Female Disruptors: Evie Smith Hatmaker of Rebellious PR On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
Actively listening — As I mentioned earlier, my first boss taught me how to listen to clients, translating into the other parts of my life. I tend to be a very literal person and take things at face value, but our interactions with each other are usually much much more profound than face value. Add in power dynamics and structures, systemic oppression, and just thinking critically to hear what someone is trying to say. It made me a much better account manager with clients but also has helped in all my relationships.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Evie Smith Hatmaker.
You might not recognize Evie Smith Hatmaker outright, but you know her work, whether you realize it or not. Evie worked in Silicon Valley right after college for almost 10 years with flashy startups and Fortune 500 companies before moving to Portland, Oregon, and founding Rebellious PR. She started Rebellious to use her top-notch PR skills and talent, but this time for something bigger. She wanted to focus on underrepresented founders and companies that are looking to change the world. Recently Evie was at the center of the sex tech censorship conversation/movement, having created momentum and conversation about the issue in every major media outlet. Evie infiltrated the cultural zeitgeist with this story, and conversations around her work have appeared on This American Life, as well as the TV show The Bold Type.
Evie strives to drive the PR industry-standard higher, to create better work, better work culture, and a better, more trusted industry across the board.
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?
It was an accident. I had zero interest in going into PR. I majored in journalism in college, won a few student journalism awards, and had a killer internship at a music magazine. I expected that I would work at a magazine company at some point. However, while living in Santa Cruz with my boyfriend (eventually husband and then ex-husband) had no interest in leaving SC. So that meant I could freelance, and to be honest, it all felt overwhelming. But, looking back, I realized I just didn’t believe in myself or my work, even though I had crushed it at college.
During my last semester of college, I started playing roller derby, needed health insurance, and wanted to transition into a post-career easily. After noticing there were many PR agencies in the Bay Area, I started working at a local agency the day after I graduated and stayed there (with my new shiny health insurance) for the next 8 years.
It took 2 years to understand entry-level work with little explanation of the full picture. However, I like the human connection and communication aspect of PR. Of course, most people associate it with parties and boozy dinners (which do happen from time to time), but for the most part, we are the bridge between a company having a message and the public understanding that message. I like being the translator, and I was good at it (once I got out of my way). I found that my communication skills from my time working at restaurants and bars translated well and being able to read people, be empathetic, and be friendly. So I stuck around.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
There are a lot of layers to how we disrupt. The first layer is merely being here, owned by a queer woman, and calling ourselves Rebellious. That alone sets the tone. When building Rebellious, I always wanted to be super contentious and intentional about diversity and inclusion. Most people know the stats about the success of a business being tied to diversity. If we all look the same and have the same background, the ideas will be flat.
If a situation is handled with a diverse group of people, the outcome will be more successful due to the room’s variance of ideas and influence.
And truthfully, I did not love the lack of diversity and inclusion (both race and LGBTQ+) at agencies I worked at or worked alongside. We’ve built Rebellious to be one of the more diverse and inclusive agencies around.
Also, I care about company culture. The culture was and is generally a weak spot and a low priority at agencies. Going out for drinks is not a work culture. Fostering a safe environment for growth and support is. Our staff’s happiness and well-being is our #1 priority, even over clients.
And there are the clients — we work with some genuinely radical companies — everything from sex toys to cannabis to non-profits. We have our hands in a lot of pots. I would call our client portfolio, “bold.” We also specialize in working with underrepresented founders. Our ultimate goal as a company when it comes to our clients is the redistribution of wealth and help close the wealth gap.
So I would say we are pretty disruptive from top to bottom.
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?
There are so many, but I have a good one.
During my first couple of years of working in PR, I sent out a pitch through Cision, a PR tool that has journalist info and lets you make press lists and send pitches (aka emails) out to those lists in one click. After completing my due diligence, I did not do my research when making a huge press list with way too many people as a junior employee. I went to hit send, but the computer lagged and did not react like I had clicked anything. So, I proceeded to hit the send button seven times, and the pitch was sent to over 100 journalists seven times.
Once I started seeing journalists tweet about it, I for sure thought I would get called out by name (which was a super fun thing tech journalists used to do all the time). Luckily no one called me out, and I kept my head down at work and was never discovered.
The lessons I learned that day:
- Stop trying to take shortcuts for everything.
- Do the damn research.
- Send pitches out in smaller, more thought out batches.
