Before we dive into Birdsong, let's talk a little bit about your work as a designer. What kind of work does your design firm do?
We do a lot of things, but our bread and butter is graphic design for large companies specializing in paper products. They come to us with their needs, and I work with my team of graphic artists to create collections for them. We work with partners in the States for our US distribution as well as one in France that distributes our designs in France, Germany, and the UK. I also pick a few brand identity projects each year because I love helping people who are passionate about an idea, but need help expressing it visually. And, I consult for other design businesses as well as individuals.
It seems like you’ve had to open a lot of doors in your career. What have you found to be the most important skills for that?
I heard a great quote the other day from the actor Abbi Jacobson: “When one door closes, another opens, but you have to build the door and pry it open yourself.” So true! I would say that’s what’s helped me most—being creatively persistent. I’ll give you an example. When I was in my twenties, I had my heart set on living in Paris and working for one of the world’s most exquisite children’s clothing companies, Bonpoint. I knew it was a long shot, so I decided to make a very memorable package: I wrote my cover letter directly on a newborn t-shirt, surrounded it with hand-embroidered embellishments, and then used it to carefully wrap a doll-sized portfolio, complete with sketches, fabric swatches, and trims. While I was at it, I thought I might as well make four more packages for some of the other great design firms in France. I spent hours making sure each one was packaged beautifully and then off they went. But not to the HR departments. I sent them directly to the owners or creative directors... why not? Not only did I hear back from Bonpoint within a week, but the other four called to set up interviews as well! I doubt I was the most qualified, but because the approach was both creative and gently insistent, I think I got the extra look I needed.
So your design company is based in NYC, but you’ve recently moved to Mill Valley, CA—what prompted that?
As much as I enjoy NYC, it became clear I needed to branch out in order to launch my new ventures. I started spending more time in California and when I visited Mill Valley, I knew it was where I wanted to be. I could walk out my back door for a hike on Mt. Tam, or be in the heart of San Francisco in 20 minutes. It had exactly the right energy for my new company, Birdsong. And it didn't hurt that one of my design company’s main business partners is just across the bay!
And briefly, what’s Birdsong?
It’s a design studio for young girls. Over the past four or five years, I’ve been finding a variety of ways to support young girls, and Birdsong is a way to use my experiences as a designer to create exciting, hands-on workshops for them. The workshops use their natural interest in design to help them gain confidence and reconnect to their creative potential. I run the workshops in an indoor/outdoor studio overlooking Mt. Tam so they can get away from computers, classrooms, and everyday stress. Birdsong is about letting girls unplug and freely explore their creative potential. It’s about building the confidence to trust your own voice. I want every girl who takes my workshops to come away with better tools for navigating a strong, creative life.
So do you consider Birdsong a new direction in your career?
Yes and no. Although it’s different, it deeply connects to what I’ve been passionate about my whole life—designing a life that’s fun, exciting, and both emotionally and financially rewarding. I’ve found that the skills I’ve learned in the design world can be applied to life in general. Whether it’s physically designing something, thinking creatively, communicating, or managing a budget, the skills for running a successful business are the same skills we use for a successful life. Most people can be successful in school if they study hard enough, but it takes more than good grades to make it in the real world. I help girls build the skills to go out into the world bold, courageous, and confident in their abilities and to make their mark on the world.
If you had to point to one thing that was the origin of your interests in supporting young girls, what would it be?
When I was a kid, I was struggling in school, so my mom arranged for me to start seeing a tutor named Vivian. She knew I needed help with homework, but she saw something no one else did—that what I really needed was to have the courage to ask questions, to believe in my abilities, to focus on my path instead of constantly comparing myself to others. Within a few months, my whole life began to change. In the back of my mind, I always knew I wanted to do for other girls what Vivian did for me.
And that led to Birdsong?
Yes, but not directly! A few years out of college, while I was designing children’s clothes in Paris, I met an adorable young girl named Alma. Every Thursday she came to our design headquarters for a fitting with the seamstress and designers. She wasn’t embarrassed about anything. She’d prance up to my desk and ramble on, waiting for me to respond, and then laugh at how funny my French accent was. She used to tell this one joke about un homme et un banane over and over. I didn’t think about it like this at the time, but here was a little girl who knew how to be herself, who was proud of being herself, and who was not worried about what anyone else thought. Without realizing it, she’d touched that deep memory of how Vivian had drawn me out of my shell. When I opened my design company in NYC a couple years later, I named it after her: Petite Alma.
