At the end of last month, we celebrated Women’s Equality Day, a commemoration of the day in 1920 when American women were granted the constitutional right to vote. Reflecting on the day, I was struck once again by the stark reality that this was a battle fought in the not-so-distant past, for a right that seems so basic and fundamental that the idea of women just a generation or two before my own being denied it is unimaginable. And it got me thinking about the issues we grapple with today — pay gaps, gender equality in the workplace, diversity in leadership roles — that (I can only hope) will be unimaginable to the next generation.
As a female executive myself, seeing more women take leadership positions in business (as well as start businesses of their own) is a mission that’s particularly close to my heart. And as the Executive Vice President of AppExchange, I often have the opportunity to connect with women who have done exactly that. So, I caught up with three exceptional female executives — Deepa Subramanian, CEO and Founder of Wootric, Marie Jackson, CMO of Kenandy, and Roxanne Oulman, CFO of CallidusCloud — to discuss where we are today and hear their advice for the next generation of aspiring female entrepreneurs. Though each had a unique and inspiring story about their path to the C-suite, five recurring themes emerged in our conversations; check them out below.
Too many women look at this as an item to check off their to-do list — like an early stepping stone on their path to success. True, it’s one of the best possible things you can do for yourself in the early days of your career, but as all three of the women I talked to can affirm, it’s not something you outgrow. “I’ve had numerous mentors along the way,” Marie says. “I’m always seeking the next mentor, even today.”
Committing to being an effective leader is also committing to being a lifelong learner, and both finding and serving as a mentor can be a life-changing learning experience. As Marie put it: “Never stop learning — always be open to seeking out new mentors and be willing to have your thinking disrupted, so that you make changes to yourself as well as the norm.”
Don’t stick to the obvious path when networking: think bigger and expand your circle of influencers. Though Marie was an aspiring CMO, she sought out mentors from multiple areas of business, including technical leaders and CFOs. And Deepa shared similar advice: “Nurture a group of professional peers outside your workplace and lean on their collective experiences to advance in your career,” she said. “While I’m a technologist, my friend Jessica Pfeifer was a marketer at a CPG company when we joined forces to cofound Wootric.”
While expanding your circle of influence is sage advice for anyone, it’s particularly relevant for women because (let’s face it) the ladder set out for you isn’t always one with a fair climb. Empower yourself by understanding a larger scope of business, support yourself with peers with impartial advice — and give yourself the tools to go build your own ladder, if needed.
Sooner or later, as all any of these women can attest, you will face adversity. The key lies in remembering that adversity presents an opportunity — a chance to empower yourself, to truly establish yourself as a leader, and essentially, to show them what you’re made of.
Roxanne Oulman recalls the words of one of her earliest mentors: “She was a strong, determined and driven leader. She would tell me to ‘always hold your chin high as people will remember how you handle adversity.’ That has stayed with me throughout my career. There are challenges and obstacles throughout your career, and success is determined by how you handle them. Pull yourself up and fight your way.”
View the things that make you different from male counterparts — different adversities faced, different personality traits, different life experiences — as advantages rather than setbacks, and understand the value that your unique perspective brings to the table. “I’ve been a baker, a lawyer, an engineer,” says Deepa. “A wide variety of life experience has made me a better entrepreneur — it has taught me resilience in the face of constant challenges, the agility to constantly innovate, and the paramount focus on team, partners, and customers.”
Though Roxanne, on the other hand, knew she wanted to be a CFO since her first job post college, she recalls an “a-ha” moment early in her career when she attended an annual healthcare conference: “I looked across a ‘sea of men in dark suits’ and realized that in my profession there were very few women,” she recalls. “I did not allow that to phase me.” Her advice: “Accept that you may need to step out of your comfort zone, which includes being your own champion. Be assertive, not aggressive; be confident in what you know and what you don’t know.”
In addition to removing organizational barriers that prevent women from making it to the top, we also need to eliminate ‘cultural norms’ that can limit women’s careers. For instance, this means encouraging more women and girls to learn to code and immerse themselves in technical side of business. “The hurdles of finding the technical marketers are still very much present,” Marie says. Her advice as a CMO: “Learn both the technology and processes needed for company and individual success.”
When we dispel these perceived limitations, we see what happens when female entrepreneurs are fearless: “In my late twenties, I realized that you get to define your career and what it means to be successful,” says Deepa. “Once I realized that there was no playbook and no expectations other than my own, I began to really dig in and make things happen.”
When women are empowered to be leaders and contribute at a higher level, companies thrive — meaning this is not just a women’s issue; it’s everyone’s problem, and everyone should feel empowered to address it. Marie tells the story of her early days at Apple, a turning point in her career when a team of HR representatives “bucked the norm” to take on disparity between pay, managerial levels, and leadership mentoring: “So many of the mentors I had the opportunity to work with were great male leaders who cared to make the difference,” she says. “We all have to work together to make change happen.” And working together drives lasting results: “From the efforts of our group, strong mentoring programs were put into place for women."
Which brings me to my final thought for current and rising female entrepreneurs: once you’ve cut a path, pave it. Though our society has come a long way, with more and more companies taking on issues of gender discrimination and pay gaps, there’s still plenty of progress to be made in order to bring this conversation to its final resting place. “Gender equality should become a non-issue,” says Roxanne. “Our daughters and sons should see the other gender as equally capable of accomplishing anything, and surprised the world saw it differently in the not-so-distant past.” Join the conversation, mentor others, be loud and proud about your accomplishments, and let’s make the path of entrepreneurial success seem like the most natural path imaginable for the next generation of aspiring females.
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