When I refer to someone as “Potentate of the Board Room,” do you think of a woman?
I would guess not. Because we all know, comparatively speaking, there are really few female CEOs.
The Wall Street Journal ran a special section on May 7 presenting the findings of an executive task force addressing “What’s Holding Women Back?” Within the article was this clip from a McKinsey report:
“Companies are still bleeding female talent at an alarming rate. Women land 53% of entry-level jobs and make it to ‘the belly of the pipeline’ in large numbers.… But then, female presence falls off a cliff, to 35% at the director level, 24% among senior vice presidents and 19% in the C-suite.”
Prescriptives to address the talent drop-off ranged from nominating oneself for promotion to raising one’s hand for “ugly jobs” in line management. And also, the usual troika of networking, mentoring, and diversity programs. I speculate more women will become CEOs by starting their own firms and playing the game on their own terms, than will rise in the corporate sphere in this year of 2012.
Mojo40 interviewed three women who advanced their career by doing just that–forging out on their own, being tough like a bulldog in male-dominated industries.
Katie Palencsar: CEO of a software start-up raises funds while fending off direct and subliminal challenges to her authority
Unbound Concepts is a tech startup born of the experience of Katie Palencsar, who spent time as a teacher and educational policymaker in several settings, from the New York City public schools to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. From this broad exposure, she observed a tremendous need for personalized reading levels so that students could be prodded just the right amount to achieve higher levels of literacy, faster.
With the kernel of an idea to use technology to instantly achieve personalized text to match a student’s level, Katie jumped ship from the female-dominated profession of education, to the male-dominated one of technology and software.
Her business, Unbound Concepts, goes deep into the territory of natural language processing based on semantic technology and artificial intelligence. Its proprietary algorithm reads text and determines its level. As the software is used, what is presented onscreen gets re-calibrated to move the difficulty level either up or down, depending on a reader’s fluency. An enhanced version can appear instantly if the reader is fully competent, and scaffolding is instantly dismantled to offer a simpler version, if the student is struggling.
The firm has recently been recognized with a cash grant, as one of only three Alva Emerging Fellowships, a program presented by GE to identify the best ideas among young innovators.
“I am now working at a technology incubator, which is basically a space for quickly emerging tech companies, and making the rounds to raise $350,000 in funding. I have two male partners, a CTO and a CIO, and in addition, I share office space with another software company with 7 male programmers. What is interesting is that most technology professionals are male and have only worked with males. A lot of these guys are seeing that perhaps in the past, innovative technology sold itself. Now we are entering a phase where there are a variety of technological options to meet someone’s needs, so it’s imperative to have a wide variety of perspectives in a technology company, male and female, programmer and non-programmer.
“I have very supportive business partners who really see the value in building relationships and networks, even though that is often something that females tend to be really good at.
“When I am sitting down with investors and my co-founders are not there, I am frequently the only woman at the table. And one of the interesting things is that they (the investors) often want to know what males are involved as well, without actually coming out and saying that. When I go to meetings with my male partners, that question doesn’t often come up.
“One meeting in particular stands out as an interesting one. The gentleman who heard our fundraising pitch turned his chair to face my partner, the Chief Technology Officer. He basically engaged in a one-on-one conversation just with him. My partner tried to deflect the conversation to me, but to no avail. I think the investor subliminally felt comfortable with a guy, and didn’t really see me as the head of the business.
“One thing someone told me: Make sure you know what’s going on in the sports world. It’s like the secret password. ‘This chick can hang because she knows who was traded.…’ I thought that was cheesy advice when I first heard it, but a lot of people you are doing business with want to know if they can have a conversation with you and it not be painful.”
Katie, who is 29, has also been consistently asked, “When are you having children?”
She wondered aloud, “Does it align with education … do people in business think because I came from the education field, I must want to talk about children?” She added, “By the first meeting, they might already ask this question.”
How does this CEO handle the challenge?
“Showing one’s value and worth is the best way to be treated better. Don’t just complain.”
Ms. Palencsar uses a network of supportive businesswomen. ACTiVATE® is one such program she endorses that is geared toward female entrepreneurs within technology-based businesses. She is also one of the folks running the show at the blog missceointraining.com that serves as a sounding board for young female CEOs weighing in on business topics.
Keshia Walker: CEO of a sports marketing empire demands respect for her company as a viable competitor and talent
Keshia Walker strives to pack the maximum “ka-pow” into every event she puts her stamp on. As President and CEO of Insights Marketing and Promotions (IMP), a firm she founded in 1998, Keshia oversees a multi-million-dollar sports marketing empire with personnel in 28 cities. IMP promotes sporting events on behalf of athlete-clients, and targets the African-American and Hispanic consumer segments.
This is a formidable accomplishment given that the world of top athletes is still one where men make headlines more than women, even as the 40th anniversary of Title IX approaches.
Likewise, the industry promoting these athletes is heavily male.
Keshia speaks with conviction when she states, “The biggest challenge is for men to respect the level of talent and experience that we present … to respect that we are a viable competitor and talent. I have only 2 men out of 29 marketing managers countrywide. I did that on purpose. The majority of responsibilities in event-activation get back into male-dominated industries, but a lot of times I can get something accomplished because our counterparts are tired of looking at, and working with, men all the time.
