2016–17 Davidson Lecture: Refinery29, Philippe von Borries '97 and Justin Stefano '98 - Concord Academy

Philippe von Borries '97 and Justin Stefano '98 of Refinery29 5

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If you attended the Women’s March on Washington, or any of its associated demonstrations around the world, you may have noticed some distinctive protest posters. If you follow Sundance, you might have caught Anu Valia’s Lucia, Before and After, an examination of persisting barriers to safe and legal abortions, which won the Short Film Jury Award this year. Or perhaps online you’ve seen a stock photograph from the 67 Percent Project, a partnership with Lane Bryant to redress the imbalance of media representation of “plus-sized” women. Like much of Refinery29’s work, you may not have realized where it came from, but you’d recognize a signature blend of optimism and creativity. From the world’s largest media company focused on women, these projects are changing how we all engage in the world.

For Refinery29 cofounders Philippe von Borries ’97 and Justin Stefano ’98, the evolution of their company from an entirely different paper-napkin idea to an industry shaper wasn’t something they could have predicted. Remaining nimble as they’ve grown, and adapting to rapid societal changes, their impact has gone far beyond fashion, as traditionally defined, to participation in movements for social change. By delivering some seriously engaging content as a creative brand partner, they’re at the forefront of the union of merchandising and grassroots movements. Their vision is a world in which everyone can express their infinite potential. Their execution is consummately stylish.

On April 6, Stefano and von Borries returned to their alma mater Concord Academy to present the 2016–17 Davidson Lecture and speak with students and faculty over lunch. They also gave a CATalk to families and alumnae/i that evening in Kendall Square, tracing their zigzagging path from some humble origins.

When these friends launched Refinery29 in 2005, Facebook and Twitter had yet to go public. At that time, “content” meant programming or advertising on television or in magazines; now content is, as Stefano said, “anything you’re wasting your time doing.” Commerce and content have merged. And in just 12 years, Refinery29 has gone from a single intern to a staff of 500 photographers, engineers, software developers, marketers, and other professionals creating more than 80 articles and 50 videos every day from offices in New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, and London. Even more impressive is the user base: over 500 million across multiple platforms, including Snapchat and a range of video, with original lifestyle, sports, and comedy programs and live, streaming events. Never planning more than a year ahead, they’ve come to embrace a philosophy that the future of media lies in standing for something.

With a dash of humor, they addressed the elephant in room. Why are two guys running a media company focused on women? According to Stefano, it was an organic evolution. When he and von Borries got together in a Brooklyn bar to discuss their idea for “a local discovery platform” for independent fashion, what they envisioned was an indie mall of their dreams, a place where small entrepreneurs making cool stuff could be discovered. They spent the first four years building a community and their brand and scraping up some startup funds. After they launched, they quickly realized that storytelling was what connected with audiences. They grew into a media company that filled an untapped niche, covering stories that were overlooked by the likes of Vogue.

Now Refinery29 has a balance of leadership that supports its mission. Women make up 80 percent of its executive team, 60 percent of its engineering staff, and 50 percent of its board. An initial investment in attracting women for critical roles has, over the years, made this progressive workplace into a magnet for like-minded creatives.

Looking out at the students in the Performing Arts Center, von Borries said he and Stefano had had an emotional day, remembering themselves in these very seats listening to other CA alumnae/i who were sharing their innovative work; they had been unable to imagine their own journey to the same stage. “You might think you’ll never do something as amazing, but you will — 100 percent,” von Borries said. “The world pushes you to think linearly, but Concord Academy asks students to push themselves, to use creative thinking.” He traced a direct evolution from the school’s values — individuality, empathy for others, creativity, and a learning mindset — to the values driving the innovation at Refinery29.

“And don’t forget common trust,” Stefano chimed in. “We leave our stuff all over the office!”

Here’s some of their advice to students:

Success is never linear. Embrace failures as learning opportunities.

Ask for advice, always. Seek advisors and mentors. Be open about what you don’t know, build community, and people will want to help you.

Be confidently humble. It’s a delicate balance. You need confidence to pursue your ideas, but it’s vital to continue connecting to others in a human way.

Be prepared. Research makes all the difference.

Most of all, be yourself. “But we don’t need to tell anyone at Concord Academy that,” Stefano said.

In a Q&A after the lecture, students asked a few probing questions. For example, is a society based on media, image, and consumption sustainable for our future? The short answer: It depends on how it’s set up. Consumption itself, said Stefano, isn’t going away anytime soon, but the media can shape people’s attitudes and encourage a move away from disposable fashion and toward more sustainable approaches to food and clothing.

Another student mentioned being turned off by the outrageous prices of some of the fashions featured in Refinery29’s Snapchat stories. “It’s always a balance,” von Borries replied, articulating the difficulty of addressing 20 million people at once. But he instantly demonstrated his instinct for adaptation. “This is the number one takeaway we’ll bring back to our team today!”

The Anne E. and Jane S. Davidson Lectureship Fund was established as an endowed speaker series in 1966 by Mr. and Mrs. Davidson to honor their two daughters, Ann Davidson Kidder ’66 and Jane E. Davidson ’64. Over the years, the Davidson Lecture Series has brought a diverse array of speakers to CA, including Dr. Helen Caldicott, author Jonathan Kozol, New York Times immigration reporter Julia Preston ’69, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin P’84, and Rhymes with Orange cartoonist Hilary Price ’87.

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