When Sheila Gujrathi ’92, ’96 MD was a student at the Feinberg School of Medicine, she took a year off between her second and third years to live in an ashram in the south of India. Her mother, a pediatrician, was so worried about Gujrathi that she called the ashram and asked them to send her daughter home to finish school, but Gujrathi wanted to lead a more centered life.
On a Saturday afternoon in late March, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Genevieve Thiers ’04 MMus opens the balcony doors of her home in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. She sets her iPhone on a music stand and cues up the app that will be her accompaniment. Outside, neighbors stand 6 feet apart from each other on the sidewalk and in the grass.
And at 2 p.m., she sings. Her voice booms out the doors and spills onto the street for everyone to hear. For more than 40 minutes and through 10 songs, including classics like “Climb Every Mountain,” Thiers performs a one-woman opera and musical theater concert, which she also livestreams on Facebook.
“You’re not alone,” she says in closing, waving to Facebook viewers and sidewalk watchers alike. Thiers plans to continue putting her Bienen School of Music opera training to good use every Saturday afternoon throughout the pandemic. During the week, however, she’ll remain focused on her other passions: entrepreneurship and political action.
Support Through Innovation
Thiers has always been laser-focused on uplifting and advocating for others — women in particular. Her mission is informed by her experience, first as the founder of Sittercity.com, an online marketplace for caregiving services that now has millions of users worldwide, and later as a tech entrepreneur. Sittercity recently partnered with the city of Chicago to offer free volunteer child care to health care workers, first responders and others working to keep the city safe during the coronavirus crisis.
“From the very start of Sittercity, I had trouble getting funding,” says Thiers, who led the company for nine years and now serves on its board. “A lot of men would say, ‘Oh, my wife handles child care.’ I have been mansplained to more times than I could possibly count. I was often introduced at talks as the ‘mom voice’ of Sittercity — not the founder.”
Those sexist “bully tactics,” as Thiers calls them, irked her so much that once Sittercity was up and running, she began investing in other women-led startups. To date, she’s invested in 15 such businesses. Thiers also joins women in big pitch meetings, to help them navigate the barrage of questions she says are so common in those rooms, particularly if a woman is doing the pitching.
“I’m sick of no one supporting women,” she says. “After all these years, I’m like a prize fighter in the ring, so I can support other women as they learn how to advocate for themselves and their ideas.”
THE POLITICAL IS PERSONAL
Since 2016, Thiers has pivoted much of her work to politics and getting women engaged and elected.
“I realized after the presidential election that no one is going to save us,” she says. “Women need to step up now and save ourselves.”
With young twins at home and other commitments on her plate, the time wasn’t right for Thiers to run for office, although she certainly doesn’t rule it out in the future. She decided to work behind the scenes instead, developing the NewFounders conference, a political TED-style event that brought more than 2,000 political leaders to Chicago over three years. Thiers also led the creation of the #TechYourself guide, a free, downloadable playbook for using technology to run a smart, savvy political campaign.
“Candidates right now, especially at the lower levels of politics like school board or county seat, can’t afford a consultant to tell them what to do,” Thiers says. “So we brought together the top digital strategists in the country and crowdsourced this beautiful guide on how to use tech to win.”
The guide is not explicitly focused on women running for office, but Thiers views it as part of a wave of support that women in politics need more than ever.
“As a tech entrepreneur, you see a clear problem, and your job is to find a solution and build it,” she says. “But in politics, you build waves. And it cannot be just you. I see myself as a catalyst working to build the conditions — the waves — for change. That’s my mission now.”
Entertainment as Activism
Thiers is also using her training as a performer to make those waves and empower other women to do the same. She is one of five women producing and co-starring in RUN, an unscripted series that empowers other women running for office nationwide. In each episode of RUN, Thiers and her co-stars help transform a candidate’s campaign and help her win.
“Genevieve helped me so much, not only with the technical aspects of my campaign but also with my own confidence and sense of purpose,” says Bushra Amiwala, a Skokie School Board member who, at 21, became the youngest Muslim elected official in the U.S. in 2018. “She really knew what barriers I’d come up against, and she encouraged me to assert myself and stand up for what I believe in in the face of strong headwinds.”
Thiers is eager to do more for Amiwala — and countless other women across the country, in politics, tech, performance and beyond.
“I want to do anything I can to close the gender gap everywhere,” she says. “I want women to feel less alone, and I’m going to surround them, amplify them and help them so that they feel a coalition behind them.”