I Don't Know How You Do It

How to Empower Women and Girls with Nell Merlino

June 20, 2023 Jessica Fein Season 1 Episode 22
How to Empower Women and Girls with Nell Merlino
I Don't Know How You Do It
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I Don't Know How You Do It
How to Empower Women and Girls with Nell Merlino
Jun 20, 2023 Season 1 Episode 22
Jessica Fein

Any great movement requires not only the ability to generate creative ideas but also the skill of mobilizing people around those ideas and bringing them to life. How do you do that?

Introducing Nell Merlino, a creative catalyst and trailblazer who has dedicated her life to advocating for women's empowerment and raising visibility and recognition of women and girls' contributions. With an impressive track record of mobilizing people and ideas, Nell brought Take Our Daughters to Work Day to life, reaching an astonishing 25 million people worldwide. As the founder of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, she also facilitated women's access to billion-dollar financing, grants, contracts, and markets. Nell's current project, Crown Quest, further amplifies women's achievements by creating beautiful visual tributes to their influence and impact.

In this episode, you'll learn:

  • The first step in taking an idea from theory to reality
  • How inspiration can be found in unexpected places
  • Why we have to recognize our own value
  • What it means to be a lioness
  • The power of being able to read a room

Learn more about Nell here.

Rate, Review, & Follow on Apple Podcasts

"This is my go-to podcast for inspiration and to discover new approaches to embrace the challenges in my life." If that sounds like you, please consider rating and reviewing my show! This helps me reach more people -- just like you -- find strategies and insights to do the things that feel undoable. Click here, scroll to the bottom, tap to rate with five stars, and select “Write a Review.” Then be sure to let me know what you loved most about the episode!

Also, if you haven’t done so already, follow the podcast. Follow now!

Sign up for my newsletter and learn more about these remarkable stories at www.jessicafeinstories.com

Order Jessica's memoir, Breath Taking: A Memoir of Family, Dreams, and Broken Genes

Music credit: Limitless by Bells

Show Notes Transcript

Any great movement requires not only the ability to generate creative ideas but also the skill of mobilizing people around those ideas and bringing them to life. How do you do that?

Introducing Nell Merlino, a creative catalyst and trailblazer who has dedicated her life to advocating for women's empowerment and raising visibility and recognition of women and girls' contributions. With an impressive track record of mobilizing people and ideas, Nell brought Take Our Daughters to Work Day to life, reaching an astonishing 25 million people worldwide. As the founder of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, she also facilitated women's access to billion-dollar financing, grants, contracts, and markets. Nell's current project, Crown Quest, further amplifies women's achievements by creating beautiful visual tributes to their influence and impact.

In this episode, you'll learn:

  • The first step in taking an idea from theory to reality
  • How inspiration can be found in unexpected places
  • Why we have to recognize our own value
  • What it means to be a lioness
  • The power of being able to read a room

Learn more about Nell here.

Rate, Review, & Follow on Apple Podcasts

"This is my go-to podcast for inspiration and to discover new approaches to embrace the challenges in my life." If that sounds like you, please consider rating and reviewing my show! This helps me reach more people -- just like you -- find strategies and insights to do the things that feel undoable. Click here, scroll to the bottom, tap to rate with five stars, and select “Write a Review.” Then be sure to let me know what you loved most about the episode!

Also, if you haven’t done so already, follow the podcast. Follow now!

Sign up for my newsletter and learn more about these remarkable stories at www.jessicafeinstories.com

Order Jessica's memoir, Breath Taking: A Memoir of Family, Dreams, and Broken Genes

Music credit: Limitless by Bells


Jessica Fein: Welcome. I'm Jessica Fein, and this is the I Don’t Know How You Do It podcast, where we talk to people whose lives seem unimaginable from the outside and dive into how they're able to do things that look undoable. I'm so glad you're joining me on this journey and I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Welcome back to the show. You might not know my guest today by name, but you’ve definitely have seen her impact. Nell Merlino is an iconic change maker. Her gift is her ability to capture cultural moments and create movements that make women and girls more visible, valued, and heard. Nell is the force behind take our Daughters to Work Day, which has mobilized 25 million girls and countless businesses over the [00:01:00] years.

She's also the catalyst and founder of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, where she helped mobilize global companies like American Express and Walmart, and people like Hillary Clinton and Susie Orman to help women business owners across the country and around the globe gain access to billions of dollars in financing grants, contracts, and customers.

