Every time we hold one of our Solution Series, I hear—and I learn—something new that enriches and enlivens my work as a leader and as a human being. Last week’s Solution Series was by far no exception.
Our 13th Solution Series—Leading as Women: How Women Are Increasing Productivity and Changing Business—was held last Tuesday, October 11, with a “sold-out” live attendance and nearly 500 people streaming from throughout the country. It was a great event, well hosted by our Chief Strategy Officer, Lorrie Lutz, and featuring a panel of distinguished women leaders who disseminated great insight and advice to local and national business leaders, staff, funders, and political leaders in attendance.
There were several themes that emerged in the idea-packed, hour-long program. Christine Quinn, President and CEO of WIN—Women in Need—and former speaker of the NYC Council (and first woman to hold that post), opened the program by heralding the Solution Series dialogue as a “radical conversation.”
Why does it matter? When women are in the boardroom or C-suite, businesses are 35% more profitable, and there is a 34% higher return to shareholders. These are huge numbers. So why aren’t there more women in these positions?
Gina Berndt, managing director of Perkins and Will’s Chicago Office, a global innovative architectural and design firm, suggested that a limited pipeline indeed contributes to fewer women in high positions. She also optimistically suggests that the stats are changing but that it will still take time. For example, in 1970, just 9% of business degree graduates were women, compared to 2001, where they comprise 50% of graduating business majors. She offers hope that the pipeline will continue to grow.
In addition to a pipeline “issue,” entrepreneurial and business women fare less well than their male counterparts when it comes to venture capital investment. Women garner just 7% of venture funds and 5% of bank loans. Denise Barges, board member of Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Financial Portfolio Manager of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, discussed the need for greater investment in women entrepreneurs. Ironically, because there is less access to funding, women leaders tend to be more creative in the “do more with less” approach to business, thereby making them shrewd and savvy business people, well positioned as leaders to initiate and follow through on projects—and less likely to waste time or money as more tends to be at stake in their businesses.
Sarah Carson, founder and CEO of the innovative clothing line Leota, echoed Ms. Barges’ comments by suggesting that when a business is underfunded—for whatever reason—it means that in order to be successful, its leaders must be highly disciplined and highly efficient to succeed. Leota is an example of both discipline and efficiency as it was celebrated by Inc as one of the fastest growing companies in the country.
All of the panelists cited strengths typically and traditionally associated with women as great traits and reasons for successful business leadership. Built into our DNA are things like the ability to focus on several things at once, great problem-solving skills, project management, a tendency toward collaboration and natural networking, the ability to scan the landscape and the ability to impact and influence culture—all attributes that only enhance internal and external business culture and bottom line.
Ana Oliveria, President and CEO of the NY Women’s Fund brought a Foundation’s perspective to the conversation. She challenged the audience with an example from the current transgender movement as a way to re-consider how people are perceived inside and out of business. She discussed examples of those who have transgendered and how there is a decline in credibility for those who transgender from male to female and an increase in credibility for those who transgender from female to male. This was a fascinating perspective as we stay open to new ways of looking at gender and business.
Toward the end of the discussion, Lorrie asked each of the panelists to offer a piece of advice for women leaders going forward. Each was brilliant in her response:
Sarah Carson explained that success is a moving target. She cited two keys to her success: getting help—a lot of it—to set up accountability and structure and she said she, “ruthlessly curates my life. I choose two or three things I am going to do and I do those really well. No suffer no guilt about what I leave behind.”
Denise Barges emphasized the need to have confidence. She said that a lot of opportunity can be missed because women can be fearful of “stepping out.” Additionally she said, “A lot of success has to do with envisioning yourself at a higher level,” and then setting goals and pulling in help to attain those goals.
Gina Berndt said directly, “Be bold.” She added, “Talent doesn’t know gender, it doesn’t know race.” She emphasized looking for talent everywhere and remembering to accommodate for it by being flexible and realizing that everyone has a unique way of fulfilling that talent.
And finally, Ana Oliveria suggested that a great way to re-think success is to look directly at the systems and processes in place and consider a pivot. We need to ask ourselves: are there practice, systems, or principles that we are living in that can be advanced? This consistent objective approach helps keep businesses alive and thriving. Women tend toward the strengths of analyzing those processes for change.
This was great advice from these remarkable and talented women. So now I invite you: be bold: what are your ideas about how to increase the influence of women in leadership roles? What have you observed or what have you done that has worked? How can you advance diversity in leadership—as mentor, sponsor, or advisor?
Please join me in this fascinating conversation. I welcome your thoughts!