Meredith Walker and Amy Poehler are cofounders of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, a positive online and offline community that provides young women with the encouragement and resources to be their authentic selves. Walker and Poehler became close friends when they worked together at Saturday Night Live, and often discussed how great it felt to be accepted and appreciated when they were younger. “Together we dreamed about helping young women find their way in the world while hanging onto their own identities,” Walker says. In 2008, they founded Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls to “provide a healthy alternative to the barrage of messaging being marketed to young people on the Internet.” As executive director, Walker leads workshops, service days, and Smart Girls’ volunteer teams to ensure that the Smart Girls’ motto — “change the world by being yourself” — is heard through their online content and offline programming.
Career Profile: Meredith Walker, Cofounder and Executive Director of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls
What inspired you to start Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls? What was your career path?
I have followed an unscripted, circuitous path. I have said yes to many opportunities and have acted on leaps of faith. I worked as a cook on a ranch in Montana, but I had absolutely no experience cooking for a living. I did time in cubicles, kitchens and on television shows earning an income from a variety of jobs — some requiring more stamina and less ego than others — but every experience has informed me along the way.
My television career started with an internship at Lucky Duck Productions working for the legendary journalist and producer, Linda Ellerbee. She is a tried and true journalist, seeker of truth and a gifted writer. Linda taught me how to craft stories, hone my interview skills, develop news segments and become an advocate for people who needed one. She took a chance on me, and I ended up working with her for several years before accepting a job in the talent department at Saturday Night Live.
Amy Poehler joined the cast of SNL, and we quickly became inseparable. Through the years, we talked about our adolescence and remembered how good it felt when someone wanted to hear what we had to say and appreciated our goofy, undercooked selves. Together we dreamed about helping young women find their way in the world while hanging onto their own identities. We wanted to provide a healthy alternative to the barrage of messaging being marketed to young people on the Internet, and we were given the chance to do just that in 2008.
Since then, I’ve worked to create a safe haven for girls to engage in intelligent conversation and to look for those qualities that make them more alike than different. Through a foundation of inclusive content that highlights an amalgam of stories and voices, girls remain curious about themselves and each other.
What has been the biggest challenge and, on the flip side, the biggest reward of starting Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls?
The biggest challenge about this labor of love has been finding a way to always make it work before finding a home at Legendary. Smart Girls is a passion and a calling which has led to innovating and evolving along the way. Alongside building a robust community via social media, I organized volunteer days, mentored local girls and started speaking at schools and attending conferences.
The biggest reward has been spending time with people — getting to know them, listening to them and hearing their stories as I spread the message of Smart Girls. I know the power of being seen and heard, and that’s what drives me to grow this movement.
What is a workday as Meredith like? Please walk me through a day!
Storytelling, journalism and facts are what we do at Smart Girls, so the first thing I do every morning is read the newspaper and a few websites with good fact-checking departments. I look for story ideas and content inspiration as I work on developing curriculum for Smart Girls’ workshops. I meet with people who want to collaborate with us — whether it’s a like-minded organization, a non-governmental organization or a scientist at University of Texas. I mentor girls in real life and online and every day I try to learn more about adolescents and the issues and topics that matter to them. On most days I am most likely on a plane to give a talk, lead a workshop or be on a panel somewhere.
You lead workshops and events for Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. I’m sure there have been many memorable moments, but are there any that stick out to you?
There are too many memorable moments to list, but today my favorite memory is meeting a 75-year old woman who told me she swims twice a week after being housebound for years. She was motivated by our message, “Get Your Hair Wet,” which is to say get off the sidelines and jump all the way into life. Smart Girls subscribes to the idea that it’s never too late to try new ways of living and being.
Another great memory is of Shaza, who I met in Jordan after she and her family fled the war in Syria. We didn’t speak the same language — and we came from seemingly different worlds — but she made me smile and I made her laugh. We drew pictures for each other and acted a little goofy in a bleak setting. When we said goodbye, she removed the necklace she was wearing and placed it around my neck. It was an unbelievably powerful moment.
You spent time at a Syrian refugee camp sharing girls’ and women’s stories with the Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls’ community. What were some key takeaways from that experience?