Nell's latest project, crown Quest captures the impact of these movements in collage portraits of women and girls who are leaving their marks on the world. Nell is a powerhouse and I am so excited for you to meet her. Without further ado, here's Nell Merlino. 

Welcome Nell. Thank you for being with us today.

Nell Merlino: Thank you. I'm so happy to see you. 

Jessica Fein: You have been called a lot of amazing things. You've been called a creative catalyst, an iconic leader, an expert on women's empowerment. A trailblazer, I think I would feel great if I were called. [00:02:00] one of those things.

Nell Merlino: Living long is one good way to get all those names. 

Jessica Fein: So I guess there's still time for me if I start quickly. 

Nell Merlino: Yes. 

Jessica Fein: You're somebody who not only has groundbreaking ideas, but knows how to mobilize people. And bring those ideas to life. And I'm fascinated by that because I think there are probably a lot of people who in the course of their day might think, you know what would be a great idea? And then they go about their day and they don't really think much more about that idea.

And there are other people who are handed at idea and who have the skills to figure out how to make it work and to find somebody who excels at both of those things. That's where the magic happens.

Nell Merlino: Very astute on your part.  

Jessica Fein: Let’s go back 30 years to the first take our daughters to Work Day, and I will tell you that in my career I have, as a mother participated many times in this event, and so I'd love to hear from you.

How was that idea born?

Nell Merlino:[00:03:00] It came out of a request from Gloria Steinem's organization, the MS Foundation for Women, cuz Gloria had founded Ms. Magazine and the Ms Foundation in around a similar timeframe. And the foundation was giving money to women's organizations and organizations that helped girls. And they were working with Carol Gilligan, the psychologist, who had just done a book called In A Different Voice, which was about girls' loss of self-esteem as they entered adolescence.

They asked me to think of a campaign that would mobilize people to help girls not lose their self-esteem. I was engaged at the time in a campaign to reignite people's awareness about H I V and AIDS. It was the 10th year of the AIDS epidemic. They had seen a campaign that I was running in New York City and had gotten a lot of press coverage on the cover of a lot of newspapers and, you know, television.

So, They wanted to create that kind of energy around this, helping girls stay present in their lives. I will never forget it, they gave me a carton of research and [00:04:00] proposals that they'd gotten from dozens of New York PR firms. I read them all, and they were all kind of similar, you know, it was a very standard sort of PR approach.

And I sat there trying to imagine calling television producers or magazine editors. I mean, there were all kinds of indicators about this drop in self-esteem in terms of at that time, the rate of teen pregnancy, the rate of suicide among girls. Maybe you get 'em to do a story, but after that it's like, oh, you know, because you would end up with the same hopelessness.

Yeah. Like, oh, what do we do about this? And I was on the subway in New York. I was thinking about what would change this. And as I am thinking about it on the train, it's three o'clock and in New York at three o'clock, trains get full of kids. Because they're coming home from school. And I remember having a moment of thinking what would happen if adults saw their future workforce, like we are seeing them entering the train.

So that was the first inkling that I had of this notion of putting girls in place where we did not expect to see them. And then, I [00:05:00] mean, the final thing was I went to my father's retirement dinner after his 40 years in public service and had this whole experience of seeing all the people I had met as a girl who had influenced my life, who were also influences or colleagues or constituents.

My father was in politics, so it was an extraordinary evening. I went home from that dinner and wrote a five page proposal. It was called Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Gloria Steinem months later changed it to take Our Daughters to Workday, to take into account either people who don't have daughters or to foment this notion that we have a collective responsibility to girls.

I think there are a lot of things that have changed as a result of that. And I think the biggest thing is that there is not a sector of the economy where women do not work. And when we started there were plenty of sectors where you couldn't find many or of any women it came from. Where could we show up?

Where we would get a different kind of attention, where we would not be overwhelmed with their cuteness because you always are. But to [00:06:00] go beyond that. To go beyond their looks. I mean, when you've objectified half the population for thousands of years, how do you start to shift that objectification into an understanding that they are valuable creative beings who are as important to society as any boy or man, and that is what started to happen.

Jessica Fein: fWere you surprised that first year to see how it took off?