- Don’t overly rely on fancy tools — PR is more about tact and graceful than thirsty and desperate.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I’ve never had a formal mentor, but I did try to observe and learn from everyone. However, my old boss in Santa Cruz taught me some valuable lessons on client satisfaction and reading between the lines with what clients want — he always delivered more than just the deliverables. I learned how to command a room and lead a meeting from a female client who led PR at one of the larger, more well-known tech companies. I knew what not to do from colleagues who were too thirsty or pushy with the press. But, I always felt like an outsider in this industry, so I was always watching and learning from everyone around me. I craved mentorship so badly so I made everyone my mentor in some way.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I think disrupting systems that have served or benefited the same dominant group of people with power is awesome. Usually, these systems are wrapped around white supremacist values. Let’s disrupt that shit! This includes:
- How hiring is done
- Who gets VC money / who VCs are
- Who gets quality education from the start and things like the digital divide
I think so much of our current system needs to be torn down and rebuilt with everyone in mind.
Disruption goes wrong when a group of people/person looks to disrupt an industry or area they do not have first hand experience in. A great example of this happened this year. A startup made up of tech bros decided the female orgasm needed to be disrupted. They had all these stats about women “faking it,” and the problem and solution to fixing the orgasm gap. Their pitch deck got leaked online, and it was laughable.
I think the key here is not knowing when and what to disrupt but who and why.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- Follow your gut — I feel like this was one my therapist has reinforced in me. I have a great gut with an excellent track record. It’s important to trust your own decisions, and not just lean on the people around you.
- Don’t get distracted by your ideas — A brilliant instructor at an accelerator I went through a few years back told us this on our first day, and it was the best piece of advice I have ever received as a founder. As a founder, you’re always thinking about the big picture and generate millions of great ideas. This makes it easy to get distracted and get in your way. She mentioned when an idea comes in like a bolt of lightning to write it down, stick it in a drawer and come back to it later.
- Actively listening — As I mentioned earlier, my first boss taught me how to listen to clients, translating into the other parts of my life. I tend to be a very literal person and take things at face value, but our interactions with each other are usually much much more profound than face value. Add in power dynamics and structures, systemic oppression, and just thinking critically to hear what someone is trying to say. It made me a much better account manager with clients but also has helped in all my relationships.
Bonus: Don’t create avoidable emergencies. I got this one from my mom. She used to have a sign on her desk at work that said, lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on mine. I did not understand what this meant until a couple of years ago. Preventable emergencies will straight up age you. Especially in the fast-paced world of PR, creating your emergencies is just unfair to your team. I’m passionate about preparation and seeing the forest through the trees.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Rebellious is growing, and I don’t think we have even begun to peak. So I’m looking to tell the world that we are here and continue to do meaningful work. We are actively looking to expand into two new cities next year, so clearly we’re doing a little more than just business as usual. I’m interested in seeing how we grow, and if Rebellious would be an appealing acquisition to a larger, more old school company looking to shake things up. The world feels like our oyster at the moment.
I’m interested in political communications. It’s an area I have never worked in, and I feel like DC could stand to get a little Rebellious ;)
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think, as women, we have to have a real reason to do anything. In contrast, men have been given blanket permission by society to try or involve themselves in literally anything they can think of with little to no experience or expertise. So I guess women disruptors are battling some severe imposter syndrome. Who am I to do XYZ? So add on the bravery of being a disruptor to that, and it is a considerable challenge just in existing.
I think we start with a lot more doubt on our shoulders. I get upset when a woman is criticized for being too confident. Good for her! I used to visualize myself as an attractive white man whenever I would go into job interviews or salary negotiations.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
I love the book Girl Boss. I’m not sure how I feel about the brand in its current iteration, but I respect and resonate with Sophia. I’m a self-made college dropout just like her, so I felt her journey and got a ton of inspiration there.
Also, I love the Ted podcast Work-Life — they do such a great job analyzing and telling stories about teams. I’m pretty obsessed with “fixing” work. I love organizational psychology, so this podcast makes me tick.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Well, first off, I am flattered you think I am a person of influence! I would love to help tear down the venture capital system of funding startups. When I think of old, antiquated, and out of touch, it’s these guys. The funding statistics around women and people of color getting funding is unacceptable! You see people like Arlan Hamilton who are disrupting the system from the inside, and organizations like SheEO who are getting women funding in spite of VCs. But I just think the whole model needs to be set on fire. I think the idea that a company is not successful unless they have VC money also needs to change.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I had a friend at the accelerator I was at once say, “Being a founder is lonely, and sometimes your people don’t always go along for the ride with you, and that’s okay.”
It is lonely being a founder. I feel like I am a horrible friend at this point in my life. My first love is my wife, and near after that is my company. I don’t have a lot of time to nurture friendships or spend time in shallow relationships. I don’t have the energy for a social life, and I am okay with that. I feel fulfilled in the feeling that I am building something meaningful. I am creating a legacy for myself and leaving a significant mark in the world.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!