s a counter-language being created via the Internet. That’s nothing new, right? Ever since LOL burst, there’s been this cyber language used. But I think it’s being taken to another level. We’re seeing it in advertising and using it in day-to-day communication. Language is changing, and it’s being fueled by meme culture. I would feel that by default, advertisers, marketers, people need to start paying attention to this because we’re in a world of communication. That’s what marketing is. It’s being able to efficiently communicate a message to the other side. If we use language like "Netflix and chill" or "#BlackTwitter," or whatever, those are the things that should be implemented in ads in general, because it’s a form of communication now that’s becoming normalized.
But don’t companies run the risk of sounding tone deaf?
It’s not an easy thing. It moves really fast. It’s funny because the brand that contacted us, the ads they gave us weren’t far off, but were a month and a half off of trendiness. And that’s the scary part. A lot of these systems, by time they figure out 'this is cool right now', Twitter is already talking about something else. So, I think the trick is gonna be, how do we really stay on top of trends, if not create trends? It’s not being afraid to start trends, not be afraid to understand that the Internet is creating a really fast cultural current. Either you figure out how to ride it, or you drown.