March 13, 2016
Who: Jessica Shortall –– Social Entrepeneur, Scholar, Writer
Why She’s Foxy: She’s a former Oxford educated MBA and Peace Corp Volunteer who wrote a survival guide on breastfeeding, founded Texas' first-ever statewide coalition of businesses calling for the state to change its brand on LGBT issues, and recently gave a Ted talk on paid maternity leave that garnered over 1 million views. Plus, she’s a mother of two who loves coral-red lipstick and bright yellow fishnets.
On Her Book, Work. Pump. Repeat: When I joined TOMS Shoes, it was still a start-up. Within three months, my son was conceived, so I was the first woman to have a baby on the job. My first business trip was to Nepal when Otis was five months old. I breastfed him the whole time, and proceeded to circumnavigate the globe, pumping and dumping (no electricity) in the most unusual of rural locations. I figured someone must have written down how to navigate all of the awkwardness, the logistics, and the hilarity of breastfeeding and working. When it turned out no one had, in unrelenting, non-judgmental detail, I thought, “Well crap, now I have to do that”. I am toying with the idea of a second book, focused on people who lead what I think of as Un-Careers. People whose résumés and tax returns are absolute carnage because they never do the same thing, in the same industry, for more than a couple of years. Where does the confidence to do that come from? How do you build skills? How do you make that work financially? Even though this totally describes my professional life, as eclectic as you can imagine without literally becoming a lion tamer or something, I want to better understand people who choose this path or who are chosen by it.
On Business: Yvon Choinard the, founder of Patagonia said that by going into business, you are committing to doing some harm in the world. Even with highly ethical practices in his business, he’s aware that making and selling clothes has environmental and human impacts. I use that to remind myself that business can also do good in the world. It just requires deep thoughtfulness and intense focus to build a business that is going to do good in the long term. I think women entrepreneurs and leaders are at an advantage in this space, because the women I know are so good at thinking laterally and keeping multiple threads of thought moving at one time. That’s what’s needed for truly fusing a market activity— buying and selling something — with embedding justice and good for workers, customers, and society. Justice means keeping your eyes and ears open, and actually listening to what people are experiencing. And then being relentless about digging, and digging until you figure out the complex set of events, policies, cultural norms, and accidents that made things that way. Pay attention and don’t take anything at face value. It also means using whatever you have – your talent, your time, your privilege – not to invest in feel-good stuff like giving everyone a puppy, but to keep pushing against those issues however you can.
On Her TED Talk: A dear friend of mine is on the organizing committee for TEDxSMU here in Dallas, and she suggested to the group that they invite me to speak. So they did, and they let me choose the topic. I had been hearing from so many parents dealing with truly immoral situations of going back to work days after a birth, or leaving a baby in the NICU to go back to work, or draining their life savings to spend a few weeks with a baby, that I knew I had to tell their stories. It took me a few weeks to write and really get to where I wanted it, and then I went for a walk every single workday, and looked like a lunatic, just giving the talk out loud to myself over and over. I was more nervous for that talk than I’ve ever been, because I felt a huge responsibility to do these families’ stories justice. As soon as I finished the talk, the theater gave me a standing ovation, whic was so surreal, because I had been so focused on just doing the talk that I hadn’t really thought about what would happen afterwards. So I went offstage and as the tech guy was taking my mic off, and I said, “Is it ok if I lose it now?” He said “Sure,” so I just sobbed while he took all the wires off. And then I went backstage and scavenged a room-temperature bottle of beer and chugged half of it. At 10:30 in the morning.
On The Peace Corps: When I was ten years old, I told my parents that when I graduated college I was going to shave my head and join the Peace Corps. No one knows where this idea came from. My parents are both immigrants, from very poor backgrounds (Venezuela and England), and I always knew I wanted to get out of my bubble and spend time trying to be useful in the world as the majority of humanity experiences it. So true to my word, I applied my senior year in college and ended up in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, in Central Asia. Literally one of the best decisions of my whole life. Sixteen years later, I still skype with my host family and call them “mom” and “dad.” We drank so much bad vodka.
On Her Husband: We were napping in the park and then he kind of nudged me awake and he was sweating and shaking and he said, “I want you to marry me.” So he never actually posed it as a question. About ten minutes later he produced a ring. It’s a channel-set, very simple platinum ring with very small diamonds all the way around. I had told him I could really do without an engagement ring altogether – I just don’t like them, for myself – so this was kind of a compromise. We got married three months later, on New Year’s Eve, in my college chapel in Oxford. I lived in a little rambling house within the college (colleges at Oxford are a bit like houses in Harry Potter,) and the woman down the hall was an Irish Woman named Maud with whom I drank a good deal of late-night whisky. She was studying to be a Unitarian minister and we both just loved her style.Three years later, we moved back to the U.S. – to Austin, TX – and we had a wedding reception on Lake Travis. Barbecue made by Clay’s aunt and uncle, bluegrass on the radio, lots of swimming and beer. I wore my wedding dress and Clay wore swim trunks. There was a houseboat down on the water on the property we rented, and as the sun set Clay and I climbed to the top and held hands and jumped off into the lake – me still in my wedding dress.
Pic by Clark Wiseman
On Style: I have a coral-red lipstick that makes me feel like I can do almost anything. Living in London really changed how I thought about style – not as something frivolous, but as both something you can contribute to making your community more vibrant, and as a suit of armor to go out and be your bad self and dare someone to step to you about it. I also like to mix unexpected little things in — a serious black suit with bright yellow fishnet tights.
Favorite Book About Love: The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong.
Favorite Song About Love: Lovely Day by Bill Withers
Favorite Movie About Love: It’s a Wonderful Life
On Her Dream Wedding: I’m going with Jon Stewart marrying Winston Churchill, just so I get to meet both of them. I’d wear something serious – black, maybe – with a fascinator. I’d probably bring my dear friend Greg because he is an even bigger history nerd than I am and he would be sad if I didn’t bring him along to meet Winston Churchill.