What an wonderful thing for a little girl to have a company named after her! Do you know what happened to her?
Of course! We keep in touch a few times a year. She’s eighteen now, and recently told me she wants to be a designer and live in NYC. Last time I saw her in Paris she told me about her love of drawing, so I started following her on Instagram. I love seeing all of her creations in my feed!
So it sounds like your passion to mentor young girls was always there?
Yes, but I think a big turning point was when my design company really started to take off. As it grew from just me, to an office with a full staff of female designers, I found my desire to mentor young women growing as well. For one thing, I became aware of how much I loved working with young women who were just beginning to find their way, just beginning to try to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives. I was drawn to their wide-eyed, optimism and eagerness to learn. On one inspirational trip to Paris, I remember looking back at a few of them as we were riding our bikes through the streets, laughing. It suddenly dawned on me that, like it or not, I’d become a role model to young women. I simultaneously felt a sense of great joy and great responsibility.
Running a design company in NYC sounds like a lot of work. How did you find time to fit everything in?
Well, as my design company became more successful, I made a decision to put more energy into helping young women in whatever ways I could. I started by supporting individual teenage dancers by joining the sponsorship program at the American Ballet Theater. It was a way to offer financial support to teenage girls who needed it, but more importantly, to offer one-on-one advice and a shoulder to lean on. I was able to witness the struggles and pressure they were under, as well as marvel at their determination and dedication. Each time I was able to help them, in big ways or small, I left energized and wanting to do more. I also enrolled in the Coaches Training Institute, which helped me hone my skills in helping young designers. I kept hearing the same issues over and over—lack of confidence, not realizing what they had to offer, waiting for permission. I couldn’t help but think, "What if these women had learned the skills to be confident and courageous at a much younger age?" I knew I’d found my calling.
So that’s how Birdsong was born?
Yes. I realized it was time to take the next step and to use my knowledge and talents in design and coaching to help girls at an even younger age. The form of what I wanted to do quickly took shape. I decided to use my experiences as a designer—both the professional and personal ones—to create exciting, hands-on workshops for girls. I knew from many years of experience that young girls love expressing themselves through design. But the real secret is that the workshops are conducted in a way that offers benefits far beyond design. The ideas and skills the girls encounter, engage with, and absorb, transcend the world of design. They’re the practical skills that are crucial for success in any field.
Can you give me an example of a workshop?
Sure. An upcoming workshop teaches brand identity. We begin by brainstorming about the process of brand development. I introduce the girls to several brands and facilitate a discussion about what they like and don't like. This allows us to develop a common language for assessing whether brands work or not. Then, they each come up with an idea of a company they’d like to create. I provide each of them with the space and materials to create a logo, select a color palette, and develop a tag line. This way, I can work one-on-one with them and offer feedback and encouragement to support their unique take on things. The whole time they’re learning design skills they’re also learning how to express themselves creatively and independently. At the end of the workshop, they each present their design to the group. This gives them a rare, but vital chance to practice presentation skills and learn how to give and receive feedback in a safe, supportive, non-judgmental (and ungraded!) environment.
There are a lot of activities for young girls these days, from sports, to music lessons, to writing workshops. How is Birdsong different?
Things like sports and music are important and always will be. But when I step back a bit and listen to parents, here’s what I hear: “My girls are so stressed out, busy, and mentally fried from school, homework, social media, and texting.” I think what girls need right now is the chance to set all that other stuff aside for a few hours a week and just be themselves while they’re having fun and learning how to be more self-confident. No grades, no peer pressure. Structure and guidance, yes, but with plenty of room for self-expression. Birdsong is a way to let girls open up to their full potential.
What's next for Birdsong? Any thought of developing workshops for young boys? Or adults?
Right now my workshops focus on girls, but there’s been interest from adults as well as boys, so... stay tuned.
As more and more girls take your workshops, what’s the one thing you hope they’ll always remember about Birdsong?
How talented, smart, creative and unique they are and taking that confidence with them wherever they go, in all that they do.