Stephanie Brail is a digital Amazon.
More specifically, she's the founder of Digital Amazon, a Web consulting firm with clients ranging from health-care giant Kaiser Permanente to the nonprofit Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. She's also the brains behind Amazon City, an online women's community, and one of the driving forces behind the growing women's presence in cyberspace.
The whole idea behind Digital Amazon, she says, is to support and promote women as they strive for success. That's a daunting mission, given the testosterone coursing through the Net, and Brail knows firsthand how brutally male the medium can be. In 1993 she found herself in the middle of a flame war that morphed into a case of e-mail stalking so terrifying that she began practicing martial arts for self-defense. 'That's when I decided that I wanted to get more women on the Internet, to even things out,' she says.
Five years later, things are beginning to even out -- more women are getting online -- partly because of Brail's work. Like any young entrepreneur with no venture capital, she logs 60- to 80-hour workweeks. She also fights a constant battle with chronic fatigue immunodeficiency syndrome, which requires daily naps and causes occasional bouts of 'brain fog.' Still, Brail has managed, on a shoestring, to develop some of the most successful women-oriented sites on the Net. Her Amazon City Radio, launched last year, is the only radio station on the Web offering women-oriented music, talk, news, and public affairs programming. The Amazon City online community attracts as many as half a million page views a month.
Meanwhile, women-oriented sites are attracting corporate sponsors. 'This is not a bad thing,' Brail says, 'but I think a lot of women are downright suspicious of glitzy, advertisement-driven Web sites.'
And many of these sites avoid political content at all costs. 'Say the word bitch on your Web site and that's enough for an ad campaign to be pulled,' Brail says. 'Sometimes you'll actually find more controversial stuff in the traditional women's magazines.'
Brail, who grew up in Jackson, Michigan, got turned on to computers at 10, when her father brought one home and told her she'd be needing it if she wanted a career. Her feminist leanings also began at an early age. 'I grew up in an environment where I was always told I could be whatever I wanted to be,' she says.
By 1993 -- when most of the world still didn't know what the Internet was -- Brail was typing away on cyberspace bulletin boards. At 24, she was teaching Internet classes. But with chronic fatigue occasionally draining her energy, she knew she couldn't fit into a 9-to-5 grind. So she started building Web pages for pay, mooching a free Internet connection from a friend and sharing a server with a few colleagues.
Today, her Digital Amazon empire is profitable and supports seven part-time off-site employees. She's hoping to move the entire operation into an office next year.
But is all this enough to revitalize the women's movement? 'I don't think technology is the key to advancing feminist goals,' she explains. 'It is certainly helpful, but not essential. It is more important that women, individual women, have a shift in their perceptions of themselves, that they start to believe in their dreams and follow them.