There were the perks of the heavy metal life: flying with Def Leppard in a private jet from gig to gig, serving as the gatekeeper to the hordes of press and famous people who wanted access to the band. But the downsides for Aliza Sherman were just as eye-opening: opting to forgo makeup and wearing baggy clothes in order to get taken seriously and seeing the rampant misogyny in the music industry at a painfully intimate level.
“When I asked for a raise I was told flat out: ‘You’re single, you don’t have any kids, you have no responsibility, why do you need more money?’” she says. “I made literally half of what the guys who were lateral to me made.”
If the path from office manager at a small booking agency in North Carolina, to working as artist liaison for one of the biggest bands of the 1980s was one Aliza took almost accidentally, the multi-faceted career she’s fashioned since has been guided by purpose.
One of the pioneers of the world wide web in the mid-1990s, Aliza’s focus has never strayed far from the theme of women’s empowerment. From her first online businesses and the books she’s written on those experiences, to her most recent company, the global cannabis women’s network Ellementa, her efforts are rooted in those formative years.
“We didn’t talk about [the inequality] back then. There were no words for that back then. It was more like an awakening, if you will,” she says. “I wasn’t screaming and angry about it. I was just drawn to wanting to better my position and drawn to wanting to help other women.”
Aliza left the music business soon after and ran a domestic violence nonprofit with well-regarded photographer Donna Feratto, who created the scathing look into domestic violence, Living with the Enemy. For someone who had experienced both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of men, the path felt like one of healing.
But tugging at her was all of the creative energy of a woman in her mid-20s who saw in the growing realm of cyberspace a place both exciting and familiar.
She had been fascinated with technology since reading Ray Bradbury science fiction novels as a young adult. The Internet was barely a thing in the mid 1990s, but she already saw the need for a place for women to feel at home online. Launched from her New York apartment in 1995, Cybergrrl was a consultancy and three general-interest web sites created for and about women. She followed that up soon after with Webgrrls, the first networking organization for women interested in the internet (complete with job listings, online forums, and resources).
“My dad always said successful businesses identify a need then fill it,” she says. “The thing is I’ve always identified needs in myself and said: I bet there’s other people like me, women like me.”
When CBS Evening News called to produce a story and asked who her role models were, she said Martha Stewart because she’s a brand and Madonna because she’s constantly changing her brand. There were lessons for a young entrepreneur in both women. Aliza’s instinct, however, was reinvention and testing the unknown.
There were drawbacks with being the first. Aliza might have had a keen eye for content that spoke to her and other women. But she knew less about how to sustain a business, or how to attract big ticketed investors.
In 2000, with the dot com boom going bust a first time, she left after failing to secure a second round of funding for her Latina-focused site Eviva. She bought an RV with a plan to explore the country with her two Chihuahuas. She wrote a blog, and was profiled in USA Today.
She also spent the time promoting two books (Aliza’s written and co-authored 12 to date) on successful strategies for women in business, interwoven with her experience running Cybergrrl at the height of the first dot com boom.
Her path since has taken her to Wyoming, Arizona and Alaska twice, where, she’s made her home. For someone who thrived at being rootless, she’s found stability with a family that includes two kids—one biological, one adopted out of the foster care system—and the coming addition of a 16-month old foster child.
She’ll be the first to admit she didn’t take to the role naturally. Kristen Bell’s performance in the film Bad Moms comes close to replicating her approach (and if Kristen happens to be reading this, Aliza is also convinced she would be your very best, best friend). On the other hand, the constant in her life is a desire to test herself in the unknown and relate that experience to as many people as possible.
“I always say that my gift is taking the complex and making it understandable and accessible and real,” she says. “I come to these places as the woman who knows nothing and learns quickly, and I want to share that. I remember the not knowing place. So many people that come in to, they forget the not knowing place … I like holding on to that nascent stage.”