Nell Merlino: Two reactions. Gloria took me to an extraordinary meeting of what was then the seven Sister magazine editors. Who were all in Chanel suits, hairdos, the likes of which none of us wear anymore, but I mean just dressed to the nines. And Gloria did not dress like that cuz she knew how to dress cuz she was one of them.

And they all looked up to her. Many of them had worked for her at Ms. Magazine. And so we go to this meeting, one of the things I remember that was just so funny, I mean the chairs were tiny, they were these little, you know, like gold filagree chairs. I remember thinking my ass is not gonna fit in that chair.

These women are all so [00:07:00] tiny. But here we are. She really understood sort of how to mobilize them and get them to appreciate that this was a story for their readers. And it certainly was; they all committed that day. And then we start to get television. I have reporters showing up, you know, national news reporters showing up.

One of them calls me up, Wyatt Andrews, and he essentially says, Are you doing Take Your Daughter to Work Day because the women's movement has failed? I'm really thinking actually, no, but an interesting perspective. He thought, you know, we had failed and we talked and he said, I'm coming to interview you.

So he comes and we have an extraordinary thing. He turns out to have two daughters. He turns up being the local guy in his community telling parents how to participate because as soon as he hears why, he's like, oh, of course. And, and starts to do it. So it was my realization that the media had really understood it.

The editorial we got in Esquire magazine in February. I remember I opened the magazine, everybody had gone home, had a team of about seven or eight, and I was going through the media for the day [00:08:00] and I looked at this editorial in Esquire magazine and I relaxed at a level that I will never forget. I remember thinking, we don't have to promote this another minute.

The clarity of the editorial and what he was saying, there was an extraordinary quote translated from Swahili. About the daughters of Lions being lionesses and that they were as powerful and as important, and that what happened to girls is that when they get to the age where this ferocity and sensuality, and he doesn't say it like this, that it starts to come out.

We are shut down, hence why we get depressed. It is all shut down because it's not allowed. And it is allowed in boys. Boys are allowed to be boys. We don't even know what it means for girls to be girls. And I think we are starting to understand, rather than saying that, that's a bad phrase, how about if we start to understand what it means for girls to be girls as they turn into creative [00:09:00] sexual beings in the world as opposed to all the fear, understandably, and safety and wanting to protect them.

And that man understood that. And I remember going woo, and I did. I relaxed in a way that I, you know, whoa. I'd done enough events. You can feel the energy going outta your feet. I did. I thought, oh, okay. Okay. We've done that part. I was overwhelmed the day of. I mean, early on watching television, it makes me wanna cry.

I know. By 6:30 in the morning there were girls on every television network doing the weather. Sitting next to dad, sitting with my, just crazy stuff. Crying. I am in bed because as a political event producer, there was always a location. There was no location for this. Where do you go? You told everybody to do it.

Where do you go? The Today Show was full of people. The head of the Ms. Foundation, Marie Wilson, was on the Today Show with girls. I knew that was coming, but it was the before. It was the earlier news programs of the usual, you know, 5:00 AM, 6:00 AM 7:00 AM It was incredible. Absolutely incredible. The level of [00:10:00] participation.

Talk about life-changing event. Women tell me all the time how it changed their lives. It has changed my lives a hundred times, thousands of times. 

Jessica Fein: Why did it take off the way it did? I think women had watched Clarence Thomas hearings the year before and were furious. The response of the media particularly told me, we all know that all this shit goes on in terms of sexual harassment, lack of promotions, lack of being taken seriously.

I mean, there is no woman who works and there isn't a man if he talks to a woman and cares about women who doesn't understand. How insidious this was, and in some cases still is that you work next to a colleague, you're doing the same work. In some cases, she's doing more work than you, and you get more money than her.

That shit is insane. And it was an opportunity for parents, I think, not only to show their daughters what they did, why they let them every day, good, bad, or indifferent, like stay at school so you don't have to do what I do. Or look what you can do because there was [00:11:00] a woman leader, but it took off because the majority of people understood that Anita Hill told the truth, as millions of women have in those situations, and it's just totally disregarded because that was what, 1991?

1992 is the first year of the woman in the congressional election where more women at that time than ever had been voted in and Take Our Daughters to Work Day came right on the heels of that. I think it's how social change takes place. Is that there are waves of understanding that people have and someone presents them with a way to express their either understanding or their objection or whatever it is because 25 million people have participated in Take Our Daughters to Workday over the years, I don't even know what it is with Take Our Child to Workday.

