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Women's International Net Magazine, New York, NY

"It's a Bird, it's a Plane, it's Cybergrrl!: Internet Enterpreneur Aliza Sherman"

By Michele Marrinan, United States

There is a defining moment in the life of most entrepreneurs when the fire of self-determination is lit. For Aliza Sherman, that moment came in New York City as she stared down the endless barrel of a mugger's pistol on a summer night in 1994. Though she and a friend managed to escape unharmed, the incident had a profound impact on her life.

"That moment changed my course because I realized life's priorities, and I knew that if I was going to do anything meaningful at all, it couldn't be within a corporate setting," recalled Sherman, then working as director of a domestic violence group.

Today a company founder and president, Sherman is in a corporate setting, but one that she tries to keep free from bureaucracy, and focused on serving women. Her Cybergrrl Internet Media, Inc., an entertainment and marketing company, created one of the Internet's most important women's sites. The nine Cybergrrl (cybergrrl.com) stations offer information about business, technology, books, travel and entertainment. Visitors can also post information, visit chat rooms, read profiles of historical women and search for other female-friendly sites. Some 300,000 individuals -- 89 percent of whom are women aged 18 to 45 -- visit the site each month.

Convinced that the Internet should become the ultimate old-girl's club, Sherman also founded Webgrrls International (webgrrls.com) three years ago as a networking organization for women interested in the Internet. With more than 10,000 members and 100 chapters worldwide -- including 35 outside the United States -- Webgrrls sponsors classes on Internet programming and design, holds monthly networking meetings, and churns out email information on job openings and travel tips.

Sherman's goal is to empower women and girls to use the new technology for their personal and professional gain. An estimated 42 percent of all Internet users worldwide, or 46 million individuals, are women. Although the numbers are rapidly increasing, Sherman believes that several misconceptions keep women from venturing onto the Net: it is too hard, too expensive, too dangerous, too time-consuming and offers them nothing professionally or personally.

In her book, A Woman's Guide to the World Wide Web, published by Ballantine Press, Sherman dispels each myth with her simple discussions about hardware and software, safety tips on avoiding online stalkers, and stories of how the Internet has changed women's lives.

The Internet certainly changed Sherman's life. She is a born non-techi and college drop-out who Newsweek would later dub one of the 50 most important people on the Internet. Aside from her commitment to helping women, Sherman is also an ambitious entrepreneur who expects to develop television shows, books and merchandise around her product.

With her petite build, light skin and very dark hair, Sherman looks even younger than her 30 years. She dresses casually in t-shirts, jeans and slacks. Her voice is quiet, but clear. She seems a bit shy, almost as if she forces herself to be more outgoing. A workaholic, she relaxes by reading science fiction and surfing on the Web. A few months ago, she bought a little Chihuahua named Chewie who she keeps in her office and takes to meetings. Naturally, Chewie has his own Web site.

It's perhaps no surprise, given her eclectic background, that the Internet appeals to Sherman. She grew up as a navy brat who lived in several cities throughout the United States -- California, Florida, Virginia -- and in Spain. She continued moving around after high school, attending three colleges in Philadelphia and Virginia. She studied fashion merchandising, Russian history and business law -- whatever interested her at the time -- and eventually left college without a degree.

"I wasn't sure really what I wanted to do, and I'd already been in college four years," she says. "I figured whatever I was wanting to do was out there and I didn't want to waste my parents' money anymore."

Using the typing skills she learned in the ninth grade, Sherman became a secretary for a temp agency. She convinced an acquaintance to teach her computer skills in the hopes that that would help her earn more money. A writer herself -- she has published articles on domestic violence and adoption practices, among other topics -- Sherman was initially afraid that computers would sap her creativity. Once she got started, however, there was no turning back. When she moved to New York City in 1989, Sherman bought her first computer -- an Amstrad 1640 -- and, with the help of a friend, started going online long before it became popular.

Sherman later worked in the music business, coordinating marketing and public relations for such bands as Bruce Hornsby, Metallica and the Rolling Stones, and expected to make it her life. But then she realized that women were not encouraged to move up in the music business. Looking to do something a little more meaningful, she became director of the Domestic Abuse Awareness Project in New York City, another stop that she thought would be long term. The holdup in 1994 and the realization that "non-profit does not necessarily mean good," made her consider a major career change.

Having finished a $10 Web design course and dismayed by the absence of female-friendly sites, she decided to build her own. Since she was uncomfortable putting her photo on the Web, Sherman created an online personality -- an alter ego, so to speak. With long, brown hair and a humble, yet confident smile, the cartoon character that appears on her web sites looks remarkably like Sherman -- except that Cybergrrl wears a hot pink cape and a blue leotard with CG emblazoned across her chest. Sherman admits that the unusual spelling, while powerful, has no significance. She simply wanted a fun, hip name -- one that would dispel the nerdy image associated with computer operators at that time. Cybergrrl evoked images of a powerful, yet funky superhero.

She already owned a computer so Sherman didn't need an initial infusion of cash to get started. It's a good thing, since she had no savings at the time. Instead, a friend covered her bills from time to time. Today, Cybergrrl, which was launched in January 1995, has an office in downtown Manhattan with eight full-time workers and six part-timers. Sherman pays herself a salary, although she declines to discuss numbers.

Cybergrrl's income comes from designing Web sites for corporate customers ranging from magazines to clothing manufacturers and non-profit organizations. It also attracts online advertising and investors -- CMP Media Inc., a Manhasset, N.Y.-based technology publisher, recently took a minority interest in the company.

It was her determination not to be the only "girl nerd" and meet other female Internet users that inspired Sherman to start Webgrrls. Sherman started by e-mailing the developers of interesting female-oriented Web sites. Six of them met in person at a cyber cafe in New York City. That first meeting went so well that they decided to make it a monthly date. Sherman put it on her Web site, and six more women showed up at the next get-together. Soon Sherman was receiving email from women who wanted to start chapters in their parts of the world.

Today, Webgrrls' meetings are a real networking event, both on and off line. Members exchange information on everything from finding good Italian recipes to vacation information on Ireland.

"Webgrrls is like, you're not alone," says Eileen Shulock, the full-time executive director Sherman hired last fall. "We're here to help you and you also are going to be asked for help. That kind of community is encouraging."

The biggest chapters are in Canada, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, England, South Africa, Italy and Netherlands. All chapters work on the same principles, regardless of where they are. Although the groups use their country's language, the leaders exchange information in English.

There is an instant connection that transcends language and cultural barriers, as Shulock discovered recently on the daily online discussion that she and other chapter leaders conduct. The movie Grease had just been re-released, and the leaders started reminiscing about the '70s and '80s.

"Here we were, from all different parts of the world, recalling 8-track tapes or the words of certain Abba songs," recalls Shulock. "We were all throwing in our two cents on things that we remember, like when record albums were vinyl, and people didn't know about email."

The success of Cybergrrls and Webgrrls notwithstanding, Sherman would still like to further engage women on the Internet, a topic she will address in her next book, scheduled for release next year.

"I think there are finally some quality sites from which women can choose when they go online," said Sherman. "But there is still a long way to go in terms of figuring out how to best use the interactive medium to truly engage the female audience and give them value that makes them want to log in each day."

Michele Marrinan is a freelance writer specializing in the Internet, small business, franchising and personal finance. She lives on Long Island, New York, with her husband and one-year-old daughter.

Reprinted with permission from Women's International Net Magazine 2000 :http://womentechworld.org/bios/infotech/articles/womens_int.htm#


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