Women in digital media profile series: Arianna Huffington on startups, journalism and motherhood

Photo of Arianna HuffingtonWhen Rob Lewis, the Editor-in-Chief at Techvibes emailed me to see if I wanted to ask Arianna Huffington a few questions, I felt extremely honored and immediately said yes. I then proceeded to jump up and down and do a little dance in my living room. There is no denying that Arianna Huffington is a highly successful business woman and player in the digital media space.

She will be the opening keynote speaker at the International Women in Digital Media Summit (iWDMS 2011) in Stratford, Ontario on October 24th. I asked her what it takes to be both a successful digital media entrepreneur and mother. In addition, I asked where she thinks journalism is headed and how she responds to criticism for not paying her blog contributors.

What challenges do women in leadership face in the world of digital media?

The tech sector has traditionally been a boys’ club. But a growing number of women are disregarding the “No Girls Allowed” sign and are infiltrating the tech world. Still, Google’s Marissa Mayer, one of the many female tech leaders we’ve profiled at HuffPost, estimates that women still only account for 15 to 17 percent of engineers in Silicon Valley.

When Klout, a company that measures users’ influence on social networking sites, ranked the most influential tech CEOs on Twitter, no women made the cut. The September firing of Yahoo’s Carol Bartz left exactly zero women at the helm of major technology companies. And as Nicholas Thompson put it in The New Yorker, “The number of male A-listers in Silicon Valley who attended Montessori schools (i.e. Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon) is four times higher than the total number of female A-listers (i.e. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook).”

Who is your biggest role model?

My mother: she offered unconditional love and unconventional wisdom.

How do you balance being a mother and heading-up a successful business?

My older daughter spent the summer with me in New York, interning here, which was wonderful. And I recently took both the girls back to college. So, until they come home for the holidays it will be a steady stream of phone calls, emails and texting. So the two roles aren’t so much balancing each other but are all mixed in together.

You are an inspiration to both male and female entrepreneurs. What advice do you have for anyone who is brave enough to start their own digital media business?

As HuffPost grew, my co-founder Kenny Lerer and I were obsessed with what Professor Clayton Christensen has famously called “the innovator’s dilemma.” In his book of the same name, Christensen explains how even very successful companies, with very capable personnel, often fail because they tend to stick too closely to the strategies that made them successful in the first place, leaving them vulnerable to changing conditions and new realities. They miss major opportunities because they are unwilling to disrupt their own game. So my advice for start-ups is to never stop being a start-up.

How did you manage the transition from running your own business, to becoming the President and Editor-in-Chief of the AOL Huffington Post Media Group?

At the beginning of 2011, I had laid out the five areas on which I wanted HuffPost to double down: expansion of local sections; the launch of international Huffington Post sections; more emphasis on the importance of service and giving back in our lives; much more original video; and additional sections that would fill in some of the gaps in what we were offering our readers.

Since the merger, to give just a few examples, we’ve launched international editions in the UK and Canada (with more on the way); new sections including HuffPost BlackVoices, Latino, Healthy Living, Women, Parents, San Francisco and D.C.; and Patch, the community-specific news and information platform our CEO Tim Armstrong launched in 2007, which has grown to nearly 1000 editors and covers towns across the country.

So, far from changing our editorial approach, our culture, or our mission, the merger with AOL was like stepping off a fast-moving train and onto a supersonic jet. We’re still traveling toward the same destination, with the same people at the wheel, and with the same goals, but we’re now going to get there much, much faster.

With the emergence of mobile tablets and the social web, where do you think journalism is headed?

We are increasingly realizing that purely online outlets like The Huffington Post are more and more adopting the tenets of traditional journalism: accuracy, fairness, fact-checking, more reporters, and more editors. And mainstream, traditional operations like The New York Times and NPR are adopting more and more of the digital tools that can engage community, harness it, and make it part of the creation of journalism – through citizen journalism, through reports from the ground, through video, through Twitter feeds, through comments, through blogs, through all the new media available to us.

How do you respond to criticism about not paying your blog contributors?

We are both a journalistic enterprise – with more than 1,300 professional journalists on the payroll – and a blogging platform that receives more than 250 million monthly unique views around the world. Most of our bloggers are not professional writers but come from all walks of life: officeholders, students, entertainers, parents, and activists, writing on anything they want, as frequently or infrequently as they want. Ultimately, people blog on HuffPost for free for the same reasons they go on television for free: because they are passionate about their ideas, their books, their movies, and want them to be heard by the largest possible audience, and understand the value that kind of visibility can bring.

I look forward to hearing Arianna Huffington speak at the iWDMS conference in October. To find out more about her keynote and the other amazing women who are scheduled to present from October 23rd to 25th in Stratford, Ontario, visit the iWDMS website. Also, stay tuned for more profiles on remarkable women in digital media in the weeks to come.