It is not unlike the Women's March in response to the election of Donald Trump in that it was just this, like somebody gave us a place to go. We're going. And also because I mean what I'm known for is positive. It was not against anything. It was for the future and the [00:12:00] present of girls and who's against that?

Jessica Fein: So it is interesting that it has evolved. You just mentioned into Take Our Children to Work Day. What do you think about that?

Nell Merlino: Again, two thoughts. I usually have a couple. One is the parents care very much about their children's future, boys and girls, and some people took this as like a career day. Which it was never conceived of as that that was an added benefit to sort of see what went on in a workplace.

It truly was to put them someplace where people would've to see them for what they are and what they can be. There was a report issued while we were working on Take Our Daughters to Work Day in 1992 and 1993 from the, the Department of Labor that did a projection forward into like the year 2000 where one in every three workers would be a woman or a man of color.

They were predicting it and we sort of added some of that to our literature about, you know, you ought to meet your future workforce. And so there was that element, but [00:13:00] I think the inclusion of boys made it easier for workplaces. It did all kinds of things. I think it misses the mark in terms of why the day was created and who it's for.

And God forbid, God forbid, you should give girls eight hours in freaking year and it not be poor girls and boys when the entire world was, you name it. It was structured around men and boys. But you know, far from me, it's uh, kind of infuriating on the one hand. On the other hand, I think it went just for girls for about, I don't know, 10 years, something like that.

I will also say that watching what is happening now with the rollback of Roe v. Wade, book banning, all those things, that the vigilance that is required, To maintain our rights, not only our legal rights, but all of the progress that we have made. We clearly see that there are forces and ideas and fears about us that are real, and we do need days dedicated to girls [00:14:00] and women and our progress, and I would say even more importantly, our values and our value.

Because it is not top of mind all the time at the moment other than to what can we take away from her?

Jessica Fein: Well, it's interesting because you said that there was a crisis that was being discovered when you first came up with this idea. And fast forward, now we're in another moment of crisis.

Nell Merlino: Yes, we are. 

Jessica Fein: What kind of movement could move the needle, could change things?

Nell Merlino: I'm doing two things. I've launched something called 80 20. I launched it with Gloria. And it's 80 20 and it is about 20 year olds and 80 year olds. I mean, in the span, talking to each other, working with each other because we, the analog generation have things to share about our experiences.

Young women have a lot to share with us. They're digital natives. I mean, I work with a young woman who started using a smartphone when she was seven. [00:15:00] I started using 'em when I was 55. 

Jessica Fein: And my kids started using them when they were born, essentially.

Nell Merlino: Exactly. And the combination of us is unbelievably powerful because we've been working together for a year, and Gloria's had this experience repeatedly in her life.

She's 89. I just turned 70. Moon, my colleague is 24. We don't make many decisions work-wise or personally without checking in with each other because that is the kind of world we live in now, where the wisdom of this many years of light, and particularly if you're interested in, in, in social movements and creating change, and Moon certainly shares that interest.

It is combined with the understanding of the present and the future of technology and communications. That is kind of unstoppable if we do that. So the 80 20 project is one of the ways we've partnered with a wonderful organization called Etra Girls. A woman lawyer who participated in Take [00:16:00] Our Daughters to Work Day and has started an organization and now has worldwide participation by girls where she takes girls in groups of like 10 to 12 into companies to meet women leaders.

So she took the Take Our Daughters to Work Day model. I love how all of this comes for Circle as my work at Count Me In around entrepreneurship is very much alive in this cuz Moon is starting a business. I'm helping you start a business. And then the other thing that I'm doing is Crown Quest, which is an arts project.

It is a, a sort of transformational project business to help women see themselves in all of their accomplishments and their power because as we age, we can either shrink and disappear or think we need to fix ourselves to look like younger people, which you know, is right on if, if that's what you wanna do.

And I sort of came up, I think, with an alternative, which is to create images of ourself that are museum quality in that they're on canvas and you can look at them. They're not a quick flash on a screen to [00:17:00] really appreciate what women have done and are doing. That looks and is kind of iconic. It's not kind of iconic.

It is iconic. We don't spend a minute, we do not spend a minute appreciating what we've accomplished. We just don't. And this process forces you to, because you're gonna make something about yourself that allows you, I think to really, I wanna say sort of revel in it because we don't, because we're always on to, you know, how can I make myself better?