The women and girls in those camps are not going to school and don’t have much variety in their daily lives. It meant a lot to them that people traveled great distances to be with them, and it meant a lot to me to be able to travel to be with them. Differences in cultures, prayers, clothing and geography cannot erase our shared humanity. Before I left for Jordan, we asked our community what they’d want to know about the young women with whom I’d be spending time. In person, I conveyed those messages letting the Syrian girls know that people around the world know about them, are interested in them and care about them. In turn, I asked what messages they wanted me to take back. I wrote about it on Smart Girls and talked to school groups about the girls when I returned. If we are curious about ourselves as well as perspectives other than or own, the world is better for it.
What are your responsibilities as cofounder and executive director of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls?
I continue to build Smart Girls through partnerships and strategic relationships, write editorial content about my experiences with girls and women and recruit interesting people to write for us. I am frequently on the road serving as a Smart Girls ambassador, spreading the word about our mission to spend time on things that matter to the best part of you and encouraging participation in life. I lead workshops, talk in classrooms, create events for Smart Girl volunteer groups and travel to places like Malawi, Jordan and Haiti.
What are the most important characteristics someone needs to have to be successful in your role?
Tenacity, curiosity, humility, conviction, belief in my vocation and a sense of humor.
What are characteristics you look for when you’re hiring a new team member?
An expansive point of view, intelligence, soulfulness, integrity and a healthy dose of goofiness for good measure.
What are the most important skills for doing your job and how did you develop them?
I developed my skills by being around good, intelligent and funny people. When I worked for Linda Ellerbee, my immediate boss was an Emmy award-winning producer named Mark Lyons. He made sure we told good stories as segment producers. He was that Lou Grant-type — the person you didn’t want to disappoint — so we all worked hard to make sure we didn’t.
My father is an Episcopal priest, and he and my mother were both civil rights activists. When AIDS cases were first being reported, my parents were noticeably inclusive and welcoming to people who had been diagnosed with the mysterious disease. Witnessing my parents being kind to people to whom others were not had a long-lasting effect on me. As a result, I tend to get worked up by injustice and do my part in making sure everyone feels included. A fundamental principle for Smart Girls is social justice, and I try to successfully model our messaging and content on the exemplary leadership and behavior that changes lives for the better.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned at work, and how did you learn it?
I’m no stranger to making blunders at work or in life — that’s what makes us human. From sending an important email to the wrong recipient, or worse like accidentally hitting reply all with a private message, to not getting enough footage for a story, I’ve learned that no matter how hard you try not to mess up, mistakes are inevitable. But it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you handle it and what you learn from it. Find your resilience, fix it as best you can, get over it and move forward.
You are involved with numerous organizations including Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, ONE Girls and Women Advisory Board, and The White House’s Let Girls Learn Initiative. Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls is also focused on women’s empowerment. What is your advice for young women who want to help their community by finding causes they care about?
They can go to Wendy Davis’ empowering website, Deeds Not Words. It’s set up to help you understand causes you care about most, and they guide you to be a participant in solutions. Do Something is another excellent resource. Or use our toolkits — we have some about senior citizens, volunteering at dog shelters and other civic participation. It’s important is to realize that you can make a difference from wherever you are right now.
What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?
After working at the ranch in Montana the summer after graduating from college, I took a job at a law firm in downtown Houston and didn’t have a car. Houston is not an easy town to be careless in. I seemed to be the only woman on the bus I took to work, and the law firm job required that I wear hosiery. It was not a good time for me.
That experience turned out to be one of life’s many waystations, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. Then, in a moment of grace, a light bulb went off one day as I pretended to work in my cubicle. I was thinking about a documentary class in college that really spoke to me, which interestingly turned out to be the only A+ I ever earned in college. So instead of wallowing in my self-imposed misery, I enrolled in a broadcast journalism night class at Rice University and, from that, a career was born. I wish I’d had a better understanding that my temporary circumstance was an opportunity for me to figure out who I was and what truly interested me. When I talk to young people now, I relay this message and remind them that they are free to forge meaning in their lives on their own terms.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Read Pema Chödrön’s work.
What is your business advice for other young professional women?
Human decency takes priority, so focus on building your character. If you are in a position of privilege and power and have a voice that can be heard, use it to help bring others up. Never forget that we stand on the shoulders of women who fought hard battles knowing the results wouldn’t come until later. Honor them.
Also, acknowledge your team. Do not be stingy with pats on the back. Give credit where credit is due. Letting others know their hard work is appreciated is good for all of us and keeps the energy positive. It’s what decent humans do.