By Marie Griffin, Director Content Strategy, KidBacker
Emily Raleigh, who is a senior at Fordham University, has already been running her own business for more than three years. Emily is the founder and CEO of Spire & Co. (formerly Smart Girls Group), which is comprised of peer-to-peer communities, in-person conferences, a media website and newsletters. Spire & Co. has an ambitious aim: to unite, empower and inspire ambitious young women around the world. With an infectious positive attitude, Emily has a lot to share with the KidBacker community about Spire & Co. and her entrepreneurial path, so let’s get to it:
KidBacker: How did Spire & Co get started?
Emily Raleigh: Spire & Co started because I am a big sister. I was a senior in high school when my little sister Sophie started high school, so I wrote her a kind of handbook. Kids are under a lot of pressure because college is becoming more and more competitive, and I wanted to help my sister in any way I could to ensure that she didn’t miss out on being happy. I gave it to her for Christmas, and she liked it; I started thinking of ways I could help other girls who didn’t have big sisters or anyone to look up to. I didn’t know everything, but I knew that, collectively, girls from all over coming together would definitely be able to give something back to the little sisters of the world. I don’t think there was an “aha” moment. I just got this feeling [that I wanted to do it more].
KB: How did Spire & Co evolve from there?
ER: I was looking for a platform to use to help smart girls all over, in whatever capacity they needed help, and I started a digital magazine. This was 2012 when a lot of digital magazines were starting, but there wasn’t any for our demographic. We eventually expanded with a blog platform because so many girls wanted to write, and there wasn’t enough room in the magazine.
We have shifted a little bit since then. Spire & Co is now more of a media website with articles going up every day. Now we have campus chapters—communities for girls who are interested in gathering and creating an influential voice—and live conferences, as well as our international sisterhood.
KB: So, you started Spire & Co as a digital magazine when you were in high school. How did you juggle the business and school?
ER: I was in my senior year of high school. It was something I was doing during a free period or when I was home from school. Looking back, I probably thought it was less time consuming than it actually was because it was a lot of fun.
KB: Where do you think your entrepreneurial bent comes from?
ER: Spire & Co itself is very much what I was taught growing up—how it’s important to be smart, to celebrate ambition, to cheer for other girls, and to create sisterhoods in your life. We were raised on girl power.
Entrepreneurship definitely came from my family. My dad’s an intrapreneur and my mom’s a teacher. Both of my grandparents are entrepreneurs, so I’ve learned a lot from them as well. My [grandfather] owns a small trucking company, and he has set a great example for me on what it means to run an ethical business. Also, I have very little fear of reaching out to people and asking to interview them for Spire & Co or to meet with them [to talk about the business].
KB: When did Spire & Co take off?
ER: I had never done this before, so I didn’t have anything to measure it against, but, from my perspective, it took off right away. We had thousands of girls reading the first issue, and they were coming from all over the world. Our audience was growing in diversity before it was growing in numbers. For example, we had just three girls from New Jersey, where I was, but five girls from India. We have girls from about 50 different countries now, and they are 15 to 24 years old for the most part.
KB: How did you find your audience?
ER: A lot of it was word of mouth, but we got some bloggers involved in the writing and they were sharing it with their communities, which, it turned out, were a lot larger than they even thought. Seventy-two percent of the people are in our community are there because they were told about it by someone else.
KB: How did you get the money to start and grow this?
ER: When I started Spire & Co, I was in high school and any money I had, I was saving for college. We received three grants from business competitions in the past three years, and that really got our business off the ground. Spire & Co and I were awarded the 2013 Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS Grant, the 2014 Camp Campbell Competition, led by Campbell’s Soup Company CEO Denise Morrison, and the 2014 Young Entrepreneurs Challenge, led by Capital One Bank, Sprint, and Front Street.
KB: You just finished your junior year at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business in the Bronx—I’m a Fordham alumnus, by the way. What is it like to run a business while in college?
ER: I take classes at night for the most part. Because Fordham is in New York, most kids have internships or jobs during the week, anyway. I don’t feel like an outsider because I’m not that different from the really hard working kids at Fordham. And Fordham has provided resources I would have never been able to get if I were not in college. The business wouldn’t be where it is, and I wouldn’t be where I am, without Fordham.
We are part of the Fordham Foundry, which is a small business incubator Fordham started in my freshman year in partnership with Small Business Services of the City of New York. We were the first business to be accepted, and I feel very lucky about that. I’ve also been invited to speak at alumni events, and we have many alumni who are very supportive of us now. I have friends who are entrepreneurs in other schools, and I have to say that there are not a lot of other colleges that are as supportive of student entrepreneurs, in such an individualized manner, as Fordham is.
KB: Do you find that your classes are helpful to you in running your business?
ER: My major is in marketing communications and media management, so I’m more focused on the business side of media [versus the journalism/editorial side]. I’m lucky because a lot of my classes completely integrate really well with what I’m doing and what I’m passionate about. My classes have been easier because a lot of the things I’m learning are things I’ve had to learn for Smart Girls Group, just in an academic setting.
KB: How are you paying for college?
ER: I’m on an academic scholarship. I applied to colleges before Spire & Co was really a thing.
KB: You got an early financial boost from the grants you got, but is Spire & Co making money as a business today?
ER: Yes we are. We’ve been growing a lot this year in that sense.
KB: You don’t charge girls to read your content or participate in the community, so what are your revenue streams?
ER: We have a lot of national and global advertisers, as well as regional and small startups, who support our website and newsletters. Spire & Co is in really good shape as far as advertisers, and native advertising is a very lucrative aspect of that. We also make money on our conferences because we work with advertisers and sponsors that want to participate in them. We see a lot of interest from companies that want to work with young people in a live setting.
KB: Besides you, who else is on your team at Spire & Co?
ER: We have a small team of part-time team members and interns, as well as contributing writers. We just hired our first full-time employee, which was a big step for us. We have all been high school and college students, and she just graduated from college.
KB: You will graduate in 2016, what’s next for you?
ER: My hope is to continue with Spire & Co, and I’m open to seeing what happens—to doing what’s best for the business and me.
Spire & Co At-A-Glance
Location: New York, New York
Founder’s Age: 21, Senior at Fordham University
Business: Online consumer media and community
Mission: To be the trusted resource for young women aspiring to live their smartest, most confident lives. Whether she wants to run a marathon or run for President, we want to help her get there through content, community, and collaboration (the three Co’s “Spire & Co”).
Launched: January 1, 2012
Connect with Emily on LinkedIn.
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