How can I, you know, actually, you're kind of great. You're kind great right now. How do we enshrine that? Because my fear and my challenge, and I think it's all of our challenge, we watch all the stuff that's going on with AI and all that stuff. How do we keep what is best about us? How do we not only preserve, but promote and continue to show younger women as well as older women, our greatness and our value?

We have fought for so much, certainly in my lifetime and yours, and there clearly is more struggle ahead. What do we look to? [00:18:00] Because the media long ago took over our image and how do we take it back? How do we take it back in a way that is more permanent? How about we revel in the wisdom and the experience and the beauty and the power of it, because it's phenomenal the work I'm doing with people.

In some cases, it's all about yourself. Some women have done these beautiful things of like great-grandmothers and all of the women in their families sort of surrounding them. It's been life-changing for me. And I'm finding that it's life changing for women who do it with me because there's so much pressure on us to be a certain way.

That has always been true. It goes back to the Swahili quote about the daughters of Lions being lionesses. We have to recognize that we are lionesses because no one else is going to this idea that we're gonna wait until they see that we're great. We are great, we are extraordinary. I think that has been the thread and the theme through everything that I've done.

Because Take Our Daughters to Work Day was about making girls visible, valued, and heard. Count Me In was helping women grow micro businesses to million dollar companies because if [00:19:00] you can run a little one with the right information, the right said, can you run a bigger one? And Crown Quest is certainly about seeing that value, seeing that value, claiming that value.

Cuz so many of us still can't even look at ourselves without criticizing ourselves. How about looking at ourselves and just being knocked out like by, wow, you did that? 

Jessica Fein: There is a lot there. So on Count Me in, I mean, that was in 2011, 

Nell Merlino: The stock exchange. Yeah. I started count me in in 2000.

Jessica Fein: You were there with a group of business women and it was the first time in the 226 year history of the stock exchange that an all female group ever rung the bell. Tell us about that?

Nell Merlino: It's crazy because none of us know that we get there, we figure, you know, this is cool. I start to be aware that this is bigger than I thought.

We're walking into this 18th century building, which is gorgeous, but then you walk in the door and it's very space age. There are [00:20:00] all these screens. And all of our logo now and our pictures are on the screen, so it's like you've walked from one century into the 21st century. Like, ooh. We walk in and they take us to this very beautiful formal dining room with a table that, I don't know, seats, however big the board of the stock exchange is.

So, I don't know, it's 50 chairs, but sort of there's gold guilt chairs, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Huge beautiful tea, coffee service. And of course, all the women who work for the Exchange are there because they've gotta represent. So they come and one of them says to us, do you realize? And she's saying it to us like this, like it's a secret.

Do you realize this is the first all female group that's ever done? Us? We're like, no, we're blown away. And also kind of pissed off, I am standing with some of the most accomplished women who had come through, count me in. Who, when I'd met them were at 200, 300, $600,000 are now have multi-million dollar businesses, and to a woman, myself included, none of us had ever thought about building a company to the size that it would be traded on the exchange.

To this [00:21:00] day, only 24 women have done it, 24. It is a stunning thing that for all of our progress, it has not been a goal or a focus of many. I wanted to do the micro to millions thing for women to appreciate that they can go from making a decent living as a microbusiness owner and subsisting and surviving.

And how do you go beyond that? We had this competition called Make Mine A Million Dollar Business, which is how we brought to bear the influence and support of, you know, American Express and Walmart and all kinds of companies. Standing in that room with all of the history. There are no paintings of women in that building because we ain't been there.

You know, there's some places, I mean I've been on the eighth floor of the State Department and there are finally three paintings of women there cuz they're paintings of every Secretary of State and it's not till Madeline Albright and then Condoleezza Rice and then Hillary Clinton, that there are any pictures of women.

That always strikes me. And it certainly struck me that day and has since I did it. Every time I look at the picture. 

Jessica Fein: You mentioned Crown Quest, which when I first learned about Crown Quest and [00:22:00] I saw that you were doing these workshops and I thought it was more of an art project, if you will, and hearing you talk about it.

My God. So when you're working with women to create these, it seems like you must really need to coach them on being able to. Recognize own and project who they are,

Nell Merlino: Yes. Yes, it is about that. I started making these with a colleague who I met in the Make Mine a Million Dollar Business competition, who is an artist, and I helped her start a business that made this incredible crafting tool.

