A new generation of young women has begun to make their mark online, combining entrepreneurial energy with the hardwired digital fluency that typifies the so-called digital natives.

Here are two stories of such women, both 26 years old, who jettisoned their office jobs to create online media outlets designed for young women like them. For these women and others like them, the decision to embark upon these web-based ventures was not revolutionary. To them, the “digital media revolution” has receded and they’re simply operating in the only media environment they’ve ever known.

The Daily Muse: Work, Inspired

Kathryn Minshew hadn’t been interested in starting a website for young professional women. As an undergraduate at Duke, she had no particular predilection for women’s issues, and she didn’t belong to any women’s groups. So when, last month, Forbes featured Kathryn in its “30 Under 30” article for her leadership of The Daily Muse, the wildly successful career- and lifestyle-focused online magazine, it was an accolade that was unforeseen by her former self.

Kathryn, who’s moved her publication (and herself) out to San Francisco to participate in an incubator program, recently told me that her passion for female-oriented career advice developed gradually. “I was surprised when I applied to a position at [management consulting firm] McKinsey, and they had a separate information session for women.” After she landed the job, however, she began to observe the complex gender politics amid the corporate environment. She noticed how uncomfortable women were when asking for salary increases, foregoing a bonus check for $10,000 herself simply because it didn’t occur to her to ask for it.

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Kathryn Minshew and her partners, Alex Cavoulacos and Melissa McCreery.

She scoured the web for sites that offered professional guidance to young women like her, but her search was fruitless. So she partnered with friends Alex Cavoulacos and Melissa McCreery to create their own. Today, The Daily Muse has a formidable readership, with a staff of five and more than 140 writers contributing content nationwide. The site’s articles are syndicated on Forbes and the Huffington Post, and Kathryn’s modest ambition of targeting an otherwise underserved demographic has been regarded in media circles as prescient. She herself explains that investors are “shocked to learn that there are no other sites” that are designed and deployed for professional women.

“Kathryn saw a need and filled it,” said Rachel Sklar, media entrepreneur and adviser to The Daily Muse. “She recognized that not only was there a huge market of young professional women being pumped out of colleges every year — but that there was key information that they weren’t getting. Fixing those information asymmetries is extremely powerful — and damn good business. And it’s their niche, because they made it.”

Big Girls, Small Kitchen: A Guide for Quarter-Life Cooking

Phoebe Lapine was bored by her first office job after graduating from Brown. She remembers sitting down at a Thanksgiving dinner when her cousin interrupted her workaday complaints by asking her, point-blank, what she’d rather be doing. She thought about it a moment and then replied, “writing a cookbook.”

Knowing, instinctively, that the boundaries between media were becoming increasingly porous, Phoebe called Cara Eisenpress, a cooking friend of hers since high school and, together, they started a cooking blog. They knew that they wanted to focus on young women who, like them, were facing the challenges of limited resources. So they came up with the title, Big Girls, Small Kitchen as an online “guide to quarter-life cooking.”

According to Phoebe, they “started off slow, meeting at coffee shops after work or sneaking out to plan recipes on [their] lunch breaks.” They didn’t get a lot of traffic but were seen by the right people. Before long, a literary agent who had taken notice of the site approached them, and they had their deal for a cookbook. “In the Small Kitchen” was published in May and is currently available on Amazon.

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Phoebe Lapine, right, and Cara Eisenpress.

While Phoebe had pretty swiftly accomplished her goal to write the cookbook, she and Cara decided to reinvest a significant portion of their advance into the website, transforming it to a more thorough resource for the community of young chefs that had begun to follow them. Phoebe recounted her literary agent’s advice: “A book is something that goes on the shelf. It could be hidden discontinued, and you have much less control. It’s more static. The site is something you have more control over. It lives on beyond the book and gives a rich opportunity for interaction with your audience.”

What she didn’t expect, however, is that the development of a more polished and attractive site actually decreased the amount of user-generated comments and contributions. She and Cara speculate that it may have been difficult for her audience, which was used to a shabby-chic site, to be greeted by something that had a more professional design. Cara observed, “When we did our first redesign, we were so sick of having an ugly old blog that we over-corrected and wound up with a homepage that was beautiful but static, even boring. It took a few months, but we were just able to go into another design phase and play with the elements until they felt vibrant.”

Now, as they embark on their new venture, Small Kitchen College, they’re applying their learned lessons to create community for the culinarily curious college student. With nearly 40 student contributors, they are harnessing the collective contributions of people with shared interests, much in the way The Daily Muse has done.

These are just two examples of young media-minded entrepreneurs who are noticing barren spots in the media landscape. They understand that people with similar interests to their own are being underserved by the the current catalog of media offerings, and so they’re deciding to insert their own voices into this otherwise vacuous lull. As more and more digital natives come of age and instinctively exploit online opportunities in the way that Kathryn and Phoebe have done, the digital media landscape will become more verdant and variegated for it.

Mark Hannah is the political contributor for Mediashift. Mark’s political career began on the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign, where he worked as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently done advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign, the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House. In the “off-season” (i.e., in between campaigns) he worked in the PR agency world and conducted sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and was a research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and received a master’s degree from Columbia University. His personal website is www.mark-hannah.com, and he can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com

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