It’s when Elicia Gonzales, executive director of the Women’s Medical Fund, bounded to the stage Monday night at the Fourth Annual Rad Awards, that I felt the enormity of this radical event for women in Philadelphia.
The winner of this year’s Rad Girl Activist of the Year award, Gonzales started by saying she doesn’t actually consider herself an activist. “I just go around saying women should be able to do whatever they fucking want with their own bodies,” she said—as if, duh, that’s not activism; that’s just common sense.
The room roared. But then, the room had been roaring already, with cheers and applause and the giddiness that goes along with the head rush of being in a room full of incredible women—and the men who support them—who are doing, making, pushing and changing the world around them for the better. We were all Philadelphians in that moment; could you hear us roar all over town?
The Rad Girl Awards, launched and again hosted by rad girl Leah Kauffman, honors “local women leaders who inspire in the fields of technology, media, culture, science, and business.” This year, 51 women (and four men) were finalists, culled from over 300 nominations submitted by the general public. The nominees, and the winners, were an amazingly diverse array of Philadelphians—younger and older, of varying races, orientations and missions. But they were alike in at least one thing: They all work to make their city and their world better places for everyone.
Take this year’s winner for Rad Girl of the Year (the category in which I was, gratefully, nominated): Dr. Katherine A. High, president and chief scientific officer of Spark Therapeutics, developed an FDA-approved genetic treatment for a rare form of blindness that afflicts children and adults. (Um, heck yeah, she should be this year’s winner!) Or, Michelle Martin of Temple University’s Food Pantry—the 2018 Educator of the Year—who helps provide food to the 35 percent of Temple students who say they experience hunger on campus. Or Technologist of the Year Elizabeth Brown, until recently co-CEO and head of design of community-minded development company Webjunto, a loud force in diversifying the tech industry.
Kauffman first burst onto the scene as a meme: She wrote and sang the YouTube hit “Crush on Obama” in 2007 (though that’s not her in the video), as well as the hilarious “My Box in a Box,” a parody of Justin Timberlake’s Saturday Night Live song “Dick in a Box,” itself a parody. (She has a few other YouTube sensations to her name, including “Still Got a Crush on Obama.”)
Kauffman started Rad Girls five years ago when she was a producer at philly.com out of her own need: She says she found herself searching—futilely—for a woman at the media company who could serve as a mentor. “I didn’t see anyone at the company in a position of power who was a woman, doing what I wanted to do,” Kauffman says. “I really wanted to talk to someone who had been through similar experiences in the workplace as a woman and felt pretty starved for mentorship.”
So Kauffman started calling women she admired at other companies around the city—and found, to her pleasant surprise, that they not only called back, they agreed to meet her for coffee, answer her questions and share their own life experiences. Kauffman started recording those meetings, and launched Rad Girls as a blog in 2013.
Soon after, during that year’s Philly Tech Week, Kauffman invited several of the women to be on a panel to continue the conversation. “I thought 15 people would show up,” she says. “Instead there were like 200, and we had to turn people away. That made me realize I wasn’t the only one seeking guidance and mentorship from a woman.”
Kauffman, now senior director of marketing and communications at advertising tech company Red Spark, hosted the first Rad Awards in 2014. Last year, she opened up the nomination process to allow anyone to submit a name from the city and region. An anonymous committee of about 15 people picked the winners who were announced on Monday night.
This year, Kauffman also hosted her first Rad Fest Women’s Exp, a six hour conference featuring female business, tech, media and nonprofit leaders on panels that ranged from entrepreneurial advice, to branding strategies, to global citizenship and that also featured a exhibition fair for local female-owned businesses. Again, Kauffman was filling a need: Tickets for the event were $10 each—intentionally not cost-prohibitive so it could be inclusive.
Kauffman says the last couple of years she has felt a difference in the awards ceremony—more excitement in the room, as if people are particularly eager to hear the names and see the faces of the women and men being honored. “We have a diverse group of nominees submitted to us, so it’s not that we have to search for them,” Kauffman says. “I’m not sure why that is, but I’m glad that it is. I feel really honored to be a part of creating a platform for that.”
The real importance of Rad Girls goes way beyond its Insta-worthy annual awards party. This is how Philadelphia is going to get better. A 2017 report from the Forum of Executive Women found that even today, just 16 percent of board seats are held by women. Only five of the region’s top 100 companies have female CEOs. And in some industries, there is virtually no movement on this front.
But there can be, and—as Rad Girls makes clear—there will be. Those female leaders were in the room Monday night. Can you imagine what the city will be like when they’re in charge?Header: Lara Witt, Managing Editor, Wear Your Voice Mag Briana Sposato/Rad-Girls.com