That allowed you to bling up shoes, pants, you know, all kinds of things. Sure. Bedazzle things. Yes. Thank you. That's the right word. I followed her. I was very curious. She always looked spectacular. She had gorgeous earrings on and multimillion dollar business selling the crafting tool, and she was always just lovely to me and she was grateful for what had happened between us and as many women do, my, my marriage fell apart and I had a business that I was involved in that was falling apart at the same time. 

And I [00:23:00] was out in California trying to figure out what to do next and you know, meeting with people, I was staying with my sister-in-law and I had been looking at her artist workshop online on Instagram, and she lived in Southern California.

And I remember I just texted her and I said, you know, I have a free day. I'm in LA. I'd love to come see you. I just jumped in an Uber and I went and I literally got out of the car and I was standing in her driveway and I said, I don't know why I'm here. And she looked at me and she said, I know why you're here Nell. And she said, you're an artist. I said, I really wanna see your studio. She said, okay. You know? So we went and we looked around the studio and it was beautiful. And her husband had made a lot of the shelves for her. It was just full of the coolest stuff. And she sat me down and said, let's make something.

And I made something really beautiful.

Jessica Fein: Had you ever made art before that?

Nell Merlino: I had a mother who was an artist. My mother was an artist. I'd been around artist materials. I had certainly made Easter eggs, Valentines, I'd made shrines also, I'd made a lot of shrines to women. I made a [00:24:00] Day, of the Dead shrine.

I, for some reason, didn't consider those art I don’t know why. But I didn't. I didn't. It wasn't until I read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron that I understood that this was an artistic expression. But I don't start reading that book until Norma drives me to the, literally called the Last Bookstore, in LA ,and buys me the last copy they have and says, read this going home on the plane.

She said, you have to read this. So I read it. I started answering all these questions and so start making this art. And what I noticed is any piece I made women said, I want one. So it was even in the visual impact of it. I want one, and I did two of myself. That changed so much of my understanding of what had happened to me in terms of the loss of a 25 year marriage, this collapse of a business.

It was a startup that really didn't work. That led me to believe after talking to a couple of women who then I got commissions from because the whole process of making them were these back and forth and conversations about. [00:25:00] Not only what they'd done, if I did not know them, what they'd done, who they are, where they came from, what their accomplishments were, if they had more aspirations, what were they?

And that's what comes out in the art. And I recently started doing it where the women actually make the art while we're going through this process together, which I have found fascinating. We are so in our heads. It's a way to get. Your visual sense of yourself because we have so many issues with our visual sense of ourselves and how we feel about ourselves.

And I made two things, one of myself at four months old and one of myself at 65, that have just freed me to appreciate the entire process my entire life seeing me at the beginning and seeing me now, cuz the, the one I did of myself as a 66 year old was with the Pope's hat on. I had seen a beautiful 15th century. they’re called miters, these, these hats, and it was something that my second grade nun teacher told me [00:26:00] that girls could never be and out of nowhere I. 66 years old. I'm sitting in my studio and it just comes outta me. And the one of me as a little girl, as a baby is in some kind of a headdress. It's a Malaysian wedding helmet, but I, I use it in a lot of my, my art because what we put on our head and, you know, so much of it has gone to our hair.

It is truly a crown of sorts. I've read a lot about Elizabeth the first and Elizabeth the second. Elizabeth the first, who was one of the first female monarchs in her own right, first queens that we know of in her own right. There've been many before her and many after her who literally ruled countries.

And she spent a lot of time understanding what to do to physically make herself stand out in terms of those high collars she wore so that she was distinguishable from a distance. Queen Elizabeth II wore those color coordinated outfits so that she could be seen from a distance. This is all pre-video.

If you're walking among your [00:27:00] subjects, how do they know that it's you and how do we know? And how do we put ourselves out there? You know, we've seen it in like Wakanda Forever, the headgear that the queen wore and all that stuff. 

Jessica Fein: And even when we see, you know, the women in their fascinators and in the hats, why can't we do that here?

I wanna bring back the fascinator. 

Nell Merlino: Well, I saw one on a young woman the other day walking down the street. It is an expression and it's so interesting. So much comes from our head. As I started to do social media around Crown Quest, I got a call from a feminist historian at the News School and she was very quiet.

