“Every vehicle is a tool to have a conversation with someone. I want to be mindful about that, I will not restrict myself to a certain platform.”
Ariel Wengroff is a founder and executive producer based in Brooklyn, New York. Wengroff is the Founder of Culture's Last Stand and a Senior Advisor with LionTree and Kindred Media, focused on content development. Her career began in Burlington, Vermont, as the Communications Director for Vermont’s Democratic Party. She left the political sphere to work at VICE Media, where she held multiple titles, including Publisher of VICE's women and LGBTQ+ identity channel Broadly, Chief of Staff, and Executive Producer. As Chief of Staff, Wengroff worked on interviews with President Obama, President Biden, Gloria Steinem, Malala, and more. She was an Executive Producer of the Emmy nominated VICELAND show Woman with Gloria Steinem, where at 26 she became the youngest person to be nominated as Executive Producer in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series category. Wengroff left VICE in 2019 and co-founded arfa, Inc., a platform for the creation of new beauty, wellness, and personal care brands like HIKI (genderless sweat brand) and State Of (Menopause beauty brand). In 2019, she produced the animated short film Sitara: Let Girls Dream directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, which premiered on Netflix.
Wengroff is on the 2020 Crain's Notable LGBTQ Leaders and Executives List, 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 Media list, and currently serves on the board of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), Sad Girls Club, Lesbians Who Tech, VICE’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board, and is a former commissioner on the Vermont Commission on Women and former member on the Vermont Board of Libraries.
In this interview, Ariel Wengroff shares how she went from working in Vermont Politics to VICE Media, why she cofounded arfa Inc., and her role as executive producer of the animated short Sitara: Let Girls Dream.
TGL: How was your childhood?
AW: My family comes from Russia and Poland, but they have stayed in Chicago since immigrating to the United States, so I grew up there. My mom is a holistic therapist, so I was raised as a good listener and curious kid. No imaginary idea felt too big at the time. My family loved movies and going to the theater. My head was in a book or watching the screen. I definitely grew up romanticizing the idea of where you can go with a story and fell headfirst into that.
TGL: What led you to study at the University of Vermont?
AW: I went to the University of Vermont because I loved the campus, it felt like a lovely small town in a way that I hadn't experienced before. I knew I wanted to study English, and I was interested in the way people connect with each other. I was curious about different types of relationships from the past and questioning the constraints and constructs of those relationships. Some of that curiosity probably came from the fact that my mom is a therapist. At UVM, I felt nurtured by my work in the English department and by my friend group there. They were writers, performers, and activists, very much people who encouraged opening your mind.
TGL: When did you produce the documentary series Woman with Gloria Steinem?
AW: I created Woman after UVM, when I was at VICE Media. Gloria Steinem met Shane, our CEO at the time, and they really hit it off. She came to the office and talked about gender-based violence. I was fortunate enough to sit in on that meeting. It turned into a creative brainstorm about how as a global youth media company, VICE tells the most pressing stories and gets people as close to being on the ground as possible. We were missing this story about what's going on for women around the world. A question that came up was “how do we make it so that it is not siloed and is brought into the conversation like everything else?"
Gloria Steinem got up and said, "Best editorial meeting I've ever had." And Shane said, "The place is yours. Ari will run that." So I worked with Gloria. Amy Richards, Nomi Leidner, and Joanna Forscher also helped develop the show. It was an incredible experience. It felt like a once in a lifetime experience, because this was before a lot of feminist content was being created on the video and documentary side. We went to eight different places to tell local stories.
TGL: Was VICE Media your first job out of college?
AW: After university, I actually worked in politics. I worked for a governor in Vermont, the Vermont Democratic Party, and a congressman. My work was centered around communications primarily. It was another vehicle of, "How can I understand someone better?" What I love about Vermont is it’s the closest thing to direct democracy that still exists. It is a small state, but it is a great laboratory for change. My interest in understanding people's problems and how we can create greater awareness of those problems led me to media.
TGL: When did you interview President Barack Obama and Joe Biden?
AW: I interviewed President Obama and now-President Biden at VICE Media. When I worked for a governor in Vermont, President Biden came to Vermont to help push votes for him, and I chose not to go meet him so I could get work done at the field office with the volunteers. So I was very excited when I finally got to meet him. We had the fortune of interviewing them a few times over the Obama administration. It was an incredible experience to go inside these narrower-than-you-expect, shorter-than-you-expect Oval Office hallways and be surrounded by so much history and incredible perseverance of what America stands for.
TGL: How long did you stay at VICE?
AW: I was at VICE for five years.
TGL: What were your positions at VICE?
