For most of my life, I've sought leadership positions in anything I do. I've always chalked it up to supportive parents who placed a mantra in my head, "achieving starts with believing." Growing up, I was dyslexic. Seeing life through that lens has always trumped everything else. I had to work very hard to excel at things. But what was natural in my personality was being a leader. Often I was the one in the group who corralled everyone else into what we were doing on a Friday night. In college seeking experience by working with masters students as an undergrad.
I have been taught to "lean in" from a very young age. I'm an only child of serial entrepreneurs. As a family, we leaned into whatever we were doing. More often than not, my life entangled with my parents' businesses. I have more memories of playing on the office floor next to my Controller mother than I do of our living room. As well, I saw a mother who believed she could do it all, from entrepreneur to child caregiver. To say my role models were larger than life is an understatement.
It wasn't until college that I realized few women were standing next to me. Once I got into college, I should say, remember that I was clouded by big role models and achievements towards overcoming dyslexia. At University I realized that there were equal amounts of women entering with me, but as I progressed, I became part of a much smaller group. I did wonder why but left it at that.
Through my career as a chemist and now CEO, I've "leaned in." Leaning in is a concept articulated by Sheryl Sandberg's book of the same name, #2 at Facebook and Google fame. Leaning in means never leaning back at an opportunity and moving a career/endeavor forward. It means even in the face of societal views on women and the possibility of bearing children looming in the distance, never leaning back. I've gone from overcoming dyslexia to degrees in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, and leading a company. Today, I want to help more women "lean in" to what they want out of life.
The path to helping women see their potential hasn't been easy. There isn't a large group ready and waiting for such help. Why? The reasons are argued and varied. Could it be we aren't leaning into opportunity? Are we are listening to what society says and agreeing that we can't? Are we are our own worst enemies by needing to be 100% sure we can do something as compared to a man who studies have shown only need to be about 50% sure. Is it our confidence? Do we lack courage?
During my time as a President of a significant industry association, I set out to carve a space for women to lean in more towards leadership. The idea was praised and welcomed by women and men alike. Until I got it off the ground. The effort came crashing to the ground when a core group of women voted and refused to let it happen. These were women who fought hard even to get a place at the table in this industry. I was shocked when faced with feedback that it was the women in the industry who didn't want it. Not all but most women, those who fought hard to carve a place for themselves in the last twenty years. These women struggled to take over their father's businesses, fought hard to rise in the ranks as the only women in their companies. They fought a tough fight, but now, they had no interest in shaking the apple cart. In their minds, they punched their way into where they were today. They deserved to be where they were and higher. It may be their myopic view of how one has to do it that may also be holding women back.
I respect the women who led the charge for us, I even admire them. I may understand them, but I do not agree with them. The battle isn't over yet. The struggle may be with ourselves and inside ourselves instead of externally as it once was. Our biggest fight may be with our own institutionalized beliefs. In the news, this week is PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi stepping down as CEO and moving to Chairwoman of the PepsiCo board. She was heralded as a champion and role model for women who needed to be at the top. But we see much criticism towards her today as she replaces herself with a man. He was the best choice. She didn't have a pool of women to groom. It doesn't even matter. Yet, many are asking why she's not grooming another woman to take her place or grooming a group of women. Then again, she fought hard to get where she was, perhaps Indra Nooyi also feels she doesn't want to upset the apple cart.
Having said all this, we do need to seek to cultivate women. It will be different than how we grow men, to the same endpoint. The ways we do things and the beliefs we hold are different than men. There isn't anything wrong with that, it is the field we play in. For example, when I asked to serve on a committee at Portland State University about how to promote more women in the STEM fields, my most significant message was that community matters. When I was going through my education, a large part of what I attribute my success to was around how well I was supported. I wound my way through many departments: biology, chemistry, geology, and engineering. But it was the geology department that showed a cohesive group of people to join in our path to graduate. Instead of what you see in most STEM educational settings, individuals moving to the end. Women need and thrive in a community. It is this community that works together to see greater success, even in the face of educators and institutions that may place more emphasis on men because statistics show that men are more likely actually to finish education. A classic case of statistics wagging behavior instead of using the data to ask why and affect change.
In the end, it is the companies that seek to ask why and make change happen because they see the benefits of women in the STEM fields. Not because of a quota that has to be filled but because they see and feel the bottom-line benefits. It is because of this that I love events such as the Rebelle Rally, a rally race for women across several states and over 1,200 miles. A rally where women rely on women, fix their broken vehicles and map their way across a harsh landscape. The Rebelle Rally is more than this, in the end, it is a mind altering event that shows women that when they lean into opportunity and put all excuses aside, they have abilities they didn't know they had. We need more Rebelle Rallies, and we need more community for women to be a part of finishing their education. In turn, we need communities in companies that cultivate this belonging and encouragement towards driving success even when we aren't sure. We need platforms for courage, which I contend is more critical that confidence. We need to know and feel that taking one step and then another is courage, not confidence. We need more courage.