She said, you have done something incredible. And I said, what do you mean? And she said, you are putting ancient crowns on the heads of contemporary women. It is allowing a conversation about something that her group of historians have been trying to affect for decades. And she said, we know about crowns from like [00:28:00] 2,500 BC that women wore and how do we make those known?

And she sends me a crown of a woman king. She was a queen but she was in charge cuz they're queen concerts. And then their queen's, the boss, she was a boss queen, 2,500 BC in what is now Iraq. What we are working on, Excuse identifying maybe you know, 10 of her colleagues to pick their favorite historic crayons and the characters that they want contemporary people to know about.

Put them on their heads so that you can meet both the historian and the queen or the king that they knew of. I was talking to a woman from Iran the other day who was gonna be speaking out for the first time, cuz she's a former journalist about what's happening to the young women in Iran who are being killed for taking off their head scarves.

She told me about two women kings in Iran that existed in like, you know, 560 AD or whatever around there was a period where [00:29:00] there were two women kings. We need to know about all that. We need to understand these cycles of our emergence and what happens and how we not only use and understand what they did and who they are.

But also who we are and how we see ourselves. Because you know, there's some women who really resent, you know, I'm not royal. I don't wanna wear a crown. It is not about the royalty. It is about, certainly now the democratization. Of power cuz that is some of what is going on for us in that we have been invited into rooms we've never been in.

And what are we gonna do with that? How are we gonna do it differently? Because I do not believe that we have better answers, we have different answers. And maybe between the ones we've been hearing and these new ones, we might be able to come up with some different solutions. And we have different values in many cases, and how do we elevate those?

And literally, so there's the issue of elevation. How do we elevate this and not be worried about whether we've got another wrinkle today? You know, how do, how do we elevate these thoughts and not [00:30:00] be constantly thinking about that last 10 pounds? I mean, we just like, you know, we're gonna get wrinkles and we may die with those 10 pounds, but, you know, so that's crown quest.

It is a transformational process for us to appreciate ourselves at a level that only we can do. 

Jessica Fein: So I'm switching gears for a minute. What do we say to somebody who says, I've got an idea. Hey, wouldn't it be great if, or what if we tried this but doesn't know how to begin to take that idea and make it into something?

Nell Merlino: Mm. I would say getting it to the point where you can explain it to someone else. The elevator pitch, a pitch, a one pager, what it is, who it's for, why you're doing it, what is driving you, understanding the why, the what, and the how. Why do I wanna do this? Does it exist in the world? There is no excuse now for not being able to do plenty of research to see that, oh, something exists, but not exactly like I'm thinking about it or I like that design, but I have a [00:31:00] different one.

Whatever it is. I put the name of what I'm thinking to see if anybody else already has the name. It's why, what's driving you? Would someone wanna do it? Would someone wanna buy it? Have you sold it? You know, it's like, because I made the portraits, people were like, oh, I want one. It was visible, it was there.

If I had said to you, I'm thinking about doing it and I'd never made one, it would stay an idea. I literally make. So I would say to people who have an idea, have you made it? Have you done it? Have you tried it with some friends and family to see? I think getting feedback from people is the most valuable.

As painful as it is sometimes, because it's not about you. It's about the thing or the idea, but getting it down. Because for me to help someone, they have to be able to tell me what's in their mind. That is the biggest challenge I can't help you with. I wanna do something, but I don't know what it is. I sort of have this idea, you gotta really sit and think, is it something that people wear, something that people eat, something that people do?

What is it? [00:32:00] Who are you selling it to? And you're never selling it to everybody. Crown Quest is for women in transformation and transition, whether you are divorced, widowed. Empty nester, retiring, selling your business, creating a new business. But you are at a moment where you're going from seeing yourself one way to seeing yourself in another.

It is literally at that moment, it is not for people who will love their career and are just bebopping along. And unfortunately, and fortunately, a lot of people during covid hit a lot of those things. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. So, What is it and why? What's driving you and what would drive someone else to wanna buy do, be it, with you?

It's, it's that. 

Jessica Fein: That's great advice. Everything you've done. If you have to think about how does it all connect, it's about these bridges, right? So you're building bridges for girls, for women to see what's possible, who they might be, what's on the other side. When you were a girl, when you were young, what women did you look up 

Nell Merlino: to?

