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Refinery29's Christene Barberich on How All the No's Pushed Her Forward

The co-founder and global editor-in-chief reveals who all her 'high priestesses of strength' are during her times of need.
Refinery29's Christene Barberich on How All the No's Pushed Her Forward
Image credit: Courtesy of Christene Barberich
Entrepreneur Staff
Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.
9 min read

Editor’s Note: Inspire Me is a series in which entrepreneurs and leaders share what motivates them through good times and bad, while also sharing stories of how they overcame challenges in hopes of inspiring others.

When you launch a business, you want it to grow and thrive. But you want to make sure the hallmarks of that initial idea that you were so passionate about stay intact as the company evolves. This is the constant push and pull that Christene Barberich experiences as the co-founder and the global editor-in-chief of Refinery29.

In 2005, Barberich, Piera Gelardi, Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano founded the site from a kitchen table in Brooklyn. But today, Barberich is overseeing an operation that has a presence all over the world. What began as a guide to hidden style and fashion gems in New York City has vastly expanded in scope over the last thirteen years.

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The company now has a staff of more than 400 in New York, Berlin, London and Los Angeles. While style is certainly still a focus, the site’s coverage has expanded to cover health and wellness, careers, personal finance and popular culture.

Refinery29’s audience of more than 425 million -- across all its platforms -- come to the site to get off-the-beaten-track insights and stories from women who are blazing their own trails.

Barberich says every day she is focused on ensuring that what is published on the site is consistent with the company’s core mission of helping women live their version of a well-rounded life. And while staying on top of all the logistics involved in growing a global brand, she wants to still be able to be a mentor to her employees.

Related: Why Your Done List is Just as Important as Your To-Do List

“[I’m] thinking constantly about what the team needs, how they could be best supported, refining career paths, and maintaining an environment of positivity and well-being,” says Barberich. “It can be a lot, but it's a challenge and a particular understanding that's worth it."

Flexibility is the name of the game, and Barberich notes that in tough moments, it requires her to seek out inspiration and motivation from sources that range from her beloved readers to media mogul role models, including Oprah Winfrey.

“As women [while we] are so often tested, we aren't alone -- we are a part of a long lineage of builders, caregivers and rule breakers, and feeling that presence, that energy can be exactly what I need to push ahead, even when I don't exactly know what I'm doing.”   

Barberich spoke with Entrepreneur about what drives her when the going gets tough.

When did you realize you wanted to go into business on your own?
Early in my career, I had the good fortune of working at a world-class publishing company, and while the skills I developed there provided the foundation for my role as an editor, I felt very limited by all the rules and restrictions that often come with such juggernauts. It's true, you need a certain degree of systems and formulas to scale and function at a high level, but I always needed that space to take risks, ask questions and solve a problem in a new way. That’s why I've always been drawn to startups. Hatching the "how" and "why" at the beginning of something never ceases to thrill me.

Was there someone who told you that you could launch the company?
I honestly think it's all the people who told me I couldn't do it -- there were many -- that pushed me forward. Sometimes the word “no” can be more motivating than “yes.”  

What do you find to be a challenge in running your company?
For me personally, the challenge of constantly pivoting my thinking and approach between an established successful global brand and scrappy startup is always active. No matter how big or successful you become, it's important to employ your startup instincts in the right places, and at the right times, to stay creatively and strategically aware. If you lose that, I think the spark starts to fade.   

Related: The CEO of the Girl Scouts Wants to Turn Today's Cookie Sellers Into Tomorrow's Powerful Female Entrepreneurs

What is a quote that inspires you, and why?
The author and poet Dorothy Parker said, "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." I love this quote because it speaks to my constant urge, even when it's scary, to explore what is possible, what is necessary to get our brains running in new directions, to shift our energies toward higher work. And hopefully, the people around you, too. The other quote I love is “I dwell in possibility,” from Emily Dickinson. I think that’s good advice for life, not just for work.  

What is a book that inspires you and why?
The book I've most recently been talking about a lot and recommending to people is Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. The author, Elizabeth Winder, took great care to paint a very real picture not just of Sylvia Plath, but of all the talented women whom she worked alongside that summer, and the choices they were forced to make around family, life and career.

The themes of societal pressure and a need to conform were obviously much more potent in the 1950s, but so much of what these women faced in terms of the image of "success" is still so relevant to today. Women are always asked to sacrifice and to take on more for the sake of others. This book makes you think about what might have happened if Sylvia Plath or any woman at that time were free to live the life that felt most right and real, not most convenient or acceptable.  

Who is a woman that inspires you, and why?
Oprah -- she is my true north for making sure my life and purpose continually rise above all my bullshit. It's hard, but it's possible.

What inspires you at work?
[I’m inspired ] when a young editor or writer emails me or asks me a question or sends me an idea, and I can see the wheels are turning and they're onto something. That takes me right back to why I wanted to do this in the first place. When we launch a big story or program, you can literally feel the energy vibrating at a higher level in the office. The team has such pride. And of course, when readers come up to me on the street and ask me about women I work with that they follow and love or things Refinery29 has created that have had meaning in their lives, like the 67% Project, 29Rooms or the UnStyled podcast. When we are reminded that all the hours we put in have the power to launch discussions, change minds, shift perspectives, how can you not be inspired?  

Related: How This Former Makeup Artist Broke the Rules to Create a YouTube Community of More Than 2 Million

Are there lessons from earlier bosses or mentors that you think back on when you need an extra boost or bit of encouragement?
It always comes back to my earliest lessons as an editor: Setting aside my own ego, again and again, which can be hard, to help a writer or editor discover and develop her own true voice. I'm more removed from the editing process now, but whenever I have the chance to work closely with another editor or writer, this lesson comes back to me.  

What has inspired you to be a better person?
Forgiveness and remembering that I am as vulnerable and a work in progress as everyone else. When I am reminded of this, I remember the great responsibility to have empathy for all people in all conditions and situations facing challenges we can't ever know or imagine.

When you are feeling at your worst, what inspires you?
Watching Oprah's talk at Stanford Business School. I love that a student interviews her and does it beautifully. And then, there are so many important beliefs that she shares that have truly guided me over the past few years -- everything from her definition of luck as the preparation meeting the moment of opportunity to how she dealt with always being the only woman in the room.

She also references a line from one of Maya Angelou's poems, "I come as one, but I stand as 10,000." She talks about how when she walks into a room -- particularly when she has something challenging to do or knows she'll be up against obstacles -- she literally sits and calls on those 10,000: "I will call on my ancestors, those who came before me, the women that forged a path that I might be able to sit in a room with all those white men...and love it, just love it."

That belief and practice is something that's become a sort of ritual for me, calling upon the support of the women who came before me when I'm in tough or unknowable circumstances, both in my work and my life.

For those women who are looking to start a business, or have begun one but are feeling discouraged, what advice do you have for them to keep going?
I think the trick is knowing why you're doing it. You have to love it, really, really love it and believe in your heart that this is more than a business, it's a personal destiny. As soon as that belief clicks in, you will truly be unstoppable.

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