She Started It: Behind the documentary that’s inspiring female entrepreneurs worldwide

She Started It, a documentary that embodies female entrepreneurship, has been shaking things up in the world of tech since its release in 2016.

The film follows five young women as they journey through the difficult process of pitching, building, and expanding their own startups. From San Francisco to New York, France to Vietnam, She Started It quite literally allows its audience to travel the world and see firsthand the severity of female underrepresentation in the rising and precarious sphere of entrepreneurship and venture capital.

We had the chance to talk to the directors of the film, Nora Poggi and Insiyah Saeed, so that they could share and reflect on the past years of producing and debuting the film since the project launched in 2013.

Describe the moment you first got the idea for the documentary.

Nora: At a Women 2.0 conference in 2013! I met Thuy [Truong] and that’s kind of where the Thuy journey started. Basically the whole thing is tied to showcasing women founders and I think Women 2.0 is a very big part of that because that was the only place at the time that would shine a light on key women. So what about a movie for millions of people to discover these awesome women entrepreneurs and be inspired by them?

Insiyah: Nora and I were both at that Women 2.0 conference and we didn’t know each other then. We met each other later on at an event and Nora had already been networking around and talking to people like, “I want to make a documentary!” She already shot a few people and did a couple interviews and I had met her there and said, “Hey, let’s meet for coffee,” and it kinda went from there. 

How much access to the women’s lives did you get?

Insiyah: I would say they were incredibly generous with their time considering they were really, really busy entrepreneurs. That being said, these entrepreneurs also don’t want to release everything, like their “secret sauce” or investor issues, and you don’t want to have everything out there so there was some limited access. It was a tricky documentary to make. 

What key observations did you make about things the women all had in common/didn’t have in common?

Nora: In terms of in common, personally, I felt that all the stuff that entrepreneurs “must” have that’s really clichéd is actually not a cliché. I was really stunned that the women—and we interviewed close to 75 people total over the years—all had that resilience. Failure was never a concern because they never gave up and they kept going at it again and again.

 Insiyah: I completely agree. I think they had thick skin, because of the constant rejection, the constant pitching, the constant preparing, and everything! I mean that’s extreme to somebody who has thick skin and I think there’s an art to that. One thing that we’re trying to do with this film is to show people that no one is born so strong and confident. So these women were kind of thrown into this and they kept going at it, and it was a chance to show other young girls and women that, “Hey, you can do that too.” Building those skills is important and we really want to teach girls to build that kind of resilience and take more risks and not be so afraid to try new things. 

How much support did these women receive from family, specifically spouses, throughout it all?

Insiyah: I think all of them had support from someone—whether it was family, whether it was a boyfriend, whether it was friends or mentors they reached out to—so I think that was the key to all of their relationships and to their success. And that being said, being an entrepreneur can also be lonely and you must also rely on your own instincts. They were taking what they learned and they would really run with it. And in terms of just the support network, I think we both realized that that is absolutely essential, but you also have to rely on yourself as well.

How are people responding to the film?

 Nora: So that’s the exciting part! We actually premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October 2016 and it was great reception. Since then, we’ve been on tour, screening all around the world. We’ve met a lot of the audiences ourselves and had a Q&A after the screenings so that we could really talk to people about the topic. People were really fascinated by the film because they had never seen anything like this, like they’d never seen the behind-the-scenes of that journey especially from a female point-of-view. Starting in the fall, we’re going to be working with the education distributors to get the film out to more people.

 

What was the most inspiring moment in the film? The most discouraging?

Insiyah: Inspiring was just being able to see the women at work daily, to see what they’re going through and how they’re handling their situation. They were so incredible to quickly switch gears if something didn’t go right or quickly make a decision and move on if something wasn’t working, so just watching them for me was one of the biggest inspirations.

In terms of discouraging, I think everything that we learned was always encouraging. I mean, there were moments we had that were moments of fear, but at the end of the day, we realized that things will work out if you don’t give up and we learned that from [the women]. I don’t know if we were ever really discouraged. I think we were just running.

Nora: Little by little, we realized a film is like a startup. So what we were filming really became our own business—having to fundraise, going after certain individuals—and that was hard but we were just so passionate about it. You really, really have to be passionate about what you’re doing. Like what Insiyah was saying, we were running because we had a goal and we weren’t going to stop until it was done. We kept at it because we were following such passionate, strong, resilient people, and we didn’t have the luxury of saying, “I’m going to give up.”

What were you hoping for people to learn after watching this film? Looking back on it almost a year later, do you think this goal was achieved?

Nora: For us, first off, the goal is not going to be achieved until we have reached a million women and girls by 2018, so education distribution, online distribution, and the screening tour is what we’re working on to get to that point. We realized that a lot of people didn’t realize the hard work that goes into making something, so we were not going to sugarcoat it. The film could be told in so many different ways and it’s really eccentric. People will appreciate that kind of sincerity and at the same time, they come away thinking this is hard work but it’s still inspiring people to persevere despite obstacles. We wanted that grit and that resilience to be front and center for girls.

 Insiyah: The film went even farther than we thought in terms of where we could reach people and how each community around the world is responding. We have some super fans that are just attached to our film, and we didn’t know that was going to happen. We didn’t know that people in India and Germany and Malta and Israel would see it. We’re just really amazed at where they found us, how they heard about us, how much they want to see it, and how excited they are that we’re bringing it to their community. I don’t think we ever imagined it could go that far and we’re just hoping it’ll go even farther.

 Nora: One thing we didn’t anticipate seeing was the community building aspect because a lot of people who host screenings could be teachers, educators, etc., and they kind of banned together. Sometimes five or six organizations would locally ban together to plan and host a screening of the film and so we didn’t see beforehand the power of that—that we’re helping people strengthen their communities.

Insiyah: People everywhere have almost the same problems and the same struggles, whether you’re creating a startup in Africa or you’re in Silicon Valley, and it doesn’t make a difference. Learning those things and knowing that we’re different but the same is actually really interesting.


About the She Started It team

Nora Poggi is a French journalist/filmmaker directing her debut film, She Started It. She has interviewed key players in Silicon Valley for the past four years for publications including Examiner.com & Usine Nouvelle. She previously worked at French social network Viadeo.com and award-winning production company Lucky Dragon Productions. She is a TEDx speaker and has been featured in Inc, Forbes, Fast Company, Glamour, Huffington Post and others.

Insiyah Saeed is a journalist and documentary producer based in Silicon Valley. With a background in storytelling and a passion for women empowerment, Insiyah combines these two passions in her work on She Started It. As an award-winning writer in print, Insiyah has been published in Huffington Post, The New York Sun, The Wall Street Journal, Women 2.0 and other tech blogs. Insiyah is graduate of the Columbia J-School and has worked extensively in film.

As for Nora and Insiyah’s next project, they’re planning to write a book that will take readers behind-the-scenes of the making of She Started It. Currently, the two are still open to hosting screenings of the film, so if you’re interesting in bringing She Started It to your community, see shestarteditfilm.com for more details!