[00:33:00] Show me my mother. My mother was extraordinary. She was an artist. She was an activist, she was involved in politics. My mother was always making things and babies. I have three younger siblings, so there were babies around, there was art around, there was political meetings. My mother formed arts organizations, so I just thought that's what women did.

And then I would say my father was in the state legislature in New Jersey, and there was an early group of women who were in the state senate with him. I remember all of them. I remember meeting them. My father particularly making an effort to introduce me to them. They stood out to me because they were his colleagues.

It was a senator from Newark, uh, Dr. Winona Lipman, I'll never forget her, and a woman named Ann Martindale. So those women I thought were really cool in terms of, as I got older, the women who sat on the Watergate committee, Barbara Jordan, Elizabeth Holzman, I think Bella Abzug may have been on that committee.

But those women, because you saw them, you saw that they were on tv. The, the women I met [00:34:00] from the, the state Senate were in the Senate Chamber. I physically saw them. So I mean, hence where Take Our Daughters to Work Day comes from. It is, it is the seeing and experiencing someone who looks like you. Doing something that you didn't know you could do.

Barbara Jordan stands out to me. She was an extraordinary investigator. I remember seeing Judith Jameson in a ballet, in Alvin Ailey and being so struck by her because she was so un ballet like in terms of her height particularly. And then, I mean, Hillary Clinton has been a, a standout and a friend colleague for decades.

I'm in deep admiration of the current vice president. I think she has one of the most difficult jobs in terms of being the first. It's always challenging. She's an extraordinary public servant and has consistently, I think, shown up for truly the people in the way that she talks. Acts and Nancy Pelosi. I mean, can't beat it.

Can't beat it. Say I come from politics, so, so politics is always so interesting to me. And then, I mean, Tina Turner. Oh my God. [00:35:00] I realize I saw Tina Turner with my older sister when she was still with Ike in Maryland when I first went to college. I'll never forget that concert. Fats Domino opened and Ike and Tina Turner.

Yeah. I mean, talk about the soundtrack of your life. 

Jessica Fein: Well, I'd love to hear the soundtrack of your life. 

Nell Merlino: That's for sure. Tina Turner would be on it. Yep. I'm having, I'm having a good life. 

Jessica Fein: Final question. No pun intended. What do you think of as your crowning achievement? 

Nell Merlino: So many, what I see immediately is a stack of crowns because I, I'd say to anyone thinking of starting something new or whatever, timing, timing is everything.

And one of the things I'm really good at is reading a room, reading political situations. Reading, reading, what's going on. And I would say that that ability is my crowning achievement because it has allowed me to see and to poke at these things that I think are going on and capitalize on them in the way that I have, which is to let other people in.

You know, if I see that, I see, because I grew up in a way [00:36:00] where I saw a lot of things. And with the exception of the nun who told me I couldn't be the Pope, I wasn't told often that I can't do things. There were plenty of things that told us we couldn't do things. I mean, I didn't look like a Brick girl.

So, you know, there are a lot of things that told us we couldn't do things. But I was not told specifically that you can't do this and you, you know, you can only do this. My mother was always saying, well, long before Nike, Nelly, just do it. Just try it. Just do it. It is to read the room. And understand that what I am feeling and sensing and seeing my instincts exist in others.

And how do you unlock that? How do you say, I see you and you see me, and let's, let's go, let's do this. Many crowns. 

Jessica Fein: Thank you so much for your time and for sharing this with us and for everything that you've done and everything you're doing.

Nell Merlino: Thank you. Thank you.

Jessica Fein: Before I share my takeaways from today's conversation, I want to invite you to subscribe to my newsletter, which features key takeaways from each podcast episode, along with book recommendations and other writing news.

You can subscribe by visiting my [00:37:00] website at Jessicafeinstories.com. Now here are my takeaways from my conversation with Nell. Number one, we don't always know where inspiration's going to come from. Nell came up with the idea for Take our Daughters to Work Day, seeing girls on the subway in New York City.

Number two, we have to recognize that we are lioness because nobody else is gonna do that for us. 

Number three, when you have an idea, get it to the point where you can explain it to somebody else. What is it? What's driving you and what would drive somebody else to want to buy it or do it? 

I hope you enjoyed today's conversation.

Remember, you can subscribe to the newsletter at Jessicafeinstories.com. Have a great day. Talk to you next time.