Gender imparity continues to cause discord within the music industry, as women make up less than 40 percent of music business positions, according to a study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative 2021 report. However, Lola Plaku and Maria Giuliana are helping to empower women and create change through their mentorship program, Girl Connected.

Celebrating its third annual cohort, the program is now in full swing with women based in the United States and Canada. This time around, the nine-month program is focusing on artist development and artist marketing.

The project-based program challenges the narrative that age defines knowledge with weekly events. Plaku, the founder and Giuliana, the program lead, pride themselves on knowing that they are still learning new things even with their years of experience in the business. They encourage a culture of vulnerability and curiosity within the program.

A roundtable of speakers at the Girl Connected Launch
Image via Patricia Recourt

Plaku and Giuliana are passionate about innovating the program to always reflect the true nature of the music business. When the two leaders initially collaborated, their focus was to foster a community that develops professional growth, confidence, and experience. Giuliana experienced this firsthand when Plaku passed the torch to her to be the program lead.

“[She] has instilled so much confidence in me and poured so much into me that has allowed me to pour back into the mentees in the program,” Giuliana says.

This transformation is a common characteristic shared amongst alumni of the program. According to Giuliana, providing them with access to a community of like-minded, eager-to-learn individuals and exposure to industry positions opens a broader horizon for the mentees.

Giuliana and Plaku agree that progress has been made for women in music, but say that it is not enough. Both women, who sit on Spotify’s EQUAL Global Music Program board, are hoping to help dismantle inequity and provide the guidance that Plaku never received early in her career.

“Personally, when I first started to even think of the idea of building a team, [I would ask myself] like, ‘How do I know that I can trust the people that I’m leaning on and how do I know what their work ethic looks like?’” she says.

Within the program, the mentees find out the answers to these questions, Plaku adds.

Having a successful launch in early 2020, then adjusting to an unprecedented year, surviving 2021, and now thriving in 2022, we chatted with Plaku and Giuliana to learn more about the impact of Girl Connected.

Girl Connected hosts a speaker series
Image via Manny Dark

What does networking within the Girl Connected program look like?
Plaku: If you are a part of the Girl Connected community, and you come to our events, you might meet somebody that works at Amazon, or somebody that works at Spotify, or somebody that works at Apple or Tidal or a label [and] you get to ask questions.

It’s not just participating in a conference or buying a ticket and going and seeing other people speak about their career journey. You actually get to talk about your career journey. You get to talk about the things that make you happy—the challenges that you have. Even at our public workshops, I usually open the floor to questions. I want people to be able to pitch their ideas, to feel like they got a chance to talk to somebody that was our guests versus just hearing the moderator and the guests speak.

And within the Girl Connected alumni group alone, there’s somebody who has an artist who has access to somebody that works at Live Nation, who has access to somebody that works at a booking agency, who has access to somebody that works as a PR professional, who has access to someone who works as a journalist. So just in the Girl Connected community, you literally have your core circle of people that you need to build your team.

“Seeing the mentees realize their vision and being in positions that they once felt it was so out of their reach, and now they’re owning it and thriving in it—it’s incredible.”

What are some traditional or unconventional millstones the program has reached thus far?
Plaku: Seeing our mentees succeed in the space they want to thrive in and apply themselves in it is the most rewarding thing.

Through my company Lola Media Group, we produced a series of episodes for the YouTube show Colors. And Tameesha Holder, first-year alumni of Girl Connected, was the producer for all the episodes.

There are a few of those, I guess, success stories, but to me, just overall being able to see the mentees execute their vision post-program and staying connected with each other and us.

Giuliana: Seeing the mentees learn how to network … capitalize off each other’s resources … promote each other’s artists and book their artists on their shows. [Being a part of] all of that has been so rewarding.

Like Lola said, seeing the mentees realize their vision and being in positions that they once felt it was so out of their reach, and now they’re owning it and thriving in it—it’s incredible.

A roundtable of speakers at Girl Connected
Image via Nathalia Allen

How do you feel to know that you both are the root cause of these transformations?
Plaku: It’s humbling. It’s an honour… There are no words to really even express it. It’s just seeing [that] our peers in the music business are reaching out to us, like, “Hey, we love what your mentees are doing in this space, or we love what you’re doing with your mentees in the space.” And they’re asking us for recommendations for certain job positions or opportunities. That really, really, really warms my heart.

Giuliana: I’m just so grateful [to share these experiences with the mentees] and so honoured, and it’s so fulfilling. It’s the best feeling literally—I don’t even know how to describe it.

“You’re never not going to have doubts. You’re going to learn to push through and do it, despite whatever voices in your head tell you you can’t do it.”

Lola, you mentioned in a recent etalk interview that there is a lack of resources to help women get into the music business. What type of resources do we need to see more of?
Plaku: Besides Girl Connected and besides a few other programs that I’ve seen in North America that provide women with mentorship, I haven’t seen enough that actually cater to providing resources or job offers, training or experience. It’s more so attending events more than anything else versus actual guidance.

So, I’d love to see more of those resources for women in the music business overall.

What advice do you have for women interested in taking that leap of faith to pursue the music business but are fearful?
Giuliana: You’re never not going to have doubts. You’re going to learn to push through and do it, despite whatever voices in your head tell you you can’t do it.

And obviously, no one person is completely and utterly confident. You know what I mean? It would be such an unrealistic thing to attain, but it’s knowing that there are people that experienced the same doubts as you, that struggle with confidence just like you, that makes it feel okay. And to keep pushing through, even when you have those doubts.

And another thing, something Lola says all the time, know your shit. That’s literally one of our mandates. When you have the knowledge, and you’re equipped with the knowledge, and you know how things are done and how things should look, whatever you’re working on, it instills a different type of confidence for you.