Don't Just Sit At the Table, Flip It. A Reflection for Women Entrepreneurs.
A seat at the table is a hard-earned symbol of success in a company. But is it all it's cracked up to be?
Women often say, “I want a seat at the table.” For many business women, especially business women of color, a seat at the table is a hard-earned symbol of success in a company. We all want to make it to the table, sit, and have our voices heard. We want to feel valued, seen, and understood in a way we haven’t before.
But, a seat at the table may not be the shiny place it’s envisioned to be. Many women in business who do make it to the proverbial table of “success” in their company are often disappointed when they get there. The table, and what it was supposed to symbolize for their career, falls short. The table may have been stumpy, or the seats were uncomfortable, or perhaps the people at the table weren’t open to a new voice after all.
So, what if instead of longing for a seat at the table, we flip it? I invite women entrepreneurs to reflect on what a seat at the table means to them and how we can flip the table to be more inclusive, open, and exactly what we envision it to be.
Reflecting on the table of today
I recently hosted a talk with a group of female entrepreneurs and executives, all of whom were executives and or managers in their respective industries. Many of them occupy seats at the "table," but aren’t totally satisfied with how the table feels, looks, and operates.
To make this visceral, reflect on the actual table at which you want to sit. Let’s call it the table of today. Which room is it in? Does it have a view? What does it look like? What’s on the table? How do influential people participate at this table? Who’s speaking the loudest? Who’s the quietest?
When you think of it this way, is this the table you want to sit at? Are the people at the table inspiring to you? Will the people you plan to sit with be open to hearing your thoughts and ideas? How do you know?
Reflecting on the table of today allows us to be honest about what this proverbial actually is. We as women entrepreneurs often imagine a seat at the table of today as something glorious that we’ve always longed for. But, what if the table was never meant for us? What if there’s not enough space for us at the table of today? What if it wasn’t made for us?
The table of today may be filled with processes, people, and plans that don’t actually serve you or your values. What if there’s a better table? One that can encompass your true vision of growth, success, and progress?
Imagining the table of tomorrow
Imagine you made it to the table and now it’s yours to recreate. The color of the wood, the chairs, who sits at it, what’s discussed, and how it operates are all under your control. Imagine the table of tomorrow through your lens.
When we think about a seat at the table, we don’t often reflect on the “why.” Why do you want to be at this table? What are you hoping to accomplish? What do you hope will be discussed? How do we advocate for ourselves when we haven’t been invited? What will the table of tomorrow look like in order to meet your “why?” What does it mean for us to have a seat at the table of tomorrow? What is our role when we’re there?
The table of tomorrow is one we as women and women of color will have to flip and create ourselves. One of my favorite quotes is from Shirley Chilsom, the first African American woman in Congress. She said, “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Shirley is telling us to be intentional about our presence, to make a seat for ourselves when one isn’t offered, and take an active role in shaping the table of tomorrow.
Feeding our dreams at the dinner table
As we think about our “why” and “what” when it comes to a seat at the table, we should also think about what would feed and nourish our spirits when we are there. Too many women entrepreneurs are sitting at tables that don’t serve their purpose or don’t discuss the issues that matter the most to them.
As we find our seats at the table of tomorrow, we should come hungry to feed the fire in our bellies. The dinner table is a good analogy for a place where we’re relaxed and ready to give and receive. The dinner table is where hunger is satiated and the fire in our bellies is ignited.
We should ask ourselves: How do we nourish ourselves in this space? What are we hungry for at this table? What are we doing to feed that hunger so we’re satisfied at the end? How many people are hungry for the same thing but also don’t have a seat at the table?
Everyone wants a seat at the dinner table but can’t explain what they’re craving or what’s on the menu. In order for us to effectively advocate for ourselves, we have to understand what we are bringing to the table. What’s the value of our contribution? How are we reflecting the fire in our bellies and sharing powerful ideas with others?
As we rethink a seat at the table, we become more intentional about what that looks like, what’s consumed there, and who we share that time with.
Women are revolutionizing the workplace. As more of us gain leadership positions by becoming managers and executives, we inherit old tables with antiquated systems, exclusive memberships, and unclear visions.
We have a responsibility to flip the table and make it our own. To reflect on the table of tomorrow, and inspire new objectives, visions, and processes that serve our organizations well into the future.
There’s an opportunity to rewrite our definition of table manners and build new codes of conduct that invite other women, people of color, and marginalized voices to the new table. We can give people permission to take up more space — to speak louder and share ideas that have never been heard at the table before.
The table of tomorrow can serve the fire in our bellies and keep us satiated, feeling heard, and moving forward. The new table can be full of Chisolm’s folding chairs and more voices can be invited to inform strategic business decisions that help the company to grow.
My hope is for any woman who reads this article to not only look for a seat at the table, but to flip it and make it their own.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor