Emily May is co-founder and Executive Director of Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology. Started in 2005 in NYC, Hollaback has grown to eight affiliate sites worldwide and has been featured on Good Morning America, MSNBC and in the New York Times. I met Emily on a panel on careers in advocacy for women where it was clear that she LOVES her job.
1. What do you love about your job?
My favorite part of my job is working with our international site leaders. They are so inspirational, so passionate, and so dedicated. They do this work because they believe in it (they are not paid), and at least once a week one of them will do something that makes me shed a happy tear. Because even executive director’s cry, and anyone who tells you this work isn’t emotional is lying.
2. Did you always know this was the job or career path for you?
I started Hollaback as a side project with friends in 2005, and it took me a long time to recognize the impact of what we had created. It also took me a long time to recognize that my voice mattered. It wasn’t until 2009 when I did a Progressive Women’s Voices training through the Women’s Media Center that I realized by staying on the sidelines, I was slowing the pace of progress. I started Hollaback for me – because I wanted a response to street harassment – but once I took a look around I realized that Hollaback had become much, much bigger than me. Even four years after it launched people were still responding to the work, and were continuing to launch sites internationally. I thought: if this is what success for Hollaback looks like without any staff, what could it look like if with staff? Needless to say, with only one full time dedicated staff person the organization has exploded this year.
3. What are the most important lessons you have you learned along the way?
I learned that leading as a woman is hard. Even though I always knew that sexism existed, I used to think that if I just worked harder than everyone else it wouldn’t really affect me. Not so. If you are making change, you are pissing people off. And if you are a woman pissing people off, well watch out. People will try to throw every road block in your way. They will tell you that you are ugly and fat, threaten violence against you, you name it. If you really want it though – and if you are really all in – you will keep going even in the face of all this. But don’t forget to buy yourself a nice cocktail every once and a while.
4. Tell us about a defining moment for you related to your work.
I really like to please people. And I hate it when people don’t like me. In the first six months of my job – we had achieved so much success – and so much backlash. It seemed like everyone had a perspective on this work. And none of it was consistent. I was making hundreds of decisions everyday, and there so few clearcut answers. At some point I realized that I was leading this organization based on pure gut instinct. That was really scary. It meant that to run the best organization I could run, I needed to be the best person I could be. Everything about who I am is put to the test everyday, and sure, mistakes are made. But I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve accomplished.
5. What advice do you have for people looking to find work they love, in your field, or any field?
Try lots of things. Learn what you love and what you hate. Find the things that you are good at – and try to get a job where you get to do those things all day, and don’t feel bad about steering clear of things that you are terrible at. Someone else is good at those things, so move over and give them a chance. You’ve got a better job waiting for you anyway.