Late last year, Erin Bagwell felt, yet again, validated.
She had taken a call with a male film executive to discuss expanding the distribution apparatus for Dream, Girl, her inspiring documentary about the rise of successful women entrepreneurs across fields like fashion and energy, investment and media. But he first talked down to her, as though she had no clue about how to connect her film to her intended audience. During the conversation, though, it became clear that the self-distribution system her team had designed was working, perhaps better than what professionals like him could even offer.
“It was a really hard journey to figure out what the hell we were doing. None of us had any idea,” remembers Bagwell from her home in New York. “To get on a call with someone who was trying to talk down to me about the process of a business I was running successfully was an exciting call to take. We are doing everything correct: We have our audience. We’re monetizing from this. We get all of our profits, and it goes directly to my team. So, how are you going to help?”
That self-sovereign spirit is a central tenet of Dream, Girl, which ties together the stories of women overcoming the odds in or their frustration with their industries to build their own businesses. With a host of collaborators, Bagwell candidly explores issues such as paid parental leave, pay equity, and the personal and professional motivation required to push forward independently in male-dominated fields.
On Wednesday, February 1, RTP will screen Dream, Girl at The Frontier, followed by a panel discussion featuring two women who run local companies: Carol Vercellino, CEO and co-founder of Oak City Labs, and Braden Rawls, CEO and co-founder of Vital Plan. For RTP, it’s the start of programming meant to foster an environment more supportive of women leadership and entrepreneurship, from the startups that populate The Frontier to much larger companies.
“We want to show that RTP is already a good area for women in business,” explains Michael Pittman, the vice president of marketing and communications at RTP. “But if we all get together, work on it, and make it a priority, the Triangle region could be an even better place for women in business–it can be something this area becomes known for.”
We spoke to Bagwell about the motivations behind Dream, Girl and what the film means right now:
You made Dream, Girl after leaving the corporate world and after having been frustrated by a glass ceiling and having a boss who harassed you and others. You took charge of your situation. For you, is that message the central lesson of Dream, Girl?
Our mission with Dream, Girl is that we don’t need permission to follow our dreams. Especially with women, we harbor these feelings of not being enough. We don’t have role models. We don’t have examples. We can’t push ourselves and see ourselves in these unknown spaces. We start the film off with a quote from Gloria Steinem that says, “Dreaming is a form of planning.” I truly believe that we’ve got to do a lot of dreaming to push ourselves forward.
Our mission is obviously to inspire people through the film, but something that’s moved me is the community that has happened around the film. I find that deeply impactful and cool. I am fortunate in New York: We have so many female founders, and, just being in the business, I have women I can call on. But not everybody has their tribe. People are still trying to find their support system, so Dream, Girl to me is that anchor. I want to be part of people’s tribes. I want to be part of their experience in the start-up world.
The film is personally inspiring and motivating. Watching it, I found myself wanting to take charge and wanting the same for others. But is there also a hope that Dream, Girl is politically motivating and that it can help spark discussions about pay equity, parental leave, and the like?
If we can spark any kind of empathy or interest in women’s experiences and their stories, whether that has to do with policy or not, as artists, we’ve done some good. We’ve had representatives from across the country watch the film, like the film, and be more open to women’s issues. They’re in that space where they’re hearing the dialogue. That’s a real high dream of ours, to be able to make global impacts. That starts through having empathy for women’s stories.
Dream, Girl’s feminism is very intersectional, with women of all ages and races and professions discussing their own experiences. That’s an important part of feminism’s mission right now. How important was it for you to make sure you got that right?
I’m drawn to diverse storytelling in general. Hearing about other people’s experiences adds a level of intrigue and curiosity for me. There’s something really powerful in getting out of your own skin and experiencing life through someone else’s eyes. That’s one of the joys of being a documentary filmmaker.
I wanted to make sure we included women of color’s stories. I also wanted it to be a bunch of different industries. Women get pigeonholed into fashion companies and more feminine-focused products, so I wanted to make sure we included STEM, 3D-printing, oil, and energy. Thankfully, we had so many incredible people to pick from. I tried to find people whose stories resonated with me, and I glued all these women together who I felt best expressed this very diverse rollercoaster of being an entrepreneur.
