How to Boost Your Confidence, Even When You're the Only Woman in the Room
Long before I was a software executive, I was a practicing physical therapist (DPT). Moving from the female-dominated world of PT to the male-dominated world of tech was a culture shock -- to say the least.
When I co-founded my company, WebPT, I was the only woman on the executive team for the first few years. And when we started raising capital, I was the only woman at just about every one of those meetings. I was always aware of this dichotomy, but it really hit home the time we were in an investor pitch and I needed to use the restroom -- but no one in the meeting knew the code to the women's bathroom. Talk about feeling isolated while doing the pee-pee dance.
Now, let me back up a bit. Learning to hold my own and remain confident was not foreign territory for me. I grew up playing basketball and helped our college team at UC Davis rise to the No. 1 spot in our conference. After college, I sought a career in sports physical therapy, working with world-class athletes, and quickly climbed the ranks to clinic director, but this -- the world of voracious tech founders and VCs -- was a brand-new ballgame.
Through our team's journey of pitching VCs, taking on investors and growing our company from a team of two to 500-plus employees in 10 short years, I had to quickly learn to navigate these gender dynamics. And it wasn't easy. I can now relate to female entrepreneurs who may struggle to feel confident when surrounded by seemingly self-assured businessmen. But it's all about mindset.
No matter what industry you're in, confidence is absolutely key -- particularly when you're faced with an intimidating situation, whether that be a male-dominated boardroom, a room full of powerful VCs or an uncomfortable one-on-one conversation. With that in mind, here are a few of my best strategies for projecting confidence in even the most difficult situations:
1. Do your homework.
One of the keys to appearing confident is actually being confident -- specifically, in your knowledge base. I'm not a fan of the "fake it till you make it" mantra. If you run your own company, you've got to know your business inside and out. Prior to any meeting -- especially one in which you're pitching someone for funding or asking for help in some other way -- do your research. Make sure you know your numbers, your pitch and what you're asking for. Most importantly, know your ask. What exactly does success look like coming out of this meeting?
Also, gather background information about the people you're meeting with, whether you're pitching to a roundtable of investors or sitting down with a potential client or customer. You can never be too prepared, but you can easily blow an opportunity by not preparing enough.
The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." And I have to say, I couldn't agree more. Never wing it. You leave too much up to chance -- and that doesn't create a solid foundation for confidence. And these days, you may only get one opportunity -- don't waste it.
2. Program your mind.
When it comes to the "ask" -- whether that's asking for funding, for mentorship or for a client to take a chance on you -- it's easy to feel like the other party automatically has the upper hand. This is another thing I struggled with initially, until I learned to reframe my thinking. Even if you're pitching VCs and it seems like you need their money, avoid using self-talk that makes you feel desperate or less-than. You're capable, and you have something very valuable to offer. Remind yourself of that until you start to believe it (because it's true).
One thing I always did when I was feeling particularly vulnerable was to go into the bathroom prior to a meeting and put my hands up over my head in a "Y" position. Stretch yourself out, strike this pose with strength and conviction and feel your chest opening. Power posing has been proven to release testosterone helping to boost feelings of achievement and confidence. And don't worry if you feel silly. It works, I promise.
As social psychologist and body language expert Amy Cuddy explained in her TEDGlobal talk, there are several iterations of this type of confidence-boosting posture (another one is wide stance and hands on hips). Choose one that works for you. The simple act of expanding yourself as big as you can helps you get physically pumped up so you can face your meeting with confidence. Now, this might not work for everyone, but it definitely works for me. In fact, I still do it before I speak to a large group or have an especially important meeting in front of me.
Finally, I always like to say a few words of affirmation to myself before a big endeavor. Something as simple as "You've got this" can help quell butterflies and boost self-assurance. When I used to play basketball, I had a playlist of songs I'd listen to before every game that would get me motivated and ready to play. Striking a confidence-boosting posture and saying affirmations to yourself are the business version of this same idea.
3. Set the tone.
Nothing can break your confidence as quickly as stress. Obviously, we can't always avoid stressful situations, but I'd argue there are quite a few stressors we can eliminate. Being late is a big one. Plan to arrive a few minutes early so you have time to center yourself and refocus your energy.
Once you're in the room, give a firm handshake to every person in attendance. Make eye contact as you do, setting the right tone for the meeting and positioning yourself as an equal in the group.
Choose your seat strategically. I used to just take whatever seat was easiest to get to, or whichever one a well-meaning male would direct me to. But, let me tell you, that practice didn't serve me. You don't have to be at the head of the table, but choose a seat across from those you'll be speaking to -- one that assumes a powerful, yet comfortable, spot at the table.
As you're presenting -- with or without the help of a slide deck -- you should be making regular eye contact with every single person in the room. Avoid looking down or losing eye contact too easily; that can be perceived as a lack of confidence. So choose the seat that will help you accomplish that in the most natural way possible.
4. Pay attention to your body language.
When I began taking more meetings with VCs, I started becoming more aware of my body language. I realized I would often cross my legs or lean back, which can be perceived as unapproachable or closed off. Body language can give your inner jitters away, so as I became more confident in my abilities, my body positioning naturally changed. Whether you already have the confidence to back it up, try taking up more space in the room.
Avoid crossing your legs and arms. Lean forward, rather than backward. Keep your feet flat on the floor and sit tall in your chair. Feel free to place your elbows as far apart as is comfortable -- and avoid fidgeting. All of these postures show that you're open, involved and confident.
Speak in a strong, assured -- though not booming -- voice, and answer questions as succinctly as you can. If you don't know the answer to an especially detailed inquiry, be okay with saying something to the effect of "I'm not sure I can sufficiently answer that right now, but I'll get more details and follow up with you on that after this meeting." Confident leaders -- male or female -- are assured in their knowledge and would rather provide the right answer later than stumble through the wrong one in the moment.
One final note: Deliberately making eye contact with each person in the room goes a long way in any business setting. As the only female at so many meetings for so long, I noticed that many times, I wouldn't get the eye contact or attention of the speaker unless I asked a question. I want everyone at the table to feel included and respected regardless of company position or level. So now, I go out of my way to acknowledge everyone, even if they're not the primary person I'm speaking to. Consider doing the same.
As women, we sometimes cut ourselves short in intimidating situations. But we're powerful, and we are more than capable of rising to every occasion in front of us. Simply being prepared, getting your body and mind in the right space and using body language to project self-assurance can give you the boost you need to be perceived as the confident and savvy leader you are.