I’m waiting in Piera Gelardi’s office at Refinery29 headquarters, watching the screen-saver text bounce around her iMac: “Remember, you are a Gelardi and we dream big, do great things, and passionately pursue success. Love, Dad.” This accurately reflects Piera’s attitude, achievement, and close family ties. Piera is the Co-founder and Creative Director of Refinery29, a media company built to inspire and empower women. Launched in 2005 with $5000, the brand has reached empire status—with a colorful, eclectic visual identity that is very, well, Piera. Piera spoke with me about staying true to yourself as you grow, the struggles that come with success, and how opportunity will keep presenting itself if you don’t stop looking.
“I grew up in Maine and always had family around. My grandparents lived a mile down the road, and we would go there to hang out and have Sunday dinner. My dad had a business with his brother who lived close by, and my cousins were close to me in age. The next wave of cousins are 10-15 years older than me, so they were kind of like my older brothers and sisters. I’ve always had a lot of people to learn from and look up to. My family is a mix of art and science. My mom is a social worker and my dad’s an engineer and inventor (although he hates being called that). I think that my eclectic sensibility was born out of how I grew up. My Nonno was in The Army Corps of Engineers, so they lived all over the world—Pakistan, Libya, Italy, Taiwan—a ton of different places. My grandparents’ house was fascinating to me—it was decorated in things they’d collected from their travels. They had a classic pea green reclining chair, but the ottoman was a camel hassock from Pakistan. They had these amazing Pakistani wedding portraits on the wall. It was this mash-up of different objects that triggered my imagination. Growing up in a rural environment, I didn’t have a ton of options. I couldn’t be too choosey about who I hung out with or what my ‘thing’ was, because there weren’t a lot of outlets. From around the age of 13 onwards, I would go to every single concert that came to town. If it was Queen Latifah, I would go see Queen Latifah. If it was Fugazi, I would go see Fugazi. I probably went to four Phish shows. I wanted to experience culture and be around people. I was open to it all. At school, I would sit with different people in the lunchroom almost every day. I liked knowing everybody.
I loved my friends in high school, but when I started pre-college at RISD art, I felt like I really found my tribe. It was this condensed group of creative iconoclasts and I was like, ‘These are my people.’ Maine is very homogenous, so going to RISD and meeting a diverse range of people with different backgrounds was so enriching for me. It solidified my desire to move to a big city—to be in a creatively rich, diverse environment and to be around similar souls. When I moved to New York City, a lot of people from RISD also ended up moving here to go to different art schools—like our friend Roanne Adams. Coming from a 1,000 person town, New York was pretty daunting to me (even though I had wanted to move here since I was 12 years old), so having that community was so nice. My cousin made me feel better by saying, ‘You don’t live in all of New York City. You live in one neighborhood of New York City.’ Which is so true, and made it feel more digestible and a little less scary.
In terms of knowing what to pursue, I’ve always been very intuitive, but I’ve never had a grand vision for myself. Some people like to have a plan. I don’t like to have too much of a plan. I like to see what comes up and how I feel at that time. The way my life has turned out has been a result of me making decisions in the moment then slowly continuing to follow them.
I trust myself to make choices that are going to lead me somewhere—even when I don’t know exactly where that is. That series of small decisions will often end up somewhere big.
People ask me all the time, ‘When you started Refinery, did you know it was going to be this huge thing?’ The answer is absolutely not. I had no idea. It seemed like an interesting and exciting project, but I didn’t see the big potential. But I started working on it, became very dedicated to it, and, through that hard work, brought value to it. It’s been a series of unlocking doors. As we grow, I start to see how we can grow a little more, and at each phase the door opens a little wider, the vision becomes a little bigger, and the world expands bit by bit. But in the beginning, it was just a series of little steps. I don’t necessarily think there’s such a thing as a right or wrong decision. I think what’s more important is to commit to whatever decision you make and give it a real go. I think if you get stuck in a place of indecision or second-guessing, then you’re going to stay in limbo. So if you make a decision, really make it. Do yourself the favor of following through (at least for a little while) and see where it leads. Nothing is permanent. You can always change your mind if it really isn’t working out.
Before Refinery, I was at a high-end magazine where we worked with a lot of incredible photographers and designers. Going from that environment to launching R29 and creating things very scrappily again was a big change. I had to figure out how to do things myself again, funny things, like when we started doing product photography. We didn’t have a reputation or budget, so it wasn’t like, ‘Can I borrow products and shoot them and return them?’ No one knew who we were, and no one understood what we were doing. They were like, ‘The internet, what?’ People in these stores were so dubious, they thought we were trying to get money out of them. We were like, ‘No—it’s editorial… it’s like an online magazine.’ So I would bring a mini white seamless into their store, take the products out onto the street for natural lighting, shoot them, and then clean up the image at home. Sometimes I would even photoshop out the hanger and do all of these hilarious things to make it look like it was some super nice product shot. When we launched, we managed to pull off a pretty high level of quality even though it had been an unbelievably scrappy process. It was definitely a case of fake it til you become it. Doing that taught me that, if I wanted to, I could figure out how to take something to the next level. That approach has remained as the business has evolved. For example, when we started producing a really high volume of content—doing over 70 stories a day—a big challenge we had was relying on stock photography. It was important to all of our founders that we had a strong visual brand—we saw so much value in that. When I started to see that that our aesthetic was eroding because of that high volume, I thought—why don’t we start shooting our own stock imagery? We looked at the topics we covered the most, and during down time, had our team start shooting. At the time, our biggest challenge was health, wellness and sex imagery. So much of stock imagery online was either overly sterile, didn’t represent diversity, or didn’t reflect the reality and messiness of actual relationships. So, we shot a whole bunch of images that we felt better represented real life. We didn’t have a studio at the time, so I would go into the conference room and our photo editors were doing all of these interesting configurations with condoms and tampons—but shooting them in a way that felt art directed and interesting, so that we were able to use those images over and over again. Designing backgrounds for product shots and shooting imagery are things we’ve continued to do. It allows us to have a high level of art direction and flexibility, and accommodates the large amount of content we produce.
