Eleven days ago I got a call that I never anticipated: Stephanie Meyers, my 37-year-old deputy at Fast Company and Inc., had died, inexplicably. Only days later would we learn part of an explanation: blood clots in her lungs.
My emotions have ranged since then from shock to shaken-up to recognition that I couldn’t quite process what happened—that someone so young, so vibrant, with such a bright future—was gone. I can hardly imagine what those closest to Steph—her father and brother and childhood friends—are going through.
I hired Steph and was her boss for the last seven years, but we were really colleagues, partners, and close friends. Working with Steph was one of the highlights of my career. Based on things many others have been saying about Steph, this will not come as a surprise to anyone.
She was exceptional. A former book and magazine editor, Steph led the social media strategy and growth for Inc. and Fast Company, which included editorial feeds but also promotion of events and subscriptions. She was a trusted and valued advisor across the company: to editorial, video, events, sales, consumer marketing, and product. She impressed editors with smart coverage suggestions, marketers with brilliant predictive models, and product managers with concise user stories. Without hesitation, she frequently logged in on weekends to post on social media if news broke. She led, managed, and mentored our audience development team. She complimented people a lot. She diplomatically and calmly handled sticky situations. She gracefully signed up and implemented new partnerships. She did unglamorous-yet-important things, without prompting or hesitation, like create a detailed spreadsheet to carefully track all syndication revenue. And she did all this while completing an MBA at New York University at night and on weekends.
Steph had recently told me she planned to leave her job, to shift out of media and into the tech industry, in early June. Though it was the last thing I wanted, I knew I had no choice but to wish her the best in this exciting transition, and hope that one day we’d work together again. But because of that, I got a chance to tell her many of the things I so appreciated about her (though they now feel pretty inadequate): How working with her was incredible, that she was so smart, an unusual combination of creative and analytical, and had a knack for marrying editorial ideas with data; that she was so dependable, productive, organized, and a wonderful manager and example for our team.
She was also the consummate planner. She let me know she was making the career change well ahead of time because she wanted to make it as easy as possible for me to plan ahead. When she fretted momentarily that maybe the early warning had inadvertently made things harder, I got to tell her I had so much respect for how she handled things.
As I’ve tried to make sense of what happened, I looked to Steph’s own wisdom, and reread the beautiful tribute she had given at her mother’s funeral and posted on Facebook on the 10-year anniversary of her mother’s death. (I also included it below, as her own sentiments say so much about the kind of person she was and how she faced terrible loss.) Like Steph when her mother died far too young, I somehow find myself trying to take from this awful tragedy some positive meaning.
While certainly nothing could make up for it, I do see some lessons from how Steph did things that I hope to carry with me and live by, to honor Steph’s memory, every day: to remain optimistic, even in the worst of circumstances (as she was when her mother died); to always be grateful (like she was for her family and lifelong friends); to be kind in small ways (like remembering birthdays or when someone could use a pick-me-up); to do the right thing when no one is looking (like make time for weekly one-on-ones with your direct reports); to be fiercely protective of your people (and make sure higher-ups don’t pile on way too much work); to know what you want and go after it (like a job in a new industry); to say exactly what you think, with a calm, even tone (even when you’re annoyed).
In the last year or so, because of the pandemic, I only saw Steph in person once, when I happened to be in the city and took her for an outdoor lunch. Our interaction had morphed into daily Zooms, calls, and emails, and what seemed like thousands of increasingly informal and off-the-cuff Slack messages a day (or night). At some point we’d started joking about one day creating a website together called SMAF.com, combining our initials. One of Steph’s last Slack messages to me was “SMAF Forever!”
Donations in memory of Stephanie Meyers can be made to Girls Write Now, a mentorship organization for underserved young women.
From Stephanie Meyers’s Facebook profile, July 2018
It’s so hard to believe that it will be 10 years tomorrow since losing my mom. I was trying to think of exactly what I could write that might capture that, and then realized that I had somehow, crazily, covered it all with what I said back at the funeral, so I’m just going to paste the entire speech below. For everyone who got the chance to know and love her, if you have any favorite stories (or awesome, beloved items that she convinced you to purchase), I would love to hear them.
I have a very clear memory, from when I was about eight or nine, of asking my mom whether she was an optimist or a pessimist, because I had just learned those words in school. She told me she was an eternal optimist—and since being like your mom wasn’t particularly cool, I immediately declared that I was a pessimist. She laughed and told me she didn’t think so. And of course, she was right. (Actually, she was always right . . . about everything. Seriously.) And in fact, one of her greatest gifts to me is a total inability to NOT see the silver lining. Because of her, in any situation, no matter how awful, I somehow find myself trying to find some positive meaning.
So although I can by no means call this a pleasant experience, in the spirit of my mother’s optimism, I want to share three positive things that I have gained from this terrible tragedy.
Over the past seven years, and more specifically over the past year, I have gotten a chance to see just how incredibly strong a woman my mother was. For many years, I mistakenly thought she was JUST a great mom. I know now that she was also many other things, including an incredible fighter with willpower beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Considering what my mother was able to do, with cancer, while on chemo, often in a hot, itchy wig—like getting two kids through high school and college, going on wonderful vacations (planned around her chemo schedule), organizing fundraisers, putting up with my dad’s often repeated jokes, and listening to my problems, and her friends’ problems, and always offering the right advice—if she was able to be as caring, generous, helpful, and energetic as she was under all those circumstances, then I have no excuses.
I have also been astounded and grateful for the amount of kindness and thoughtfulness we’ve seen, not just from friends but from acquaintances and strangers alike. We have truly been blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful people. In a world where we constantly hear about terrible things that people have done, it is heartening to me to have such overwhelming evidence of human goodness.
But most importantly, my mom’s illness has given me the chance to get to know many of you, her amazing friends, in a way that I never otherwise would have. And I have learned so much more about my mom through knowing you. The phrase “best friends” carries a different meaning for me now, having seen the endless love and constant support that you all provided throughout. You are all extraordinary individuals, and we could not have gotten this far without you.
And seeing my mom’s amazing friends has in turn made me truly appreciate how lucky I am to have many equally incredible friends in my own life (although I hope my children someday get to know them all under very different circumstances!)
I wish I could trade back all of this knowledge for a different ending to my mom’s story, but since that’s unfortunately not an option, I hope instead that I am able to use everything that I have learned, from my mother, from all of you, and from others who aren’t here today, to be a kinder, more thoughtful, more generous, and more compassionate person. In fact, even if it’s still not cool to say so, my greatest hope for myself is to be just like my mom.
Toward that end, if my mom were here now, I know that she would want to thank you all so much for coming, and ask how you’re holding up and if there was anything she could do. So in her place, please let me thank you for being here with us today, and offer my hope that beyond just grief at her far-too-early death, my mother’s life has also provided you with a silver lining of hope, inspiration, a sense of optimism, and a belief in the goodness of others.
Allison Fass is vice president, digital growth, at Inc. and Fast Company