Lilly Singh & Karen Cahn On The Gender Gap In Business & Politics
By Christine Michel Carter
Diageo’s Johnnie Walker brand is teaming up with comedian and writer Lilly Singh and founder and CEO of IFundWomen Karen Cahn under the brand’s First Strides program. The Johnnie Walker First Strides program is a series of initiatives and grants to help create more opportunities for cultural innovators.
Singh and Cahn are working to uplift women leaders, including producing a video that supports and recognizes women pursuing leadership positions. Cahn was excited to partner with Singh, since Cahn started the Branded Entertainment business at YouTube and Singh started her career as a YouTube content creator.
“I was literally obsessed with Lilly’s videos when she started out on YouTube – Superwoman – come on! That was comedy gold as far as I was concerned. Lilly was one of the few creators of color I can even remember watching on YouTube,” explains Cahn.
Christine Michel Carter: “Many of the women-owned businesses on IFundWomen are Black-owned. The First Strides program specifically names a goal of creating more opportunities for Black creators and cultural innovators. Do you believe the visions of Black creators’ are missing in mainstream video?”
Karen Cahn: “The visions of Black creators are not missing in mainstream media. They’re just being monetized by White people. In the beginning, the proliferation of video platforms like YouTube made it easier for the people who had access to the technology and the tools to harness its power to get their voices out there. The people who had the most access, especially in those critical early years of establishing themselves on the world’s largest video platform, were White guys. For Black creators, trying to catch up to the scale of viewership (and generate revenue from their content) was nearly impossible.
Black Americans have set the cultural standards for the entire world for decades, but save for a few names like Oprah and Beyoncé, for too long, Black innovators and creators have been at the mercy of the white money machine, which is either going to give them a little taste or steal their ideas outright. This is why it’s critically important for brands to stand up and do something about it, and I can say with a full heart that the team at Johnnie Walker truly walks the talk. They have consistently put their money where their mouths are by funding minority entrepreneurs through IFundWomen.”
Carter: “All too often, White women allies advocate loudly, but often, do not provide meaningful allyship to women of color behind the scenes. You have a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison logo in African-American/Black Studies, and 75% of the female entrepreneurs on IFundWomen are women of color. Why did you choose to hold yourself (and your company) accountable for underrepresented communities?”
Cahn: “I grew up in a white, homogeneous suburb of Boston. There were one, maybe two, Black kids in my grade. It was not easy for these kids to walk down the halls of the school without getting harassed, and I started to witness that the world around me was not a comfortable or safe place for Black people. It was particularly confusing for my young mind because at my house my parents, who were activists, constantly took me to marches and meetings fighting against whatever injustices were happening at the time.
I’ve come to understand that activists don’t choose the work, the work chooses them, and those who are called to do the work do it for life. We aren’t running a charity here – IFundWomen is in the business of providing rocket fuel to the best and brightest women entrepreneurs. I’m the boss, and I’m standing up for minority women entrepreneurs because, let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of us white ladies named Karen doing that. Also, it’s just good business.”
Additionally, via a partnership with She Should Run, Johnnie Walker is pledging long-term support of initiatives that close the gap in gender leadership across the political sector. For example, research shows that childcare obligations are among the most significant factors women consider when deciding whether to run for office. Yet research also shows moms in Congress introduce five more bills over their tenure than their peers. They are also more likely to introduce legislation prioritizing the issues that matter most to families, such as healthcare, childcare, education, paid family leave, and affordable housing for families.
“Johnnie Walker is committed to celebrating and enabling bold first strides that open the door for seconds and thirds to follow,” said Sophie Kelly, Senior Vice President of Whiskies at Diageo North America. “We are proud to support the meaningful work of IFundWomen, She Should Run, and other partners, and we hope to help them achieve their goals in creating positive change.”
Below, Singh discusses how she plans to highlight via the program how women are underrepresented in leadership positions and share personal anecdotes, challenges, and the rewards of blazing trails in a male-dominated industry.
Christine Michel Carter: “What interested you in partnering with the Johnnie Walker brand and their First Strides program?”
Lilly Singh: “I’m a genuine fan of the Johnnie Walker brand, especially its commitment to an issue that I’m very passionate about and one that is vital to our future. With First Strides, the brand is actively challenging the gender dynamics that have held generations of women back from leadership opportunities while investing in accelerating progress through partnerships with IFundWomen and She Should Run. So, when we connected back in 2020, it was an easy yes for me.”
Carter: “From your work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador to your production company Unicorn Island Productions, how do you feel you’re working to move the culture forward and create more opportunities for women to achieve their goals?”
Singh: “There are so many stories waiting to be told by voices that have long been underestimated and underrepresented — stories and voices that we definitely need to hear. With Unicorn Island Productions, we’re working to make sure those stories are told across film, television, and advocacy — to shift gender attitudes, change cultural narratives and increase representation on screens and in homes, communities, corporations, and beyond. Our stories show who we are; they help us understand each other, they are important, and it matters who tells them.”
Carter: “Why do you believe the decision-making power needs to be in the hands of women for women?”
Singh: “Because it pays to let women lead. We know that gender-diverse leadership teams perform better than others — they are more profitable and more innovative. The research is clear on that. Female leadership also has a broader societal impact — in addition to driving bigger profits and greater innovation, putting women in charge also advances gender equity and furthers economic, social, and political progress for all. And yet, right now, there is still only one woman at the table for every three men. So, there is a lot more work to be done. I’m happy that an iconic brand like Johnnie Walker is investing its resources and reputation to advance that effort, and I’m proud to be part of that.”
Photo Source: Diageo’s Johnnie Walker Brand First Strides Program with IFundWomen