byRomy Newmanon Jun 21, 2016

How to Blaze a Trail: Lessons from 9 Incredible Leaders

Woman in leadership

Photo credit:Creative Commons

On June 14, I was honored to moderate a panel of nine truly spectacular women at The United State of Women summit presented by The White House.  The panel, which was entitled “A Conversation with Trailblazers: Making the Case for Gender Diversity across Industries and Sectors,” included extraordinary women who have shattered barriers in arenas from business to martial arts to technology to football to the military.

As president and co-founder of Fairygodboss, a company devoted to improving the workplace for women everywhere, I was heartfully inspired by these women, and also deeply grateful for their courage and perseverance. Their words were wise and generous, and so I hope to share some of them here with you:

1. Take Risks.

To kick off the session, Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Global Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley, encouraged the group to take risks. As she writes in one of her books, Expect to Win, “there is never any real danger in taking well-thought-out calculated risks….Most people look back and regret not taking a risk.” Risk-taking was one of the primary themes that emerged from session. It’s clear that progress and advancement are strongly linked to a willingness to embrace risk.

In a profound example of risk-taking, Erica Baker, Build and Release Engineer at Slack Technologies, confessed to having ignited something of a revolution inside the walls of Google when she exposed pay discrepancies by creating a Google Sheet on which Googlers could share their salaries with their peers. Erica’s risk, though perhaps not popular with her former employer, established her as an up-and-coming talent in the tech space and helped create progress for many women in tech around the issue of the gender wage gap.

2. Take the high ground.

General Ann E. Dunwoody*, US Army, Ret. told me a story about how she advanced up the ranks in the Army as a distinguished paratrooper and as a company commander, and was promoted to Major and ordered to report to the 82nd Airborne Division. Yet when she arrived at Fort Bragg, she was shunned while “closed-door meetings were held to determine what to do with me,” the General writes in her book on Leadership, A Higher Standard.

When she was given a menial assignment while other male officers received the "high speed" jobs she thought about leaving the Army.  But she always believed that it was important to stay on the moral high ground and not lower her standards or resort to unproductive tactics like name calling, gossip or innuendos.  That worked for her.  She didn't stay in the menial job for long and ended up spending six consecutive years in the 82d and became the first female to command a battalion in that storied division.  
"The message is simple," says General Dunwoody. "Believe in yourself, never let others dissuade you from something you are passionate about - or they win!  Never let anyone make decisions or unduly influence something you believe in - or they win.  If people quit and take the easy way out (like quitting). instead of trying to make a difference... Who's the real winner and who's the real loser?"

3. Build diversity from the ground up, and from the inside out.

Erica Baker and her colleague, Anne Toth, Vice President of Policy at Slack, spoke about their experience building diversity from day one at Slack Technologies, the fastest-growing business software company ever. Erica and Anne talked about how at Slack, they have been able to successfully build a more gender diverse organization than most in Silicon Valley. They credit the support of their CEO, Stewart Butterfield, as well as changes to policies and practices. For example, they have systematically eliminated “years experience required” from job descriptions because they understand that women often drop out of the workforce at a certain point.

Deborah Rosado Shaw, Senior Vice President and Chief Global Diversity and Engagement Officer at PepsiCo shared a story about the challenges of building diversity globally across Pepsi. Pepsi is a world leader in diversity practices, yet the company finds itself in uncharted territory on how to encourage female workforce participation in parts of the world - like the Middle East - where it’s not the cultural norm. Deborah talked about how difficult it is to integrate women into an office when they are a tiny minority of the workforce, and how by encouraging, recruiting and hiring many more women, the team achieves a tipping point.  With the right practices, it’s possible to build an office in which gender equality outpaces that of the broader community.
Deborah’s advice to help build diversity from within: "Helping other women doesn't mean being nice. You might need to say something or share feedback that helps [your colleague] to stand taller."

4. Be authentic.

How do you command the attention and respect of men in a world where you are the first woman to ever set foot? That’s exactly what Dr. Jennifer Welter, the first female to coach in the NFL had to do. Dr. Jen’s advice: “Be authentic,” she says emphatically.  Dr Jen advised that the best way to command authority is to be true to yourself. Making a dent in a man’s field is not about impersonating a man, or playing the role you think you’re expected to play. It’s about revealing yourself and believing in yourself.

5. Be confident and empowered from the inside.

Along similar lines, Sensei Jaye Spiro, who is a seventh-degree black belt in Karate, advised that success and confidence are best built on the foundation of empowerment. Throughout her career, Sensei Jaye has taught thousands Karate and self-defense, a practice which she came to after having herself been a victim of violence.  Her message to the group: “You can feel empowered, strong and protected from the inside out. Build your confidence from within, and you will face other challenges with more strength, patience and resilience.”

6. Build alliances with men. They are not your opponent.

Alexis Jones, who has worn many hats as a contestant on Survivor, Red Carpet Commentator, FOX Sports Commentator and founder of I AM THAT GIRL, has most recently founded ProtectHer to address the ongoing issue of sexual assault and domestic violence in sports. Through ProtectHer, Alexis has been invited to speak in high school, college and professional locker rooms around the country.

How does Alexis get not only heard but even welcomed into these locker room? She makes her message personal, and she makes her audience of men her allies. She acknowledges clearly that most men are supportive and encouraging of women, and gives them the tools to help become advocates for women among their peers.

7. Ignite Progress by Taking Action.

In addition to her day job as CEO of Joyus, a video shopping startup, tech veteran Sukhinder Singh Cassidy built an organization called theBoardlist which is committed to placing more women in seats on boards of tech companies. Sukhinder deduced that despite a clear case for improved ROI when women take board seats, approximately 70% of private funded tech boards have no woman member -- mainly because the male founders lack strong female candidates from their networks. So she set out to make a difference. By building theBoardlist, not only did Sukhinder draw attention to this important cause, she helped facilitate the solution.


This diverse and wise group of women shared thoughtful and personal advice, and it was empowering just to hear them share their stories. However, as Anne Toth astutely remarked, “we look forward to the day when these events are no longer about celebrating firsts.” With trailblazers like these, that day can’t be very far away.

*NOTE: General Dunwoody was scheduled to appear as a part of the panel on June 14, but was unable to attend due to time conflicts. She related her experiences to me separately.


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