March Every Day for Women Entrepreneurs
The Women's March on Washington (and around the world) concluded with a plethora of social-media posts showing excitement and support for women. Every individual who marched came with her or his own set of values, concerns and voice. Now that the event is over, I continue marching for women entrepreneurs -- and here's why: People often talk about the glass ceiling, but there's really more than one. And it's critical for women to understand what each means for them, their career and their lifestyle.
The American dream.
The first plateau is the "American dream" ceiling. It's how far a woman can go and still have 2.3 kids, a husband and a house with a picket fence. In this world, you still can attend PTA meetings and be on a first-name basis with your child's third-grade teacher.
If this is your dream, then good news! The world is set up to help you achieve this goal. Many women make it to middle management. You won't face as much opposition to rise to this level, and the equal-opportunity policies in place at most medium- to large-sized companies makes this role more accommodating for working women (with or without children).
The abundance mindset.
The second ceiling is higher. That's the one I'm targeting. It's the "abundance" ceiling, and it means having enough money that you don't need to worry about your bank balance for the rest of your life. In fact, your children won't have to worry about money, either. When you've shattered the abundance ceiling, you don't have to make another dollar to live to be a beautiful 100-year-old.
Regardless of your gender, reaching the abundance level requires 100-percent dedication to your work and your goals. I recently celebrated my birthday, and I'm embracing entering my 30s. I don’t have a husband, kids or any other attachments. I don’t have work-life balance. But I do have laser focus on bringing my product to market. I watch less than an hour a week of TV and see maybe one movie a month. Most of my friends -- love them as I do -- are also business colleagues. They're older women who offer good advice or younger women whom I invest in because I believe they're going places, too.
The problem with the middle.
I don’t let people who could hold me back be a part of my life. I don’t have friends who don’t support me. I don’t have relationships with men who add drama to my life. I think I probably could be a single mother and entrepreneur. I imagine I'd hire a nanny to cover when I was in meetings or traveling on business, but I’d still miss important life events. If my child had an emergency, he or she would come first and I'd have to take the chance of seeing my business suffer. Instead of those choices, I make different sacrifices. I don’t even have a fish. My relationships with friends are important, but they rarely require canceling a work trip or putting a deadline at risk.
If women want to occupy the top seats, we have to realize we need to compete on equal footing with men. That means living like men do. Men at the top frequently end up divorced, and their wives raise their children. Their friends are other successful men. They don’t tolerate high-drama people in their lives.
My work is about teaching emotions to artificial intelligence, or AI. I believe women are often more empathetic than men and better at understanding emotions. While both are admirable traits, they make us less ruthless in business dealings. We're less willing to win at all costs. As a result, we're great at being in the middle -- and even lonelier than most at the top.
The hard truth.
People laughed at Marissa Mayer when she read a children's story to her staff at Yahoo. She was trying to explain the details of an employee-review system that she believed could improve improve the company's talent pool (and provide justification for firing underperformers to limit expenses and save the majority). I admire her for the courage it took to convey that message in any form. But she likely would've been better received in the larger business world if she'd been more direct. She took the role of helicopter mom rather than mama bear. The subtext of her delivery wasn't "those I'm letting go are stealing from those who work hard and move us forward." Instead, it sounded more like the "it's not you, it's me" line in a breakup speech crafted not to hurt the other person's feelings.
Imagine Jack Welch telling a story to fire employees when he led GE, Bill Gates using that tactic during his day-to-day leadership at Microsoft or Steve Jobs sugar-coating the truth for his team at Apple. I strongly suspect that had a man taken Mayer's approach, Yahoo's stock would've plummeted overnight.
Sheryl Sandberg talks and writes about leaning in. But how does leaning in get you to where you want to go? How does it allow Sandberg to have it all? It's soft communication. When do I lean in? When I'm telling a secret or listening closely.
Unless you're superwoman, you can’t have it all. Telling ourselves or others anything different is a setup for failure. You can't be absolutely anything you want to be when you grow up, either. I would love to be a professional football player in the NFL earning $10 million a year to “go out there, play hard, and really hustle," as they say in the post-game interviews. But I weigh 125 pounds and stand 5 feet, 7 inches tall. NFL player is not an available career choice.
The elevator back down.
We must be honest with ourselves if we want to compete with men and win those coveted executive positions. But how do we level the playing field? I asked the question during a Women's Entrepreneurship Day event in San Francisco. Jillian Manus, a literary agent and managing partner of Structure VC, said women need to form a "broad squad" with other women in their industry. "We need to support other women," she told me.
Manus should know: From 2003 to 2010, she worked with Maria Shriver to grow the California Women's Conference. The entire concept is based on women as architects of change. "That's what women are," Manus said. "Once you get to the top, send an elevator back down for another woman."
For me, the Women's March was about identifying with other women in business who share that ideal. But I understand I don't have to get all the way to the top before I look to see who's making her way up behind me. I hope that one day I'll be able to have a strong marriage and a family with children -- and I want to surpass the abundance ceiling at the top of a successful career. I'm reframing the problem from "having it all" to "what can I do for others?" That shift enables me work toward solutions that send the elevator back down in small ways every day.
I volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club, teaching coding lessons on Python Programming Language to girls in downtown San Francisco's Tenderloin district. Through my nonprofit organization, Coding FTW, I award scholarships to girls who want to attend hackathons. I can send the elevator down in smaller ways, too. I can buy products from women-run businesses or simply hang out with my "broad squad" to help them build the self-confidence they need and deserve.
It doesn't take a march to stand up for women. You can do it now. How will you start?