When Dove wanted to advocate for natural beauty, when Mattel needed to make Barbie more relatable, when the White House wanted to get more girls into STEM careers, they all called on Jess Weiner, founder of the multimillion-dollar consultancy Talk to Jess. Weiner, who is also an adjunct professor of personal branding and entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California, started the firm in 2006 as a way to help companies promote confidence among women and girls. "In the best case, what I do is advocacy," she says. "But every business that I work with is a business first, and I never lose sight of that." Here’s how she helps some of the country’s most influential companies create products and campaigns that empower women and girls—and turn a profit.
When a study about the relationship between beauty and well-being showed that only 2% of women worldwide considered themselves beautiful, it presented Dove, a beauty brand, with a challenge: How could it talk to the other 98% about its products in a way that would resonate? The study was the impetus for Dove’s now-iconic "Real Beauty" campaign, which kicked off in 2004 with billboard ads that featured non-models, and challenged viewers with prompts such as "Fat?" or "Fab?" and "Gray?" or "Gorgeous?"
Shortly after the project launched, Dove hired Weiner as its Global Self-Esteem Ambassador to help extend the reach of the project. "When we started talking to women about the results of the study, what they said was, ‘Yes, I want to feel better about myself, but I also want to make sure my daughter doesn’t grow up with the same insecurities I have,’ " says Weiner. The message was clear: For the campaign to reach its full potential, Dove had to address a demographic it didn’t sell products to—girls under age 18. The company asked Weiner to write the curriculum for a series of self-esteem workshops designed to reduce girls’ anxiety over their looks, then sent her around the world to teach hundreds of the workshops herself. Since then, more than 19 million girls have completed the hour-long self-esteem programs.
The ghoulish, edgy dolls that make up Mattel’s Monster High brand were immediately popular with young girls when they launched in 2010. But news stories about the release were rife with comments from angry moms, who called the dolls "hypersexualized" and "mean-looking." Mattel brought in Weiner to repair the relationship. After gathering the Monster High team for internal workshops on the impact of media on girls, she asked them to meet with the brand’s most outspoken critics. "It’s never easy to sit across the table from someone who doesn’t like your product," Weiner says. "But I was convinced that if parents could learn more about the creators’ intentions, there would be a better understanding." The Monster High dolls are in the midst of a makeover intended to give them a friendlier appearance, and Mattel partnered with Lady Gaga and her Born This Way foundation to encourage fans to promote a more amiable world using the hashtag #KindMonsters.
With the Monster High changes under way, Mattel asked Weiner to shift her focus to another brand that needed to rebuild its relationship with moms: Barbie. After decades as the ultimate embodiment of unattainable beauty, the iconic doll’s sales were falling fast, and Mattel was facing a fresh wave of backlash after a blogger uncovered a Barbie book, published in 2010, that implied that Computer Engineer Barbie needed boys to help her code a game. As part of the company’s effort to reexamine the doll, they tapped Weiner to organize a series of face-to-face meetings, this time between the Barbie executive team and child-development experts, coders, and parents. The company ultimately rolled out a line of more inclusive Barbies with varying body shapes, skin tones, and hair colors beginning in 2015.
In April, Tina Tchen, chief of staff for Michelle Obama and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, asked Weiner, in her capacity as a member of USC’s Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative, to assemble a summit on gender stereotypes in girls’ toys and media. The goal: to use toys as a tool to encourage girls to enter male-dominated fields. "Stereotypes impact the way boys and girls dream about their lives," says Weiner. She convened executives from Disney, Mattel, Lego, and Warner Brothers, as well as media companies and youth organizations, to talk about what their products say to girls. Following the summit, Netflix has commissioned two new seasons of Project Mc2, a scripted science series for tween girls, and the Toy Industry Association is including a session on gender stereotypes at PlayCon.
At the gathering, Weiner urged attendees to think of today’s girl as a "yes, and . . . " kid, meaning yes, she paints her nails and she’s interested in coding. Rather than discontinuing their more traditional products, Weiner says, brands should focus on representing a range of interests, images, and abilities. "Girls love to imagine themselves as princesses, and we don’t want to take that away from them," Weiner says. "But what else can they be and do at the same time?"
A version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of Fast Company magazine.