Erin McGarry of Womple Studios: Why We Need More Women Founders & Here Is What We Are Doing To Make That Happen

An Interview With Jerome Knyszewski

Jerome Knyszewski
Authority Magazine

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We’re missing out on tremendous opportunities by not having more women founders. Take our industry, for example: primary school education. A huge majority of our customers in the children’s education space are moms. And I mean huge. Even though our kid-customers are evenly split in gender, the people actually purchasing our products are overwhelmingly women.

By not having more women founders, we’re neglecting enormous market needs that might not otherwise be met by men who aren’t as familiar or interested in the space. That’s not to say that men can’t create fantastic education companies — ClassDojo was founded by two men, after all. But, when 99% of your customer base is made up of women, and 80% of startups are founded by men, that’s a recipe for sub-par results.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin McGarry.

Erin is co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Womple Studios (www.womplestudios.com), a company inspiring kids to discover their world through storytelling and hands-on activities. After receiving art degrees from Princeton, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Erin worked as an artist for a number of Bay Area startups including well-known names like Zynga and ClassDojo, where she was the startup’s Art Director. Erin started Womple Studios in 2019, acting on her passion for teaching kids through great stories and fulfilling a lifelong dream.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Sure! I’ve probably taken a slightly different path than most of the founders you’ve talked with in the past. I’ve known since I was a kid growing up in San Antonio that I wanted to be an artist. I’ve always loved making art (I do plein air oil painting when I’m not running the business) and it was no surprise to anyone when I majored in visual art in undergrad. I went on to study visual art at the Art Institute of Chicago before turning my focus to digital art and getting my Masters in Visual Development from the Academy of Art in San Francisco.

There are some great jobs for digital artists in the Bay Area, and I was very lucky to begin my career here at Zynga. By the time I joined, Zynga was already a pretty well established company. I learned a lot, particularly from a fantastic manager, about how things here work. I think it was around this time that I knew I wanted to start my own business.

Later I worked at ClassDojo, a great EdTech startup in the city, where I served as Art Director. It was a wonderful experience with an amazing team and it solidified my desire to start a company of my own. A lot of planning and a few leaps of faith later and I founded Womple Studios with my co-founder, Alejandro Bras. It’s a dream job: we teach kids about awesome things around the world by telling stories and creating educational toys.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I was working as Art Director at ClassDojo, we produced a fantastic series of cartoons to teach kids about having a growth mindset. The videos blew up and became incredibly popular. Teachers would send us video reactions of their classrooms reacting to the videos — it was the best motivation ever: all the kids just completely entranced by our little creatures explaining how the brain is like a muscle and not to give up when you’re stumped.

It was such a hit we actually started a contest for kids to imagine and create their own ‘monster’ characters. It blew up again. Every day we’d sort through hundreds of amazing, hand-drawn submissions from kids all around the country. We got almost a quarter million submissions! I loved every moment of it. Seeing all that creativity and joy, coupled with learning a great lesson, was a big driver for how I approach things at Womple Studios.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It’s hard to choose just one mistake… One that sticks out happened just a few months into starting Womple Studios. We were teaching kids about a rainforest in Canada and the First Nations peoples that live there. At the time, my co-founder and I were still doing nearly all the research, design, and writing ourselves. To our horror, we shipped out a whole batch of products that mistakenly labeled Canada as New Zealand.

It was a glaring, silly mistake resulting from a lack of sleep and failure of editing. As embarrassing as it was, though, it actually ended up being a huge moment for us. We were very transparent with our customers, reaching out with a ‘mea culpa’ and explaining the error. We also made it right by shipping out a fix.

The customer response was fantastic, supportive, and reaffirming. If anything, we connected even better with our customers after that and were even more confident that we had hit a great product-market fit.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’d have to say my teachers. From high school teachers to the professors in my Master’s program, I’ve had a slew of fantastic mentors and people who have genuinely cared about my success. Those are the best teachers: the people who, despite the rigors that our education system places on them, give their students personal care and attention.

Two of my teachers who spring to mind are artists Scotland Barnes and Chris Carmon. Scotland was the sort of professor who appeared to be a giant grump, but in reality was tremendously caring for all his students. He would go well out of his way to help, advise, and mentor. And he worked really hard working as a professor while he navigated the difficult job market of digital animation (he ultimately landed a dream job at Disney!). Chris was instrumental in helping me launch my career, putting me in touch with my later-boss at Zynga. Teachers like Scotland and Chris helped me see and believe in what I could achieve.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

So many. Storytelling is a lot of what we do, and I’m a huge reader, so there are a thousand books that have inspired me.

