WERE YOU TO UNDERTAKE the mammoth task of assembling all of America's most powerful women in one room, you'd do well to place your first call to Dyllan McGee—she knows practically all of them. McGee is the visionary behind Makers, an epic PBS docu-series and online repository for the largest collection of interviews with female trailblazers ever assembled: Madeleine Albright on landing her first paying job at age 39; Judy Blume on fighting the campaign to ban her books; Hillary Clinton on facing the Capitol Hill firestorm that ensued when she took on health care during her husband's presidency. Name a woman who has shattered a glass ceiling, and odds are good McGee, 43, has committed her story to film.
But this isn't at all what McGee set out to do back in 2005. She had wanted to make a documentary about Gloria Steinem. So there she was, sitting in the living room of Steinem's Upper East Side townhouse, giving the feminist icon the hard sell. But Steinem wasn't interested. Instead, she told McGee to broaden her scope to include the women's rights movement as a whole. "I'm sure someone's already done that," a deflated McGee told Steinem. "I'm sure it's been done 5 million times."
In fact, after a little digging, McGee learned that no such documentary had ever been made. "It was crazy—and also a filmmaker's dream moment," she recalls. Soon, though, the reality of the vast project ahead of her set in—how do you distill 40 years of history into a few hours of television? That's when McGee hatched a bold plan: "Usually a documentary airs and there's a companion website. So I said, 'Why don't we start with the website? Let's flip the documentary model and post individual stories online, then take the best material and create a documentary from the bottom up."
She dubbed her project Makers: Women Who Make America, and scored seed money from Jennifer Buffett, billionaire investor Warren Buffett's daughter-in-law. Soon after, PBS signed on to broadcast it, and eventually AOL chief Tim Armstrong offered to be a digital partner. Today there are 200 Makers and counting, their interviews edited to digestible (and viral-ready) four-minute clips designed to elicit a conversation—and occasionally spark debate. Case in point: Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer kicked up dust with her Makers interview, in which she disses feminists as having a "militant drive" and a "chip on the shoulder"; Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg inspired a collective gasp among working women when she revealed that she left work every day at 5:30 p.m. to make it home in time for dinner with her family. "I remember laughing with Sheryl after the fact that she had no clue when she sat down with me the impact that interview would have," McGee recalls.
Born and raised in New York City, McGee graduated from Trinity College in Connecticut with a degree in theater and hopes of becoming the next Katie Couric. The comparison is apt: McGee, prone to fizzy excitement about even mundane details—"I asked Alicia Keys to sing in our interview!"—exudes a similarly sunny disposition. Though she was offered an internship at the Today show, a producer there suggested she'd get even more hands-on experience working at a smaller company. So she did just that, opting instead to work for a boutique outfit called Kunhardt Productions, where she stayed put for nearly two decades, ultimately becoming a partner.
Makers occupies most of her time these days. Every other week, she hits the road to meet up with a subject for an on-location interview. The goal is to elicit some fresh kernel of truth, some never-before-told detail that helps illuminate how these exceptional women came to success. Viewers get not just history but also practical advice and the occasional motivational speech. (Interestingly, nearly half the site's 1.5 million visitors a month are men, according to McGee.) Though the travel is relentless (McGee's husband, who works for IBM, picks up the slack with their two boys), it has proven instrumental: Many of her subjects recommend other prospective Makers, with McGee at the nexus of this high-profile, powerful network.
Today Makers is a burgeoning multimedia empire that includes the three-hour documentary that aired on PBS last year, with another six one-hour specials set to air next year; the online database of interviews; and there's even a Makers conference in the works for February in Southern California. And Gloria Steinem was so impressed with Makers that she finally relented to McGee's request to produce a documentary about her life. Gloria: In Her Own Words aired on HBO in the summer of 2011 and earned McGee an Emmy nomination.
"Maybe it's just my own personal awakening, but there is something in the air these days—a new focus on women's issues," she explains. "There seems to be a movement brewing, and I hope Makers plays an important role in it." —Yael Kohen
6 DEGREES OF DYLLAN MCGEE
TIM & NANCY ARMSTRONG
The CEO and his wife brought on AOL as Makers' digital partner.
The PBS president signed on to air the series.
This public broad-
casting biggie funded programs to get local Makers on air.
This prominent D.C. doyenne was an early backer.
The former CBS News exec produced the first 100 Makers videos.
This AOL exec helped transform Makers into a brand.
Jacket, $2,895, Belstaff; top, $1,195, skirt, $1,095, Donna Karan New York; long ring, price upon request, Henri J. Sillam; shoes, $595, Reed Krakoff; band rings, McGee's own.