Sara Bordo & A Brave Heart

First-time filmmaker features anti-bullying advocate Lizzie Velasquez in new documentary.

World's ugliest women, TEDxAustin, A Brave Heart, indie film, women rising, Lizzie Velasquez, Sara Bordo,

Sara Hirsch Bordo '98 and Lizzie Velasquez.

Sara Bordo & A Brave Heart

First-time filmmaker features anti-bullying advocate Lizzie Velasquez in new documentary.

Sara Hirsh Bordo ’98 was enjoying a successful career at a Los Angeles studio when she had a run-in with a female boss who said the TCU alum belonged in an apron instead of an office.

“It was one of those circumstances that really shone a light on the fact that so many women are threatened by each other rather than feeling championed by one another,” she said.

Bordo resigned from the studio job and — on the same day — founded Women Rising, a mentoring consultancy. Already a longtime mentor to professional women, she started volunteering at UCLA and high schools to help female students build résumés, sharpen interview skills and boost their confidence.

Three years later, Bordo got a call from a friend asking for help hosting the first TEDWomen’s event in Austin. They had 90 days. “She said I was the only one they knew who was crazy enough to take it on.”

At the time, Bordo — whose career included serving as executive director of interactive marketing at Paramount Pictures and vice president of digital marketing at MGM Studios — was busy as co-founder and CEO of NowLive, a company that produced and directed live entertainment events in Hollywood.

She left Austin 13 years earlier to live in London, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles but always knew she wanted to return to the Texas state capitol. “When I got the call, it just sort of brought everything together in a way where it felt really right.”

Bordo produced and directed the inaugural TEDxAustinWomen event under Women Rising — which evolved from a mentoring organization to a content and experience company that championed women and girls. “That’s how I met Lizzie.”

Born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight, 63-pound Elizabeth “Lizzie” Velasquez was bullied in school and online — where she unintentionally stumbled across a YouTube video labeling her the world’s ugliest woman.

TEDxAustinWomen became the No. 1 TEDWomen event of 2013, and Velasquez’s talk — “How Do You Define Yourself?” — was viewed more than 10 million times.

Sara Hirsh Bordo

Sara Hirsh Bordo.

“After we posted [Lizzie’s] TED talk, the way it was being shared and the comments that were coming forward — from men, women, kids, adults and all sorts of ethnicities — were really extraordinary,” Bordo said. “Lizzie was unlocking a sense of hope for people that was very needed.”

As the two women became friends, Bordo learned that people had not always taken the right care of Velasquez and her family and became inspired to tell her friend’s story.

“I called and I said, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but I really feel like I know how to tell your story, and people are saying that they want more of you than the 18 minutes we could give you on stage,” Bordo said. “What do you think about doing this together?’ Lizzie said yes on the spot and ‘now we have to convince my parents.’”

Velasquez’s parents were approached numerous times over the years to participate in documentaries and reality shows about her, but they always passed. Bordo met with them to discuss her ideas to direct a film documentary about their daughter.

“After our dinner, Rita [Velasquez] said, ‘We’ve been asked for so long, but I’m realizing now that we’ve been waiting for you,’” Bordo recalled. “That was February of 2014. It is not lost on me how blessed and lucky I am to have helmed this film and Lizzie’s story.”

Lizzie Velasquez, TEDxAustin

Lizzie Velasquez.

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story documents the 26-year-old’s journey from cyber-bullying victim to anti-bullying activist. The Bordo-directed documentary premiered in select theaters in September and is available on demand.

Following Velasquez on speaking engagements, Bordo and her Women Rising team shot for four months. The filming location included Austin, Los Angeles, North Carolina, Mexico City, Barcelona, London and Washington, D.C., where Velasquez lobbied for the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which is a federal bill dedicated to anti-bullying efforts.

The film editing took another four months. “We had 95 hours of film, and the final piece is 78 minutes,” Bordo said.

Women Rising funded pre-production costs; a Kickstarter campaign covered shooting and early editing; and private investors paid for postproduction.

“We had no script,” Bordo said. “I understood what Lizzie felt her purpose was, and I was doing my best to use film to personify that and communicate that in a way that lots of people could experience.”

The documentary film received awards at eight film festivals — including several audience awards. Bordo hopes the documentary creates noise in Washington, D.C. for the Safe Schools Improvement Act, and people can show their support at

“I just hoped that I could craft and direct a film and produce it in a way that would make people feel the way we hoped they would, which is inspired — and a little bit angry at the same time.”

While continuing to promote “A Brave Heart,” Bordo and her team are exploring what story they want to champion next. “I’m committed to being about shining a light on extraordinary stories of incredible women and girls who are sort of fighting the odds in whatever way that means for their life,” she said. “I’m excited about building this portfolio of examples of these women and girls who are helping other people to rise in their own way.”