Illana Raia: “Here Are 5 Things you Need To Know To Become A Successful Author”
Authentic feedback is everything. I realized early on that for Être to have relevance I needed smart, young advisors. With 70 middle and high school girls now on our Board, I can say that every good thing that has unfolded has come from these girls. I wish I’d had this group assembled on Day one — they are unfiltered and invaluable.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Illana Raia. Illana is a former NYC lawyer at the global law firm Skadden, Arps, and an occasional guest lecturer at Columbia, Illana Raia is the founder of Être, a mentorship platform bringing middle school girls into companies like Google, Viacom and NYSE to meet female leaders face to face. Named a Mogul Influencer in 2017, Illana has appeared in the Huffington Post “Talk To Me” video series, participated in the 2018 Balance Project Interviews and the 2019 #WomenWhoRock campaign, and has been a recent guest on podcasts and radio talking about girls’ empowerment and why mentors matter. Grateful for every role model who has impacted her career and paying it forward by introducing girls to future mentors, Illana’s first book, Être: Girls, Who Do You Want To Be? was released in October on Day of the Girl 2019.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
When my daughter was in middle school and I was working in Manhattan, I realized that she had no idea what I actually did every day! At the time, I thought a simple fix would be to gather a number of my accomplished friends (surgeons, CEOs, authors and news anchors), and sit them down with girls who could ask about their jobs. Reading about different occupations and skill sets is one thing, I thought, but hearing smart women describe their jobs in person could impact girls in an entirely new way. While the original “girls’ summit” never took place, I brought my daughter to small lunches with these women and their candor and wisdom stayed with her. When I retired from law I circled back to the mentorship idea, convinced that girls everywhere could benefit from hearing strong women talk about their career paths in real-time. The Être platform became a virtual girls’ summit.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
It seems odd to say that a career in law led to the founding of a mentorship platform, but it’s true. After having two children within twenty months, I chose to stay home for a few years. When I was ready to return to work, I approached my firm worried about the amount of travel required. I had been in the Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) group, and spent a considerable amount of time on planes. Skadden, an incredibly forward-looking firm, had the answer before I did. There was a Knowledge Strategy group forming and I came back to build an internal M&A website, curating and leveraging the group’s resources. That one shift — moving from deals to knowledge work — led not only to a fascinating new decade building 30+ knowledge sites for other practices, but prepared me to build the Être site. I first described Être’s resources as “knowledge strategy for girls,” and it remains true. An admittedly unlikely story, but returning to a law firm led me to build a girls’ mentorship site.
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?
The first time I took a group of girls into a company, it was to Spotify. We were over the moon that they had agreed to host our inaugural Lunch & Learn event, and we talked the entire bus ride into NYC about how the company was organized, who we might meet and what kinds of questions to ask. We did not, however, talk about gum. As the girls filed into the first conference room I realized how many were chewing gum. Before I could stop myself, my arm shot out and I collected an embarassingly large handful of vigorously chewed gum. With no trash can in sight, I held that gum for too long. Way too long.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Our book Être: Girls, Who Do You Want To Be? launched on October 11th, so that has to qualify as my most exciting project right now! A collection of my Huffington Post, Ellevate, Medium and Thrive Global articles, the book breaks down big topics like financial confidence, mentorship, philanthropy and young entrepreneurship for middle school girls. What made the project even more thrilling was that 40 extraordinary women whom we had either met or interviewed gave quotes (examples include Arianna Huffington, Debra Messing, Reshma Saujani and Sallie Krawcheck), and 50 girls from across the country offered input as well. Because the book is aimed at younger girls it has the look and feel of a magazine, and can be flipped through casually or read cover to cover…a big sister in their backpack. It was such a joy-filled process to assemble — definitely my most exciting project so far!