What issues most tied those stories together?
When we don’t support women in corporate environments to have basic, fundamental rights, it doesn’t surprise me that women are starting so many businesses and trying to do it on their own. When you look at stories of the glass ceiling, you can reach a pinnacle point where you can’t succeed and you can’t grow. Your ambition is being stunted. I heard that from a lot of our entrepreneurs. Women want to be able to thrive. When they’re not put in an environment where they’re not able to do so, they will move on, whether it’s to another company that supports them or whether they’re starting it themselves.
In some ways, it seems that women starting more businesses and being empowered to do so is a natural corrective to some of those problems, because they in turn take more control over such policies.
I hope that women starting businesses gives them the freedom to do so, but I would also love to live in a world where women don’t have to do that. To start your own business is a huge liability. It takes a lot of money. It is exhausting. It takes three years to find your sea legs. I would love to see bigger companies stepping forward and being industry leaders and saying we’re going to stand by women, give paid maternity leave, and we’re going to offer it to men as well. We’re going to set these systems so women don’t feel like they need to jump ship. We should be empowered to do whatever the hell we want, but I wish more industries would step up.
What’s the most inspiring reaction you’ve heard to Dream, Girl to date?
My favorite part of the feedback is when I get to talk to young women. I have gone to a lot of high school screenings. I have had moms and their daughters at screenings. When they tell me that I’m the first director they’ve ever met, it’s so cool because it allows me to step into a space where I can be a role model for someone. As a girl, thinking about the arts and thinking about video and being creative, I didn’t know the names of female directors. For me to be able to be that for somebody else is my favorite part.
You premiered this film in the summer of 2016, when many signs suggested that we’d soon have our first female president, Hillary Clinton. How does Donald Trump’s presidency impact the mood around and perception of the film?
After the election, we released the film for free for four days and had 15,000 people in eighty-one different countries watch it. That was our way to give back to the community, because we just felt so gutted by the results and everything that has happened. It has lit a fire under us to continue to push forward, to continue to work harder. Everyone wants women to be quiet now: “You lost. Back down.” I think, more than ever, were ready to stand up, and we’re ready to scream. I’m excited that we can use Dream, Girl as a platform to not only speak about women’s rights and policies but also share their stories.
Has it made the effort and message of this film more urgent for you?
It comes in waves of being super motivated and ready to go and then thinking you’re in shock when you realize that the most qualified candidate in our history lost to someone who has never held a job before outside of his own company. We screened Dream, Girl and premiered the film at The White House, and we have this quote at the end where a little girl says she wants to be president. It has so much hope and inspiration and love in it, and I remember thinking, “Are women going to need it? Or are we in a good place? How are we going to feel once we have a woman president?” Now, I look at the film with totally new eyes. These stories are so urgent. They’re so intense. The passion and the love is such a gift to receive now, because we’re in this time where hope feels few and far between.
On a day-to-do basis, how can women advocate for these changes, at work whether that means encouraging female entrepreneurship or workplace fairness?
The way we can transform any industry is by promoting and sharing the stories of minorities within that industry. Annie Wang [co-founder of 3D-printing company Senvol and a central Dream, Girl figure] says that, if we lack role models and we ourselves are not being the face of it, we’re not going to have any. Women who are in those positions, if they feel comfortable doing so, should be doing interviews, speaking up about their industries, talking, sitting on panels, asking to be a speaker. Sometimes we wait for people to tap us on the shoulder and say, “Hey, do you want this?” If we’re going to change the shape of those industries, we need to go out there and be the spokespeople. Then young women can say, “I see myself in her. I am going to walk that path.” It’s hard to be the only woman in the room, whether you’re in the tech industry or in finance. We have to be trailblazers. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes you don’t want to have to be the voice of a gender or a race, but we owe it to the women of the next generation. We owe it to the women who have fought for us to be there.