Just to give you one I bet you haven’t heard before, I’d say ‘The Adventures of Beekle, The Unimaginary Friend’ by Dan Santat. It won the Caldecott Medal, awarded to the best kid’s picture book of the year, in 2015. It’s just a wonderful and beautiful story about an imaginary friend in search of a person. Ultimately, it’s a story about the power of imagination — and that really resonated with me as an artist who has always loved creating.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I do, but it’s an odd one: “Be the squeaky wheel!” It’s from the old saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” I think the saying normally has sort of a negative connotation, that the person who complains gets rewarded over the person who suffers in silence. But, in my life and in our business it’s come to mean something else: keep trying, because you’ll never succeed if you don’t try. Starting a business is a rollercoaster, with a lot of downs, so it’s important to remind yourself to keep going. We’ve definitely found ourselves yelling out “squeaky wheel!” in the office on more than a few occasions.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I’m so proud to be able to say that this is what we do every day at Womple Studios. We’re inspiring kids to explore, discover, and learn. And, maybe most important, we’re getting those kids to appreciate and respect differences, whether it’s a different place or a different culture. Every time a parent tells us that their famously-fussy kid wants to try a new food from Ethiopia, or we get a postcard from a child sharing how they taught their grandparents all about Komodo dragons in Indonesia, we know we’re making the world a better place.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

It’s not a great look that only 20% of funded companies are founded by women. The record is even worse when you look at the size of the investments: under 3% of VC funding goes to women founders. Here’s one more terrible statistic: less than 5% of investors are women. That’s insanely bad! The Venture Capital world prides itself on being cutting edge, but in terms of representation of women it is decades behind even notorious boys clubs like Wall Street and big law firms.

Until the VC world starts to diversify, and we get more women investors, it’s going to continue to be tough for women founders. This isn’t just intuitively obvious, it’s back up by research. There have been numerous studies demonstrating that women pitching the same ideas as men get less of a response. Now imagine being a woman pitching an idea that is woman-centric to a group of men. Even harder!

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

As an education company, it’s our mission to inspire kids. We’re also emphasizing diversity and the importance of empathy and being able to see things from different perspectives. Every one of our products seeks to put kids in the shoes of other kids who live in a different place and within a different culture. Having that ability — to see things from different perspectives — is an essential quality for a founder and it’s our hope that, one day, some of our Womple girls grow up inspired to become women founders.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

We’re missing out on tremendous opportunities by not having more women founders. Take our industry, for example: primary school education. A huge majority of our customers in the children’s education space are moms. And I mean huge. Even though our kid-customers are evenly split in gender, the people actually purchasing our products are overwhelmingly women.

By not having more women founders, we’re neglecting enormous market needs that might not otherwise be met by men who aren’t as familiar or interested in the space. That’s not to say that men can’t create fantastic education companies — ClassDojo was founded by two men, after all. But, when 99% of your customer base is made up of women, and 80% of startups are founded by men, that’s a recipe for sub-par results.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

  1. Encourage girls’ interest in STEM. I’m a huge believer in the arts, but I’m also a big science nerd. The progress that has been made over the past few years in getting girls into STEM fields has been great, but there’s still a long ways to go. I love what companies like GoldieBlox have done to move the needle on this.
  2. Reach out to women early. A lot of funding opportunities come through personal networks and connections. And when 95% of investors are men, those personal networks are probably going to perpetuate the problems unless we do something to intervene. We should be encouraging more events, discussions, and incubators focused on women founders and ideas starting at the university level.
  3. As I was beginning to build my company, I participated in more than a few hack-a-thon type events, conferences, and pitch events. Although I had great times, it was startlingly obvious that I was one of only a few women there. We should be reaching out to women in college and the early stages of their careers to promote entrepreneurship in the same way that we encourage men.
  4. Demand that VC firms diversify their partnerships. The VC industry needs to do better. Just like other big businesses that have sought to diversify over the years, VC must be developing and implementing plans to hire, retain, and promote women investors. A lot of that work needs to come from VC firms themselves, but we can also incentivize those changes by highlighting the disparities and pointing out the huge rewards that will undoubtedly come from diversification.
  5. Fund more women founders. It seems obvious, but it’s a point worth making. Just like some of the country’s largest companies have made public commitments to expanding the number of women in their workforces, we should see investors making the same sort of commitments in their portfolios. It’s just good business: diversifying the talent pool, opening up new market opportunities, and according to an increasing amount of research better return on investment. I’ve seen a few ‘pledge’-type concepts to encourage VC firms to publicly commit to funding more women — these are a great start. We can build on it.
  6. Support each other. There are a growing number of female-founded VC firms. Fantastic! This is a trend that is vitally important to the success of women founders. We also need to reach out and create the sort of personal networks and connections that men in the startup world have had for decades. That means that women founders, like myself, need to do more work to make sure that we support the women who will follow in our footsteps: be available for informal chats, put ourselves out there for cold LinkedIn connections, create new networks and clubs within our existing colleges and universities. Whatever your role, if you’re a woman at a startup you have something to offer those women following in your footsteps.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d like to have everyone live in someone else’s shoes and experience a different life, if only for one day. Empathy is such a powerful emotion. If we could teach people how to better empathize, which is best taught by allowing people to experience life from other perspectives, everything else follows. I truly believe that if we all could have greater empathy towards one another, the world would be a dramatically better place.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’ve always admired what Debbie Sterling did to make GoldieBlox a household name and put girls’ STEM education in the limelight. That said, as an artist and a founder, my main inspirations are other creatives and artists who have broken the mold and built their own companies. I admire people who have recognized that the creative outlet they love is also something that other people love, and who have turned that passion into a thriving business. People like Jerry Galison, founder of Mudpuppy, a company specializing in beautifully designed children’s puzzles, Eric Nakamura, co-founder of Giant Robot, and David Horvath and Sun-min Kim, co-founders of the Uglydoll. It’d be a privilege to hear their stories face-to-face!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Follow me and Womple Studios on LinkedIn! I’m a big believer in expanding my horizons and meeting new people, even if our paths are very different. Please reach out!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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