In 1995, the Internet was just starting to become popular with mainstream America. There were very few computer games for girls and even fewer websites that teen girls would like. A woman named Isabel Walcott wanted to make things for girls to use on the computer, but wasn't sure how to do it, so she put up a survey on her website and invited girls to fill it out. The survey asked questions like, "What kind of computer games do you want to play? What kind don't you like? Do you have your own modem?"
Because of the popular response to that initial survey, Isabel quickly realized that it would be really cool to make a large website for girls all about surveys. Working closely with a group of survey respondents, Isabel started asking questions like, "If there were a huge website just for teen girls, what would it have? What would you call it? What would the sections be called?" The survey respondents wrote back with lots of ideas, and slowly the website started taking shape. One girl suggested "SmartGirl" as a name for the site, which Isabel immediately knew was the right name.
In the fall of 1996, SmartGirl went online for the first time. The different review sections were ready to receive submissions and there was one survey awaiting responses. The reviews and survey responses started to pour in. Girls loved the idea of having a website designed for them.
In order to run the site, Isabel needed to find investors who could help support the site. She approached several companies that create products for girls with the idea that girls should be involved in their design process. If companies included girls in the development process, then the products they created would be better. This was the process Isabel used to fund SmartGirl.
It was hard work raising money for the company, but Isabel found investors who were willing to take a risk on this new business idea. Soon, the company became too large for just Isabel to handle, so she hired people who were also interested in making the web a more inviting place for girls. SmartGirl grew as a company, just as the Internet, email and instant messaging spread across the country.
After a few years, there were so many Internet companies and so much competition that many websites went out of business. Isabel saw that the economy was changing and that investors were no longer putting money into Internet companies and decided it was time to find a new home for SmartGirl. Isabel saw that tons of girls were visiting the site, participating actively, and learning in the process and knew that somebody would be interested in running SmartGirl.
Finding the right place to take care of the young company was an exciting process with ups and downs. Lots of companies wanted SmartGirl, but when it came to actually buying it, some got skittish. Several non-profit organizations were also very interested in adopting SmartGirl. Isabel and her investors decided that a non-profit would be safer for the company. The last thing she wanted was for a for-profit company to take SmartGirl and later have to shut it down because of economic trouble.
In June 2001, after a lot of tough decision-making, Isabel and her investors chose the University of Michigan as the best new home for SmartGirl. The people at the University of Michigan stood behind Isabel’s mission to make something girls want, and to give them a place online where they're in charge. Isabel felt like the company would be able to continue to grow and thrive in the safe haven of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan. Since then, SmartGirl has moved to the Women in Science & Engineering Program at the University of Michigan, where it currently resides.
Looking back on her experience, Isabel wants every girl to know, "If you have a dream, don't be afraid to go for it. Just like it says in the children's books: hard work, persistence, innovation, flexibility, and fearlessness really can get you to your goal. The most important thing is to focus on your brainpower, personality, talents and social skills. Don't try to rely on things you have no control over, like the bone structure of your body or the shape of your face. Pick things you can change and go for it, and if times get tough just remember you can do it if you try, especially with help from others."