How to make a book club for bad girls

Bad Girls Collective is a story about what happens when two creative brand builders apply their skills to a passion project. It’s a story about how two entrepreneurs can look at something and have the vision to turn it into something else.

Bad Girls Collective today is run by Kara Wark and Anna Halfpenny, two women working in Toronto’s advertising industry: Wark a freelance art director, Halfpenny co-founder of Ruby & Foster. But the story actually begins with a book club that Wark started with some friends who had resolved to read more.

Wark realized after just a few meetings that it was something more than a book club. At the time she was questioning her future in advertising—frustrated by an industry that continued to give men more breaks than women. On top of that, there was also some anxiety about the still-new Donald Trump presidency.

The book club meetings made her feel slightly better about things. “It was more about having that space and time to meet with the girls in your life who are experiencing the same frustrations, but not having the space to speak about it properly,” she says. “We were having such beautiful, heartfelt powerful conversations, and we realized there was something really special happening.”

Kara Wark

Rather than focus on those frustrations, Wark decided to focus on the positive benefits of the book club—to share it and grow it. Book clubs are nothing new, of course, but most are small and intimate. Wark wanted to make one that was big and made some noise.

She shared her idea with Halfpenny, then a co-worker and mother of two young children who was similarly frustrated by the ad industry. “I almost felt obligated to get the hell out of it,” she says. “I didn’t feel it was set up appropriately, [and] it didn’t have the right leadership in place to support mothers working in the industry.” It’s one of the reasons Halfpenny started her own business in late 2018.

When Wark explained what she was doing, Halfpenny loved the vision.

The idea was to send an open invitation to other women’s book clubs, inviting them to join theirs, expand their circles and meet new women. They’d read books on important woman’s issues, gather to talk about those issues, and invite the authors to join them—as well as other women with held strong opinions to lead the discussions. This would be a book club with a purpose and the purpose was to empower women. Wark called it Bad Girls Collective.

Her mom didn’t like the name. But it was perfect for the rebellious attitude the new project embodied.

“We’re told when we’re little to be good girls, to sit pretty and be quiet, be polite and raise your hand, and don’t speak until you’re asked to,” says Wark. ”And that just forces us into these boxes of being women that behave, and end up in this second-class role that we’re put into. And a bad girl is really just a girl who speaks up, who’s unapologetic, and makes sure that she finds her seat at the table.”

Bad Girls Collective launched on international Woman’s Day 2017, and the first book was Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies. The tickets sold out in a week. There’s been 16 more meetups since then.

They’ve read books about women and cannabis, and motherhood. In December, it was Robyn Doolittle’s Had it Coming, an examination of rape culture following the #MeToo movement. Last month it was Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play, about more equal sharing of the chores and duties of home life so often carried out by women.

Anna Halfpenny

In early 2019, Halfpenny transitioned from enthusiastic supporter and champion of Bad Girls Collective to formal partner, when Wark asked her to join her to help grow the brand and build the business.

The books remain the core of what they are: “Women feel empowered when they are reading more,” says Halfpenny. But it’s through coming together to talk and share ideas about change and progress for women that the brand comes to life. “For us, it is about that community.”

Being the marketers that they are, they obsess over the details and every element of their young brand. “We are entrepreneurs and brand-builders by trade and are thoughtfully mapping out the investment and expertise required to give our audience an even more elevated literary experience,” says Halfpenny.

They have sponsors, but are careful about who they work with. ”They need to align with our purpose,” says Halfpenny. “We are very protective of our own brand, to make sure that whatever we’re attaching ourselves to is in line with our own ethos.” There are now Bad Girl shirts and an online shop, as well as an active Instagram account that has nearly 9,400 followers. There are also slick videos about what it means to be a Bad Girl.

Coming into this year, they had plans to keep growing and expanding the brand. “From the beginning, we’d wanted to start chapters, which was what we were gearing up for in 2020, and then, boom,” says Wark.

Boom, indeed. By the time of its April event, Bad Girls had gone virtual. Wark and Halfpenny were worried, because they felt so much of the group’s strength came from having women meeting face-to-face. Instead, says Wark, “it was no more or less magical than all the others.”

The other big boom came in late May, with the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd. Diversity had always been important to Bad Girls, but the context changed in the spring. “I think women of privilege have now woken up to issues beyond their own,” says Wark. “We need to really focus and amplify all women’s voices. And I think we have a huge responsibility now and we have a huge platform…. And speak to topics that are specifically affecting marginalized communities.”

The book chosen for July was Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In, with the conversation led by the CBC’s Nana aba Duncan. It was largest Bad Girls meetup yet, and raised $3,000 for the Black Legal Action Centre (they shared that session on YouTube).

But this year and the pause brought about by COVID has also given Wark and Halfpenny time to think about what Bad Girls is, what it means to them, and where it goes from here. Rather than growing by opening chapters, they are growing by going virtual—allowing people from across Canada and the U.S. to take part.

They’ve introduced new elements like book reviews by Bad Girl regulars, and they’re working on a new membership program that will include mentorships. They also hope to add new team members: a diversity and inclusion lead, a culture curator, editors, producers, writers and technology directors.

The past few months have also heightened Wark’s feeling of being disconnected from the world of advertising. It’s not so much about building brands, she says, as the fact the world is in the middle of profound change and most brands aren’t keeping up.

“I got my first brief back after proper shutdown, and it was pretty tone deaf. And I realized ‘Yeah, I need to focus on Bad Girls,'” she says. She stopped her freelance work and turned all her attention to the brand this summer. “We have big plans,” she says.

Halfpenny started her own agency, Ruby & Foster, in late 2018, but she’s equally determined to build on the Bad Girls momentum. “It’s a brand in itself, and we see the power it has,” she says. “It’s a commitment that we’ve made, let’s now take it to the next level.

“It started as a passion project, but now it’s like ‘What can we do with the skills that we have, with the experience that we have, with the network that we have to really amplify this?’ Get it to a place where more people need to hear us.”

The next chapter of this badass story starts now.

David Brown