Skimming to Success

Carly Zakin, C'08, creates a new way to get the news.

Monday, October 9, 2017

By Susan Ahlborn

Five years ago Carly Zakin, C’08, quit her job because she’d thought of a better way to do it. She and her roommate Danielle Weisberg, both news producers at NBC in Washington, had realized that none of their friends ever saw their work. Self-described “news nerds,” they decided to design an easy, quick way for busy women to keep up with events.

Today, theSkimm arrives each morning in six million e-mailboxes, including those of Oprah, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Michelle Obama. In about six paragraphs, the update gives a wry, even-handed digest of news for the day, written by working women for working women. Weisberg and Zakin have been named to the Forbes “30 Under 30 in Media,” Vanity Fair’s “The Next Establishment,” Fortune’s “40 Under 40,” and Adweek’s “Young Influentials.” 

We talked with Carly Zakin about her leap of faith and how Penn has affected her life.


Carly Zakin, C'08

Q: How did you have the courage to quit your job and start theSkimm?

I would never describe myself as a risk taker, but there were two times in my life that I have really believed in something so strongly that I didn’t let nerves get in the way. One of them was applying to Penn and one of them was quitting my job and starting theSkimm. We had no savings. Everyone we went to who were experts in the industry told us not to do it. We just believed in it so much that there was truly no talking us down. We either were going to do it and fail or do it and succeed. 

Q: What led you to believe this kind of news update was needed?

We saw that our friends weren’t watching what we were creating. They were very supportive but the reality was they weren’t home when these things were airing. 

At the same time, traditional media outlets were trying to create programming for this new generation. We just thought that there was so much noise out there. Twitter was the big thing. You could walk away from your desk and come back and there were 500 tweets to catch up on. But there was nothing distilling information in a way that fit into your routines. So that led us to see the opportunity.

Q: Did your time at Penn influence your life?

There’s obviously a huge entrepreneurial wave right now with everyone starting startups. Danielle and I have been talking a lot about how there’s a difference between being entrepreneurial and being an entrepreneur. For me, I learned how to be entrepreneurial in the College. I never took a class at Wharton. I didn’t think I was going to become an entrepreneur, but I think I was very entrepreneurial. I figured out my own major track, a dual major in political science and cinema studies, with a creative writing minor. I loved story-telling, and I figured out how to forge a path around my passionate interests. 

I think that’s the way the College is set up, and it allowed me to be entrepreneurial within that curriculum. I just saw the opportunity to be an independent person.

Q: How do you stay connected to Penn?

My best friends are all from Penn, and I still talk a lot to some of my professors. Formally, I try to stay in touch in a few ways. I’m signed up to be an interviewer. I’ve been involved in the Penn Fund. I’ve gone back and visited a few times since starting theSkimm, and I try to recruit interns.

Q: What advice would you give current college students and other entrepreneurs?

You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do when you graduate. I’m proof of that. One of the best things about Penn is that it can feel pre-professional, but I also think that can sometimes be one of the worst things about it when you’re an undergrad, because you feel pressure to have it figured all out. I let myself be scared to not take Wharton classes and I really regret that. I think that I missed out on some basic business skills that I wish I had, and I wish I’d just pushed myself more than anything. 

It’s okay to experiment. I’m sure anyone who was my teacher or I’m sure my parents would laugh hearing me say that because I always am such a Type A person. I always thought that was really bad advice. One of the great things about Penn is you don’t know the doors it’s going to open for you. I think I’m just really proud of myself that I let myself be open to new opportunities.

Q: Part of your goal is keeping theSkimm neutral. Has that gotten more difficult in the current political climate?

Honestly, in many ways, it’s gotten easier because there’s so much opinion out there. It’s so obvious what this country needs is not more divisiveness and not more people saying their opinions. People just desperately want to know what is going on: “Give me the facts.” And then, if they have the right information, they can make their own opinions. 

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Sign up for theSkimm!