Nell Merlino was destined to change the world since birth. Born to parents who advocated for change within their communities, Nell quickly recognized that power was meant to make the unthinkable, the new reality.
In 1993, Nell helped create Take Our Daughters To Work Day, a day for young girls to see the professional possibilities that lay before them. With over 37 million Americans taking part in the annual event, Nell is evidence that your legacy is every life you touch. She is the Founder and CEO of Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence, a non-profit organization that helps women grow their businesses into million-dollar enterprises. As an author, advocate, and entrepreneur, Nell continues to level the playing field for women across various sectors.
We had the chance to talk with her about activism, the future that she envisions for women, and advice she would give to her daughter.
Her Agenda: As an activist and entrepreneur, can you please tell us about your daily routine during COVID-19?
Nell Merlino: For the most part, I have been writing, exercising, cooking, cleaning, and working every day. Specifically, I have been working on the revival of Count Me In, which I have been dedicating most of my time to.
Her Agenda: You founded ‘Take Our Daughters to Work Day’ in 1993 for Gloria Steinham’s Ms. Foundation for Women. Looking back, can you give insight into how this annual day came to be?
Nell Merlino: It came to be in the aftermath of the Clarence Thomas hearings when Anita Hill was treated so badly on Capitol Hill. It started the whole move to get more women in Congress and Take Our Daughters To Work Day was one of the earliest campaigns to help people see that girls could have a different future. It was really about the ongoing struggle that women have for equality and how we needed to start early with showing girls the opportunities that exist in workplaces.
‘Take Our Daughters To Work Day’ came to be in the aftermath of the Clarence Thomas hearings when Anita Hill was treated so badly on Capitol Hill. It started the whole move to get more women in Congress and Take Our Daughters To Work Day was one of the earliest campaigns to help people see that girls could have a different future.
Her Agenda: In your Tedx Talk, you mentioned how when you were in school, the vocational options for girls were limited to being a teacher, nun, or mom. How do you feel living in a world where women now hold executive positions?
Nell Merlino: It’s really great. It is extraordinary that we have so many women doing amazing work and you can see the coalescence of our power. We have Nancy Pelosi, a woman who is Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Kamala Harris, an extraordinary senator who is a Vice Presidential candidate, and several women governors. The more women who are in places of power, the more power women will have. It is really true that it takes large numbers of us to change the world’s thinking because our very existence changes the perspectives of most institutions and organizations.
Her Agenda: Your book, Stepping Out Of Line: Lessons For Women Who Want It Their Way… In Life, In Love, And At Work, motivates women to get what they want. With sexism and the gender pay gap still existing, how do you think women can amplify their voices to make sure that their worth is being met in the professional realm?
Nell Merlino: Women have to vote! We have to vote and seize every opportunity where we are able to share our opinions, views, and creative solutions to problems. We cannot wait to be asked. Besides voting and speaking up, we need to uplift other women. Anytime another woman speaks up it is important to acknowledge the fact that she has done that. I think we are too quick to criticize as opposed to acknowledging how difficult it is and how great it is when people do it.
Her Agenda: You previously mentioned Count Me In, which is the non-profit you founded to help women grow their businesses into million-dollar enterprises. Other than financial empowerment, what other attributes do women need for success?
Nell Merlino: I think women need to be truly for themselves and to be themselves. I think women through the ages have contorted themselves to fit into situations whether as daughters, wives, mothers, teachers, anything. We have been taught to fit into a system as opposed to recognizing that we have the power, ideas, and energy to create new things and change existing systems. It is all about listening to yourself, listening to other women, and finding the voices of women as important as men when deciding how we move forward.
We have been taught to fit into a system as opposed to recognizing that we have the power, ideas, and energy to create new things and change existing systems.
Her Agenda: If you were raising a young daughter today, factoring in social media pressures and societal inequality, what two lessons would you instill in her to navigate life?
Nell Merlino: I would tell her to listen to herself and develop her own opinions. While it is important to know what other people think, it is hardest to know what you think, what you believe, and asserting those beliefs instead of waiting for permission. I also think it is important for young women to believe that they can really make money. Making money is still something that is empowering and there is a way for people to make money without exploiting others. There are countless problems in the world and women have the power to solve them. For example, women around the world are stuck because there is no childcare available. Those issues are not simply issues for the mom, but they are issues that affect the entire community. It is no longer about what we can and cannot do, but it is about what we are willing to do.
Her Agenda: You have done so many things to change the world for women, so I can only assume that numerous people count on you. What do you do to practice self-care and limit stress?
Nell Merlino: I do a lot of laughing, I highly recommend laughing, it is a useful thing to do. I enjoy talking to people who have a sense of humor. Also, I exercise and do something every day whether it is walking, swimming, or lifting weights. The most important thing is our health. We all need to be vigilant and it just gives you extraordinary relief and energy to use your body. One thing that has been interesting about the women’s movement, because our bodies were so objectified, is some of us didn’t pay enough attention to the beauty and functionality of our bodies enough to fully appreciate them. Lastly, I have been taking courses at The School of Womanly Arts. I recommend it to anyone reading this to look into it because it really talks about our lives and the pleasure that women need and can experience but often do not because we do not know they exist.
The most important thing is our health. We all need to be vigilant and it just gives you extraordinary relief and energy to use your body.
Her Agenda: When envisioning women and girls of the future, what do you see that looks different and what looks the same?
Nell Merlino: I think there is certainly going to be more women in power unless something dramatic happens. However, we are experiencing something dramatic now and it is not discouraging women from stepping up and playing an important role in the recovery of both the health and the country and economy. Many more women will be in charge of companies, communities, countries, you name it. What is going to look the same is the divine feminine in all of us. That is not changing. We are crucial players in the world, life, and relationships. Though others have tried to diminish us, we are going to see and experience the full force of who women really are. Women are a regulating force in societies and cultures that need to be listened to and we need to listen to ourselves so that everyone else follows.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]