Girlboss’ COO and editor in chief spent her teens dreaming of Ally McBeal’s job. Instead, she’s built the media career many dream about.
Neha Gandhi cut her teeth holding editorships at Harper’s Bazaar and Seventeen, before leading the strategy and innovation charge at Refinery29.And yes, she interviewed the current president of the United States (as well as the democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton) along the way.
Now the 35-year-old ideas machine has joined Girlboss, because like the rest of us on the team, she’s inspired by what we’re building, together. But how exactly did she get here? Let’s pick her beautiful brain to find out.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
An attorney. Or more specifically, a lady in a red power suit with a briefcase who I assumed to be an attorney. En route to a Braves game, I once glimpsed such a woman walking down the public transit platform in Atlanta (where I grew up) and felt an instant desire to be exactly her “when I grew up.”
That image has always stuck with me as the definition of “confident working woman.” Plus, I loved Ally McBeal, debate and mock trial (and verbal sparring in general) in my teens. As I got older I realized that corporate law wasn’t quite that for most people, and shifted my sights over to using words in a different way.
Long story short, what did you do to get to where you are today?
I meandered a bit in college, unsure of what I wanted once I realized that corporate law might not be the right path for me. I tested out a summer working in my congressman’s office, another working for a nonprofit, and a third working at Peoplemagazine. That last experience got me hooked. I got to fact-check for the magazine, write and research for the website, and basically just see how a magazine was made.
After graduating, I landed a paid internship at InStyle (because I couldn’t land a full-time job with only one publishing internship under my belt!) and moved to New York with two suitcases in tow. Eventually, I found a freelance editorial assistant job at Ladies’ Home Journal and More’s websites, and that’s where I really learned to edit and assign, and build for the internet—before most publishers were really thinking about the internet.
I moved on to a few other magazines—Harper’s Bazaar and then Seventeen—where I really become a proper magazine editor and learned to go beyond the fundamentals of writing, reporting, interviewing, and editing.
From there, I moved on to Refinery29, where I oversaw editorial, and later social, strategy, analytics, and innovation. I stayed at R29 for six years and got to have a hand in growing it from a small startup to one of the most powerful digital destinations for women. And now, I’m starting with a small team again, excited to build something amazing at Girlboss.
What exactly do you do every day, anyway?
I ask myself that a lot. Every day feels wildly different, especially at a startup this size. I get to wear all the hats, sometimes, and pitch in wherever we need to focus. Practically, that means I’m out in the world meeting diverse people, evangelizing the Girlboss brand while also keeping an eye on the content we are making every day, assigning some features, writing a little bit, and helping to shape our distro strategy as the media landscape changes.
I’m also managing a team, and thinking a lot about our culture and environment. It’s important to me that every person who works at Girlboss understands our mission and is pointed toward a single north star—and that they are getting the guidance and mentorship to improve in their chosen field while delivering against clear business goals. So I spend a lot of time thinking about that. All these focus areas keep me on my toes and ensure that every day is an interesting new challenge.
What’s the worst career advice you ever got?
“Put your head down and work harder than everyone around you.” That’s not bad advice per se, but it’s incomplete advice. I’ve always been a worker and a people pleaser, but it took me a long time to learn that it’s not enough to just do the job at hand and make your bosses happy.
If you want to be noticed and advance in an organization, you have to identify problems around you—business challenges—and figure out how your strengths can help to solve those. As a manager, the people I’ve always promoted the fastest have been the ones who know how to get their job done while also contributing in other ways. When you’re a problem solver, you’re indispensable.
What’s the best advice you never got?
“Nurture the type of leader you innately are—you don’t have to fit some cliche of a white-haired man in a boardroom to be effective.” For a long time, I believed that I needed to change the way I spoke (project your voice at a lower register, no uptalk, no apologies), carried myself, and interacted with others, to follow this stereotypical pattern of “how men lead.”
That’s not what’s right for me. I’m a listener and a nurturer. I care about my team and their well-being. I want people to understand me when I’m speaking about something complex—and I’ll stop to find out if what I’m saying makes sense to them. That all flies against traditional guidance, but in fact, all of those things make me much better at my job. They have led to more productive and better retained teams. And those teams have produced better work.
But nobody ever told me that it was okay to nurture my more traditionally “female” traits as I advanced—in fact, a lot of people told me the opposite. But emulating a leadership style that wasn’t mine has only let me to self-doubt and mistrust.
Cats or dogs?
Dogs. Never cats. They move far too fast for my comfort.
Sagittarius. Although I heard somewhere recently that all good EICs are Scorpios, so…
What three books changed your life?
Little Women: This book showed me how much I loved falling into a piece of writing’s fictional world and becoming totally absorbed with the characters residing in it. So much so, that I would argue that Theodore Laurence was my real first love.
The Blind Assassin:This book came out just as I was graduating from high school. It showed me what a truly complicated female lead could look like, and it got me hooked on Margaret Atwood. Plus, it taught me how dense and complicated a work of fiction can be—without being wholly plot driven. And that Booker Prize winners are the books most worth reading.
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: In college, a writing professor gave me this collection of profiles by Susan Orlean, in an effort to help me find my own voice. I was instantly dazzled, and finally understood what it meant to let your personality reflect through your writing. I suspect I’ll always have work to do when it comes to letting my voice shine in my work, but I think of Orlean’s prose often, when I put pen to paper.
And bonus points for Harry Potter. Because those books never get old, and I re-read them every time I get sick and am laid up in bed. I think they have actual healing properties.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever reported on?
Probably the launch of an NBC show called The Apprentice. Yes, that one. I interviewed hopefuls standing in line, and I went up to an office at the top of Trump Tower, covered in purple velvet and mirrors, and trimmed with gilt…and interviewed Donald Trump. We spoke for five minutes about the show, he gave me a quote involving the word “nasty,” (before it offended me quite the way it does now) and I co-produced a marginally interesting story.
Looking back, it’s very strange to think that after interviewing a range of political figures about policy, politics, and the world around us, the only time I’ve interviewed our current president was in conjunction with a reality show.
What does “girlboss” mean to you?
To me, a girlboss is someone who is still learning and figuring things out, but has confidence in herself and her abilities. She takes control of her life, and she gives herself permission to define success on her own terms—and change that definition whenever she damn well pleases.