As part of this year’s “We Will Be” project, Barneys was honored to work with an incredible organization called MAKERS, a media platform that aims to inspire and encourage by providing access to the stories of trailblazing women in a variety of fields. Founded in 2012, MAKERS is the passion project and brainchild of Dyllan McGee, a documentary filmmaker whose work has been seen on HBO and PBS and has garnered her two Emmys and four more nominations. With a resume like that, we figured it was time to pull McGee out from behind the camera and turn the spotlight on this incredible woman herself.
The idea for MAKERS originated in 2004, when McGee set out to make a film about Gloria Steinem, only to have her proposal rejected by the women’s rights pioneer. The problem, Steinem told her, was that her vision was too narrow and that, in order to tell a true story of the Women’s Movement, McGee would have to tell the stories of women—lots of women. In the years since, McGee has filmed interviews with everyone from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Lena Dunham to flight attendants and coal miners. Her aim, she says, is to tell every woman’s story, and to that end, she has also introduced the MAKERS Stories App, which gives women everywhere a platform to tell their own stories.
In our ongoing look at the women who inspire us, we recently chatted with McGee about the incredible undertaking of MAKERS, what drives her to want to support and empower her fellow women, and what she hopes people take away from both MAKERS and the ‘We Will Be’ partnership with Barneys.
The Window: To begin with, you tell so many other women’s stories, so thank you for taking a moment to tell us your own. Can you start by sharing a bit about your upbringing? How would you say it shaped you and what you’re doing now?
Dyllan McGee: I grew up in New York City and went to a very progressive school—there were no grades, only teacher comments. We had gospel holiday performances, sang “We Shall Overcome,” and held hands at school assemblies—it was incredible. My mother was a strong reproductive rights and LGBTQ advocate, so fighting for civil rights was a core piece of my upbringing. Though—funnily enough—my mother never wanted to be associated with feminists!
It seems a bit shocking that your mother would bristle at being called a feminist, given that many people would describe your work for MAKERS as the pinnacle of that movement.
The stigma around “feminism” frustrates me because it lumps all women together into one group. My hope is that MAKERS shows how vast and diverse the Women’s Movement is and brings women together in an inclusive community. We tell the stories of women ranging from firefighters to celebrities, and while our professions and backgrounds are so vastly different and our approach to achieving equality varies, at the end of the day we all share a common mission.
Given the variety of points of view, where does one even begin when it comes to telling a collective story of the women’s movement?
One story at a time! We don’t get overwhelmed; we see nothing but possibilities all around us. We even created the MAKERS Stories App, so that anyone can tell her own MAKERS story. While we don’t get overwhelmed, I want to be clear that our goal is to tell every woman’s story, so we do still have a lot more work to do!
Gloria Steinem seems to have provided the jumping-off point for the founding of MAKERS. Can you tell us a bit more about how she inspired you?
MAKERS actually began when I asked Gloria Steinem just to tell her story in a documentary for HBO. She said, ‘You can’t tell the story of the Women’s Movement through the story of one person.’ Her ‘no’ turned into the best ‘yes’ I’ve ever received, because it became the catalyst for creating MAKERS. But we wouldn’t be the brand we are today without AOL—[AOL CEO] Tim Armstrong believed and invested in the idea early on, and AOL, along with an extraordinary team, has been paramount to the success of MAKERS.
Well after Gloria’s ‘no,’ your very first interview for MAKERS was a big one: Sheryl Sandberg. Did her interview shape the interviews that came afterward?
I’ll never forget that interview. When Sheryl said for the first time that she leaves work at 5:30PM every day, it ignited a movement. That showed all of us the potential for the brand. It was exciting! It’s incredible how consistent our approach has been over the past five years since MAKERS launched. We spend about an hour with our MAKERS, and we start with childhood and go all the way up to today. Our secret sauce is that we focus on the person herself—our interviews are not issue-driven, but we end up getting to the issues through a personal narrative.
Has any single MAKERS interview been the most impactful for you personally?
People ask me this, and I always say that it’d be like choosing your favorite child! That being said, my interview with Oprah was memorable because my mother had passed away two weeks beforehand, and rather than canceling, I put all my attention into this. I think it may have been the best interview I have ever done. She was supposed to stay for 30 minutes, but stayed well over an hour and, in her Oprah way, made me feel like she was opening up for the first time. Another MAKER who’s had a huge impact on the brand is Megan Smith, the third Chief Technology Officer of the United States. She taught all of us the importance of telling the stories of women in the tech industry, and one of the women she introduced us to was Katherine Johnson—a NASA mathematician who is now the subject of the film Hidden Figures, thanks in large part to Megan’s insistence that her story be told.
You often focus on women like Megan who are leaders in their own industries—what three characteristics would you say make for a successful leader?
A vision that drives them, willingness to take risks, and a disregard for what others will think. I think that last one needs a little more focus from women than men. Women tend to worry more about how they are perceived by others.
There’s also a tendency that may be stronger for women, the habit of comparing oneself to others. We often hear about women who are viewed as “having it all.” How would you define “having it all,” or what does that look like for you?
To me, having it all is feeling fulfilled in life—living without guilt. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve learned to say no to pretty much everything that doesn’t directly have to do with my children or work! I don’t volunteer at my children’s schools, I’m not involved in any local community organizations, and I don’t sit on any boards. As a result, I really enjoy my time both with my family and at work, and the balance feels right.
What advice would you offer someone with an eye to advancing their career, regardless of their field?
Be the CEO of whatever you are doing—from running a team to heading a project, just make sure that you focus your time on taking the initiative to do what you do really, really well. Often, people are more focused on advancement than on the work at hand. If you find, though, that you’re continually exceeding expectations in the work itself, yet still aren’t advancing, then ask. Remember that no one else can write your story.
What message do you hope that people take away from your work with MAKERS?
At MAKERS, we want to flood the marketplace with role models of women from all walks of life. As Gloria and so many of our MAKERS have put it, ‘If she can see it, she can be it,’ and we want to make sure that every girl can see it. We want to use our stories to shape the leaders—and the MAKERS!—of tomorrow.