My role has changed so much since we started—going from shooting product on the street and teaching myself how to code so we could put content up, to art directing on set, to taking on an executive role. I’ve gone from being a very hands-on maker to having a macro leadership position. During a recent speaking engagement someone asked me, ‘Do you approve everything that goes onto the site?’ And the answer is absolutely not. I try to see things as they go by, but I’m probably across 1% of content before it goes live. There are a range of challenges that come with growth, like learning how to lead a team that has gone from four to 400 employees, educating people so that they’re invested in the brand, or how to be indie and mass at the same time. That’s something we think about a lot. We come from super indie roots. When we first started we really focused on independent makers, even Barneys was too mass for us at the time. Now that we’ve grown and broadened our content, we think about that idea of ‘independent’ differently. Now, that term is more about celebrating individuality and self-expression—helping people to create themselves and giving them the tools and information to enhance who they are. But we still want to challenge our audience, to surface independent voices and express progressive ideas. It can be a tricky balance. We’re speaking to over 200 million women at such different places in their lives. From locations, backgrounds, experience, income levels—we’re trying to consider all of these different factors when it comes to creating content.
I think people see my role as a dream job, and that’s definitely true, but it can be difficult at times. Several months ago, I was really struggling and posted something on Instagram about what I was going through. The company is constantly growing, which means constant growing pains and adjustment. The industry is also evolving rapidly. When we started there was almost nothing in this space. We had this clean slate, it was The Wild West. And now there’s so much competition. Sometimes I find competition motivating, but a lot of the time I just want to follow our own path, to run our own race. I don’t like to look at what other people are doing and compare. I don’t find that to be inspiring or to be a source of innovation or creativity. But considering how big the company is, competition has inherently entered our space, and I find it really difficult at times. I also struggle with the level of responsibility. Because we’re growing so fast and I’ve never done this before, I constantly feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I often say to myself, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t do this.’ I think that’s the price you pay for exploring new territory. It’s beyond Impostor Syndrome—I don’t know that any experience that I might have had prior could have prepared me for this. It’s super exciting on one hand, but it’s terrifying on the other.
I’m learning how to navigate a big environment while still doing it my own way. I need to be a leader, but I also want to maintain the fun and creativity. Caring so much about the hopes, dreams, and growth of so many people can be really tricky. I think that’s what I take home the most—when people are unhappy, or when they feel like we’ve disappointed them. That can be hard, and I’ve had to learn to distance myself from that a little bit.
I don’t have all the answers, and that it’s not always my responsibility to give them.
I’ve had to shift my perspective around that. When people used to come to me with problems, I thought it was my job to solve them. But now I understand that’s not my job. Now, when someone comes to me, I listen and ask them questions. For example, if it’s an issue with a co-worker, I help them set up productive conversation, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll mediate between the two of them. 75% of the time that works. I mean, who doesn’t want someone else to solve their problems? That sounds nice but it’s unrealistic. It’s not how things work. When I think about how I’ve grown up, no one handed me answers. It’s the conversations I’ve had with myself and the people around me which have helped me to find my own path. It can take time to truly understand the root of a conflict and find the best solution. But I think a lot of time it’s about education and having uncomfortable but clarifying conversations—sitting down and getting everyone on the same page. I think if everybody has good intentions and you can be honest and open with each other, eventually you’ll find a harmonious path.
When it comes to creativity though, I think conflict is critical. I don’t think great work is produced in a frictionless place. Healthy debates and challenging each other create good work. I often tell my team not to become blindly in love with their work, and ignore other input. I’ll tell them to sit with an editor, talk to marketing about what our audience responds to, understand what has worked in the past, and then create something that brings everything together. When you’re working in a silo, you’re not challenged to make something that’s interesting and solves multiple problems. You might solve your own problem, but that doesn’t take into account all of the different problems that you need to solve at once. I think people, myself included, can shy away from conflict. Or hold a project really close and not allow anyone to see it, because you’re so protective of your idea. But inviting outside opinions is key.
That Robert Frost quote, ‘The best way out is always through,’ reminds me to be brave and to put one foot in front of the other. It also reminds me that to make progress you have to go to uncomfortable places. I constantly feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know that moving into new territory is necessary. The funny thing is when you get to the other end, there’s another tunnel that you have to go through. You know when you’re running, and you’re like, ‘I’m going to make it to that lamp post.’ And then when you make it to the lamp post and you say, ‘Now I’m going to make it to that trashcan over there.’ You set mini markers for yourself which keep you moving forward. I love what Ariana Huffington once said, ‘Fearlessness is a muscle that you train.’ It’s always scary, but once you start practicing discomfort, the more comfortable you become in knowing that it’s temporary. The more you do that, the more you find yourself saying, ‘OK, here I go again.'”