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example? First of all, I’m not sure I qualify as a great writer. But a new writer, absolutely. I think starting out posting one article a month helped me get into a rhythm, and picking substantive topics to discuss made the process consistently interesting for me. Breaking down issues like equal pay, midterm elections and financial literacy for a middle school audience forced me to distill my thoughts and focus on clear action points the girls could use immediately. I thought of every article as a conversation with girls — similar to those I was having in club meetings or on buses — so I tried to keep the tone casual. I’m not sure that makes for great writing, but I’d say writing regularly, picking issues of personal interest and speaking directly to the audience helped me get started.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
We interviewed so many fascinating women and girls — it’s hard to pick! From inspiring quotes from paralympic medalists (Anjali Forber-Pratt), combat veterans (Asha Castleberry) and the first female Latina PA announcer in the MLB (Marysol Castro) to interviews with the first female NFL coach (Jen Welter), NASCAR champions (Julia Landauer) or TV science hosts and executive producers (Emily Calandrelli), luminary women shared incredible stories with us. Some of my favorite stories, though, came from the girls themselves: Abigail Harrison who founded The Mars Generation, Gitanjali Rao who won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge at age eleven for her system to detect lead in water, Sammy Wolfe who invented a heated lacrosse stick while in high school, Sarah Cronk who founded The Sparkle Effect for inclusive cheerleading, and Jordan Reeves whose prosthetic design skills led to collaborations with Mattel and Marvel. There are so many more, but this sampling hints at the breadth and depth of the stories in the book — from women and girls of all ages.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
I want girls who read the book — and the moms, big sisters and cool aunts reading over their shoulders — to stop underestimating themselves. To the girls: Your ideas have worth and your voice matters. Think you can’t have a game-changing idea because you’re not yet in high school? Meet some of the STEAM Squad members who were innovators before they hit double digits. Think you shouldn’t try out for the next level sports team or submit your writing for publication this year? Hear what professional athletes and authors want you to know. The interests you have now — the classes and activties you authentically love today — are worth pursuing. To the grown ups: Believe them.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
When I decided to put the articles into a book, Être had just turned two and we had a small, but growing, online presence. I had been advised to wait — that we’d need a huge social media following to publish anything — but I felt like the time for this book was now. So I reached out to Girl Friday Productions in Seattle, and with the indispensable help of their creative and editorial teams, published independently. I can’t compare the experience to any other, but I’d encourage new writers to explore the independent route if they feel they are seizing a moment. I had a blast!
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
Honestly, I read everything and am inspired on a daily basis by a variety of styles. I love reading non-fiction (Michelle Obama’s book reads like poetry), historical fiction (I can’t get enough of Marie Benedict) and stay-up-all-night thrillers (stacks of Brad Meltzer or Harlan Coben). I encourage girls to read from a deep and varied bookshelf as well, and hope someday they’ll be inspired to express themselves through writing too!
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
I hope that as each girl picks up this book, it sparks an interest or a question that makes her want to learn more. The book is less of a blueprint and more of a springboard — I hope Être: Girls, Who Do You Want To Be? prompts girls to ask themselves that vital question…and then encourages them to march ahead, knowing they have an army of cheering role models at their backs.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Authentic feedback is everything. I realized early on that for Être to have relevance I needed smart, young advisors. With 70 middle and high school girls now on our Board, I can say that every good thing that has unfolded has come from these girls. I wish I’d had this group assembled on Day one — they are unfiltered and invaluable.
2. Experts matter. From social media gurus to editors and proofreaders, experts matter. Find some, listen to them and send them cupcakes on a regular basis.
3. Learn from mistakes. We were late to the Facebook party — I mistakenly assumed that Insta was the only place we needed to be — and we missed out on so many parent and school groups in the early days. We joined late, apologized and love the new community we found.
4. Find the joy. Launching the website and now this book has been such an unexpectedly joyous process, and I wish I had known it would be this way at the start. Whatever your next endeavor, assume the happiness will be there and actively seek it out.
5. No gum once we’re off the bus. See above.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start 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. :-)
If I could start any movement, it would be to encourage girls to mentor each other. Everyone has something to teach, and there is no one from whom you can’t learn. I’m always encouraging girls to raise their hands instead of lowering their standards, and here it applies to mentorship: Raise your hands to ask for role model help, and then again to help the next girl. Mentors matter as early as middle school — and everyone can be one.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Come follow @etregirls on Insta & Twitter, and @etre on Facebook — we’re always posting event photos and new giveaways! Also follow #etregirls and #EtreTheBook to join the movement and see where we’ll be next! So much of Être’s growth has been organic through social media…one girl telling another or tagging a friend…and we’re grateful every single time.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!
Thank you for your interest & enthusiasm!