My fears have subsided and my excitement has grown over the last three years as I have met some amazing women in the Triangle community—strong confident women who are dedicated to their work, health, families and their city. To me, they are powerful women. And, I want to be a powerful woman.
And so I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend the Triangle Entrepreneurship Week event called "Women In Power" earlier this month. I expected some wonderful women to give me the 12-step program on how to become successful and powerful. Instead, I got something that I needed much more: open, raw conversation about the challenges women face and the opportunities that exist for us, and with other women (and a handful of men).
The challenges for women starting companies came up first. There's this perceived notion that female leaders are cold, controlling or tough in the workplace, several people noted. But Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network’s Sheryl Waddell explained it best: "Women come across as too aggressive when they are just trying to be influential". In my experience, this is true. But ever since I started my company, I have been told that I need to toughen up. Someone even told me that I can't run a company because I am a woman. So why is it that women are still being told to "act like a man"? And yet, when we're tough, we're criticized for it?
Soon enough, the conversation turned away from the challenges and toward the opportunities for women. Raleigh City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin voiced her opinion that "you can be powerful by doing good, not just being tough". Women add value to the workplace because they pay attention to things like creating an environment and building a nurturing team.
Wow, I thought. It made me consider how often we complain about being under-represented or underpaid instead of promoting and educating about the benefits of a female presence in companies.
Consumer markets are demanding authenticity now more than ever. This means that the companies offering products and services should also be true to who they are. We crave an experience when we make purchases; therefore, we will go to the brands that pay attention to every detail of the creative process.
It makes me think of the commercial that says "Happy cows make better cheese"? You probably know the rest, "Happy cows come from California". Yes, I am using the metaphor that cows are like business people. But the logic is that the cheese is better because the cows are happy, and that is because of the environment they live in. Doesn't it make sense that if the environment is meeting the needs of employees, they are happier with their jobs and will perform better?
Now, let's go back to women. We tend to be more relational than men. We care about feelings. But I think sometimes it takes a certain vulnerability to help expose problems and put them on the table for discussion. It's a lot like what happened in this session. But so often our vulnerability comes off as weakness. We hear that it will make people take us less seriously, which makes us lose self-confidence instead of moving us forward.
Granted, sometimes it is a weakness. When we complain about what we don't know or what we can't do, it affects our ability to be strong leaders. Instead, we should seek others who can help us gain that knowledge.
Maybe women don't always need to be externally tough, but we should be internally tough so we can take criticism and make decisions that aren't always easy.
The last thing that really resonated with me was said by Mary-Ann: "Be firm, be who you are, and don't apologize for it".
I know how to be firm, and I don't have any interest in being anyone other than myself, but it was that last part that was the catch. It's time for me to stop saying I'm sorry. I'm sorry I'm young. I'm sorry I don't have as much experience. I'm sorry I didn't major in something scientific. I'm sorry I'm a woman and I feel out of place.
Successful people don't make excuses, they take chances. And as Thoreau once said, we should "Go confidently in the direction of our dreams".
I am very thankful to live in Raleigh and be a part of an area that is willing to talk about women's issues in public spaces. I believe if we continue to welcome diversity into our companies and everyday lives, it will only bring more progress and happiness. We are even hosting a Triangle Startup Weekend for Women! It's a big deal. This is a chance to be a national example that women and men do not have to be in competition. Together, they can create a whole world of opportunity.