AW: I started out at the bottom of the chain. I knew politics was not going to lead me where I wanted to go, and I had to be willing to start over. I started out as Shane's assistant and worked my way up at the company, raising my hand and working extremely hard to say, "How can we think through all of the facets of what VICE is, and how can we be thoughtful and strategic as we grow?" I ended up becoming the Chief of Staff at VICE, then publisher of Broadly, our female and identity-focused content channel, and then I became an Executive Producer.
TGL: What challenges does digital media face in terms of messaging and reaching your audience?
AW: The biggest challenge that digital media faces - this branches out to consumer companies too - is having a direct relationship with their audience. The duopoly of Facebook and Google and other platforms creates third-party friction. It is challenging for creators to have a direct relationship with their audience. If an algorithm changes, prices change, platforms change, you are beholden to the person that owns that data and that relationship.
Digital media also had a lot of excitement, raising a lot of money, getting high evaluations, and growing a lot for growth's sake. Digital media was a necessary unlock in the same way the internet was or net cryptocurrency is. Consumers deserve and expect a frictionless experience, but they also don't want to be served an ad or a clickable headline.
TGL: At VICE Media, you interviewed many key figures in politics. How do you prepare for an interview?
AW: Anytime a producer or a person helps prepare for an interview, particularly one with someone who wields an incredible amount of influence over people, it is important to think through the questions: How will my audience relate to this person? What is the perspective of the questions they want to know answers to? Will the way I frame this question help give them a better understanding of this person?
Part of this process, particularly at VICE, was thinking about how can we make sure young people who need to vote, who will own so many of the world's problems, feel like their questions and their priorities are at the forefront of these leaders’ minds? We wanted to make sure we were being strong enough to ask those questions, and using our hosts and orators to weave in that VICE style or that curiosity and openness.
TGL: When an interview is happening, do you focus on following what the person says or stick to your prepared questions?
AW: It depends on the individual and their style. Some folks who interview world leaders get so little time, they have the questions they want to hit and the order they are going to get them ready. I believe in doing a lot of research and understanding the themes that I want to cover. I have questions written out that I go to for inspiration or to check in about where I'm going or to help me get started, but I usually allow the conversation to flow where it fits and then plug things in. Sometimes something comes forward earlier than you expect or it happens later. You have to figure out what works best for you.
TGL: After VICE you co-founded the company arfa, Inc., how did this transition happen?
AW: I have always been interested in what the best way to reach an audience is and give them a greater ability to feel like they are learning and understanding each other. That started in politics and it continued in media, because media was a bigger microphone with less red tape. As media became a big microphone in a crowded space with more red tape, I thought, maybe the best place to reach people right now is through products and that deeper relationship with consumers. I created a platform arfa, Inc. with three co-founders, which is a personal care brand. We created products with people around the United States and allowed people to test, sample, give feedback, help us determine product market fit, and then be the faces of the brands themselves.
We created HIKI, which was a gender-neutral sweat brand. You can get it at Urban Outfitters or hiki.com. That's about everything but the armpit, like chafing and butt sweat. Let's talk about all these things that you are not taught to talk about, but you grow up with. We are about letting people's experiences shine. Similarly, we created our menopause brand State Of, which Stacy London now runs as CEO. That's beauty products and solution-oriented products for symptoms you experience in perimenopause and menopause.
I'm all about going into the theoretically uncomfortable spaces and saying, "Let's talk about these things." And asking, "How do we bring people who are part of the process to benefit in the journey?" arfa, Inc. is just another tool for connection.
TGL: When was arfa, Inc. founded?
AW: arfa, Inc. was founded a little over two years ago, and it evolved into a headless e-commerce platform called Chord Commerce. The business evolved during the pandemic.
TGL: Are you still involved with this company?
AW: I'm still a shareholder, but I'm no longer at the company. Headless e-commerce is a great, innovative tool for what arfa, Inc. was doing already. I'm all about storytelling and continuing to create and allow for new discoveries of expression, so for me, it made more sense to continue to be focused on that.
TGL: Was this when you came back to media at Kindred Media and LionTree?
AW: Yes. To me, the greatest thing about LionTree was that they are a TMT advisory firm. They understand that media is part of the pipeline of reaching the consumer in different ways. It is a tool to help reach a greater outcome. I love being a part of that team and helping them explore what that means for the future of the businesses they help and themselves.
TGL: You were an Executive in Residence and now you are a Senior Advisor and you work on their podcast. Could you elaborate on your role in strategic advisory at Kindred Media and LionTree?
AW: As a Senior Advisor, I work to think through what the media and consumer strategy should be for LionTree and for the partners they've been fortunate to work with. I do that in tandem with a talented team led by Aryeh Bourkoff, the chairman and CEO. I feel very fortunate to be a part of that.
