November 9, 2012 | Education

Woman of the Week: Tammy Tibbetts

Woman of the Week: Tammy Tibbetts

Woman of the Week Tammy Tibbetts is the founder and president of She’s the First, a social-media driven non-profit organization that sponsors girls’ education in developing world countries. As of 2011, She’s the First has sponsored 161 girls across eight countries.

After graduating from the College of New Jersey, Tammy began working in the magazine industry at Hearst Digital Media. Tammy’s experiences from developing the web and digital media strategy of Seventeen Magazine and her passion for education for girls around the world drove her to launch a YouTube video campaign, the beginning of She’s the First.

Tammy spoke to the Women in the World Foundation about the necessity of sustainable non-profit models, her passion for girls’ education around the world, and the tips and advice she has picked up along her career.

Why did you decide to focus on girls’ education after a promising career in journalism?

Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a decision, but just a natural evolution. I’ve always been passionate about connecting to girls and investing in their potential to drive change in their communities.

Ultimately, She’s the First resonated with people more than I ever dreamed it would. Beyond raising awareness, we were inspiring action--our model was working, so how could I not run with it to make an even bigger impact?

There’s no doubt that my experience as a web and social media editor at Hearst Magazines, where I was on the Seventeen team, contributed to the successful launch and growth of She’s the First. In my free time, I was able to transfer those marketing, editorial, and social media skills to She’s the First. In fact, the concept of She’s the First as a directory of schools where you could sponsor girls was directly inspired by the model I built with, which was a directory of prom dress drive organizations where you could donate dresses to girls in financial need. I knew there had to be a way to transfer the wildly successful strategies for running profitable prom websites and video series into launching a campaign that would bring in just as much money, if not more, to send girls to school.

Can you describe the process of how you got to where you are?

I didn’t understand the tragedies of war and the pain of poverty until my senior year of college, when I did an intense reporting assignment on a woman who was a refugee of the Liberian Civil War. When the project ended, I couldn’t just walk away with my A+ on the assignment and forget about it. I wanted to do something to help. From 2007 to 2009, I volunteered as Director of Operations for her foundation that sponsored children and was building a school in Liberia.

The founder invited me to travel with her to Liberia in December 2007, when she organized a party on Christmas Day to distribute gifts and a warm meal to 300 orphans. We served meals, played games and gifted backpacks. The former camp counselor in me was amazed that there wasn’t one fight among the kids.

After the trip, my heart stayed in Liberia, and I wanted to help in education - 40 million girls around the world who should be in school are not.

In volunteering and posting so many related photos and news articles to my Facebook page about the issue, I realized my friends wanted to take action, but they couldn’t afford the tickets to the fancy galas the Liberia foundation hosted. I also wanted to expand my reach to girls in multiple countries and to partner with organizations that were making strong community-based decisions but needed help getting U.S. youth involved.

So, with the teamwork of some visionary friends, most notably Christen Brandt (now our Director of International Operations), we launched She’s the First as a YouTube video that would provide a social media call to action for a global crisis demanding our attention—the lack of universal education. Our message was clear: Gather your friends; contribute small donations individually, and collectively, you will sponsor a girl’s education and change her life trajectory. I saw no reason why donations couldn’t be traced dollar-for-dollar and believed in building a sustainable yet 100% direct-to-girls sponsorship model. My vision is a world where youth around the world define their aspirations based on brave “firsts” and achieve them with peer-to-peer support.

How did you come to be so passionate about education?

I grew up in suburban NJ, and my whole life is really one ironic chapter after another! The solid foundation is that I was surrounded by loving parents who encouraged me to pursue what made me happy and to be kind to others. When I was a kid, we took our family vacations in the Amish Country of Pennsylvania - so naturally, I thrive on New York City life. As a teen, I was voted Most Shy in high school - so naturally, I grew up to be an outspoken leader. As a college student, I was 100% focused on establishing a career in the print magazine industry - so naturally, after graduating, I took a job at Hearst Digital Media.

If there’s any lesson in my backstory, it’s that life leads you down paths you don’t expect; as long as you are surrounded by supportive people and have an education, you can break down the barriers. Education has been the constant in my life. Becoming a journalist was still the best decision I ever made, because being a storyteller, thinking critically, checking my facts, listening to others’ voices - all those skills enable dynamic leadership of She’s the First.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to women at the moment?

Women can oftentimes be their own biggest obstacles. I think we’re capable of overcoming anything, but first, you can’t hold yourself back, thinking you’re not smart enough, well-connected enough, outgoing enough, etc. You just have to surround yourself with smart people and do it!
Who are some of the people that have inspired and influenced you in your career?

Given that I started out on the magazine path, one of my greatest inspirations is Ruth Whitney, who was the legendary editor of Glamour during the crucial decades of American feminism. I received a scholarship in her memory when I was in college. Ms. Whitney put the first African-American woman on the cover, addressed hard-hitting stories pertaining to health and domestic abuse, and led the publication to win its first National Magazine Award - unheard of for a women’s magazine. Her mantra of “style and substance” guided my career at Hearst Magazines and ultimately blazed my way to She’s the First.

The Women in the World Foundation recently launched its new college campus initiative called Women in the World on Campus. Do you have any advice for young women looking to engage with some kind of activist work in their careers?

The first step is to find a mentor in your workplace or on your campus who will hear out your ideas and guide you on how to execute your action plan.

It’s also important to not let perfection get in the way of better. Do what you can with what you have, whenever you can...every bit counts.