“Typically, you have to stand your ground, and you have to be assertive and persistent to be able to set and establish your place in this competitive industry. This is absolutely necessary to capture the opportunities and contracts that you need … not in a threatening way. But in some cases, you’ll have people make up stories about your credibility and what you will bring to the table. They might say, ‘[IMP] can’t deliver this celebrity or athlete or get them to sign the contracts.’ Unfortunately, in this business, you can’t avoid backstabbing competitors, or folks who fabricate information. But you can approach them to be strategic allies, and in some cases, especially in the multi-cultural segment, we have.”
Indeed, IMP’s record of capturing opportunities speaks volumes.
They have worked with the best in the entertainment industry from Magic Johnson and Beyoncė to the corporate powerhouses of Victoria’s Secret and The Coca Cola Company. They have produced some of the most memorable events during the Super Bowl, and National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball All Star Weekends, Essence (a summer music festival), the Kentucky Derby, and so forth.
I asked Keshia whether she had ever been harassed. “Definitely. Whenever I get into a compromising situation, I normally turn it back around and ask ‘Would you want your wife or daughter to have that same request made to them?’ and that ends the situation.”
Advice to others who are considering starting their own business
Prior to launching IMP, Ms. Walker spent 9 years learning the ropes of corporate branding for several Fortune 500 companies. Deriving lessons from her own experience, she offers tips to other women who, like herself, may decide to step off the corporate ladder and start their own company.
- Have a money base (something saved up, that will keep you afloat for a while)
- Have some clients already, and build out your network
- Have a vision and direction for where you want to be in 6, 9, and 12 months down the road
- Set up office space where you can conduct your business without distraction.
Keshia credits two mentors in particular for providing her ongoing insight and support. They are Mark Pitts, a Vice President at The Coca-Cola Company and formerly a co-worker, and Rohena Miller of Niche Marketing.
She also gives back to the community. Fourteen years back, Ms. Walker started Team 94 Foundation to mentor at-risk youth and pair them with individuals in their professional areas of interest. And in December 2011, she began Women Making Moves – Atlanta, a LinkedIn Group that brings together women entrepreneurs for networking purposes for live events, quarterly.
Ms. Walker offered this reflection: “I thank G-d for the opportunity to be in business 14 years and for the tastemakers who have supported our events, the sports fans who continue to follow us on Facebook and Twitter and come out to events, and all our corporate clients.”
Beverly Flaxington: CEO finds her hard-charging style didn’t work in a corporate setting, yet fits perfectly serving as an outside resource
Even after 26 years, Beverly Flaxington remarks that it is still a rare case that a woman goes to a meeting with senior managers in the financial advisory business and sees more senior women than men present. But this two-time award winning author and coach has taken the time to ask the question “Why?” and postulate the answer.
“I spent 12 years in corporate roles in the financial services and investment industry, almost always reporting to men. I climbed very high and was frequently told my style was not helpful. One boss told me, ‘Self-promotion is a very unattractive trait in a female.’ If you are too hard-charging, people take it that you don’t care about other people. You are too business-focused. You are just all about you and all about your career.
“However, there is an upside to the bulldog analogy. I talk a lot about behavioral style with my coaching clients. If I’m assertive at work, I’m likely assertive at home. It’s good because I get things done and am direct, but we may go in and need to make an adaptation in a workplace. It can be a struggle to find the authentic self in what we say and how we act in the work environment.
“The other concern for women is reacting emotionally. It’s not helpful for women to show emotions at work. Crying is a very extreme no-no in the workplace because of the misinterpretation factor. I advise other women to take a walk before you start to cry. You can’t come back from it once they’ve seen you cry. You get painted by a brush ‘you can’t take it.’ ”
I asked Beverly, an expert on work relationships and change management, to dig deeper into how toughness may cause friction. “It is so situational. If it’s a boss who feels threatened by you, they will respond very differently than a co-worker. I never had trouble with peers who perceived me as helping them, but my boss would always want to knock me down a notch. There were men I worked with who would comment on my physique, or would say ‘let’s hear from the little one.’ One boss said his goal was to make me cry. Now, I am no shrinking violet, but even I could see that men like that took me as a challenge.”
Ms. Flaxington recounts that the very same trait that didn’t work well in a large organization, suits just fine for her as a Principal for The Collaborative, and Co-Founder of Advisors Trusted Advisor.
“It’s not so much about being ‘tough’ as it is about being focused, being direct, and staying firm in one’s position. And yes, it’s much harder to get away with this when you are younger, and you don’t have as much credibility. As you age, it gets much easier but you still can’t let your guard down.
“Clients, most of whom are very senior, successful men, seek my advice now. And I never had a case (as a coach) where someone did not offer me the utmost respect and was willing to go toe-to-toe with me. That is why many of the smart, successful, confident women flee from corporate. They wish to run their own thing because when you do that, you can be assertive, confident, and knowledgeable; and successful, talented men look at you more as a resource, and not a threat.”
She summed it up: “Any of these clients I ‘could’ have worked for, and yet it would be a very different relationship. It often is more about style and not necessarily the gender that makes it hard. I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoy the men I work with now in my role as a business coach. I am genuinely liked and respected, and clients find my style motivational.”
Bulldog photo courtesy of Creative Commons 2.0, sabianmaggy.
What have you found works best to cultivate mutual respect in the workplace? Share in the comments.
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