Kindred has invested in some incredible assets, like KindredCast, Punchbowl News, and The Baer Faxt. KindredCast was rated a top podcast by Variety, that interviews some of the best world leaders. Once in a while I am the guest interviewer, which is very fun. There are a lot of extensions of expression that they explore as a business, and I get to be part of those conversations.
TGL: What is exciting to you about podcasting?
AW: I love talking to people, finding out their why and reminding them of human connection. Particularly because the folks interviewed on KindredCast are people that normally don't get to be vulnerable about their process because they are in high-stakes situations. It is a unique lens into some of the greatest thinkers and creators of our time. I appreciate them feeling comfortable opening up to me, and me having the responsibility of thinking through the best way to convey their story.
TGL: There is a relationship between psychology and journalism.
AW: It is a tightrope anytime you interview anyone, and I think people should think about that more. We go with cameras into cities or to places where people are their most vulnerable or confused or excited. They are in a heightened emotional state that could be good or bad. It is our job to take that experience and bring it to the world. That should always be taken with care and thoughtfulness. There needs to be a why, because if you are just sharing something for the sake of it or because it helps your bottom line, you are not taking care of the people that you are putting into the world.
TGL: You were the executive producer for the animated short Sitara: Let Girls Dream, which premiered on Netflix. How did you get involved in this project?
AW: When I made Woman with Gloria and our wonderful team, an incredible director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, directed our episode in Pakistan. She's an Oscar-winning director. I went to her and I said, "I'd really like to tell more stories like what we started in Woman, but through different mediums and avenues." She said, "I have this story that I've been trying to work on for so long. It’s an animated short about child marriage." I loved that. I think animation is such an underutilized tool that reaches kids and parents at the same time. I helped her bring this project to life. It was made in Pakistan with people from around the world.
This animated short, which exists on Netflix, also had a partnership with Gucci's CHIME FOR CHANGE for a campaign called Let Girls Dream, about letting girls and kids around the world feel like they can achieve whatever they want when they grow up.
TGL: What exactly was your role as executive producer?
AW: My role was to raise the money and give feedback with Sharmeen. When she was going through challenges or needed support, I made sure she had what she needed. I also helped get us to distribution. I was fortunate to work with someone like her, because she's extraordinary and knocks down every door or ceiling that could ever exist.
TGL: Do you consider yourself feminist?
AW: Yes, I would absolutely consider myself a feminist. I think every person deserves the chance to succeed and feel heard and seen in the world. Feminism has a role to play in making sure everyone is lifted up, which unfortunately in certain periods of feminist history wasn't the case. A lot of my work has been centered around gender-based stories. As part of the queer community and because of the work we did at Broadly, I know so many things extend beyond gender. But in certain parts of the world, we haven't even gotten to that conversation yet. It is important to give everyone a chance to succeed.
TGL: Do you know what you want to do next? Do you want to produce movies or media?
AW: Every vehicle is a tool to have a conversation with someone. I want to be mindful about that, I will not restrict myself to a certain platform. I started another company called Culture's Last Stand, which is named after the art gallery my grandparents owned briefly in Chicago in the 1960s. The point of Culture's Last Stand is to help tell stories in whatever medium is best, and support creators as they go through that process as well.
TGL: Culture's Last Stand does editorial and business work. How do you distinguish these two activities?
AW: I am very much both a right-and-left-brain person. I see avenues for existing and new brands to do better and do more to have an authentic relationship with their audience. I also have stories that I want to tell myself, and I find a lot of joy in that creative process. I see Culture's Last Stand as a vehicle to work on more of those creative endeavors.
TGL: How has COVID-19 affected your work and your vision?
AW: From a world standpoint, there was so much chaos, pain, and lack of understanding. It really put personal lives forward particularly in the United States, where work is usually the first thing. I think it reoriented priorities a lot for me.
It accelerated a decade of trends within a period of a few months. From that aspect of developing a frictionless relationship with your consumer or your audience, we are seeing that starting to unfold. It evolved what arfa, Inc. was into Chord, it evolved where brands are now, it evolved my work. I think only in ways that are for the better, ultimately.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
AW: I would love to have dinner with Angela Merkel. I'm so intrigued by her leadership style and the length of her career. I think she has played such a unique role in the EU and in the world, it would be fascinating to have a dinner conversation with her.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
AW: Completely believe in your big ideas and in your small ideas. When you are nervous about bringing your idea to someone or trying to give it a shot, write out all the reasons why you are nervous and all the criticisms someone might give you. So that nothing anyone says catches you off guard and you have a response, but also so you remember it's just an idea and no new idea starts with no. You have to be your best advocate if you want something to come to life, particularly around storytelling, which is very hard.