10 Stories That Will Revolutionize the Way You Lead Your Life
Become a change-maker in your industry with inspiration from ten powerful women who weren't afraid to challenge a world stacked against them.
The following excerpt is from Dr. Patti Fletcher’s book Disrupters: Success Strategies From Women Who Break the Mold. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound or click here to buy it directly from us and SAVE 60% on this book when you use code LEAD2021 through 4/10/21.
For my book Disrupters, I spoke with ten trailblazing women entrepreneurs who have learned what it takes to succeed in a world stacked against them. From corporate executives to board members to VC investors, these women prove you can disrupt the status quo when you use everything you've got. It's time for us to own our power, reclaim our success and pave the way to even better success for our daughters and granddaughters. If you're the disrupter I know you are, take a look at these women's stories for inspiration, motivation and little bit of advice.
Did you enjoy your book preview? Click here to grab a copy today—now 60% off when you use code LEAD2021 through 4/10/21.
"Tech vs. The Psychology of Bias" with Brenda Reid
How does HR technology work diversity and inclusion into the process?
We tend to look at diversity through the rearview mirror: “We have X number of people in this role,” or “We have this many candidates in our mentoring program,” or “We had a hundred people in our diversity workshop.” We count heads.
The questions around diversity tend to be reactive: “We don’t have enough diversity in this department. How do we get more representation?” “We aren’t hiring enough diversity candidates -- how do we fix that?” Diversity is often seen as a problem to be solved, rather than an opportunity to be taken advantage of.
Measurement is important, but it doesn’t change the path forward. When I began digging into the challenges of diversity and inclusion, my thought was that we needed to get out in front of bias. Forced trainings aren’t the way to accomplish that. They’re important, but they may only truly change the way one in maybe a thousand people go about their business. For the most part, people participate in diversity initiatives because they have to.
The research shows that most people do believe that diversity and inclusion are important. They do want to see their diversity hires and minority colleagues succeed in the company. The bias that exists is not an explicit one, but an unconscious bias. That’s why training has limited effectiveness: It addresses the conscious part of how we make decisions, but it can’t really help with our unconscious decisions.
That's why I'm so passionate about what tech can do to detect and eliminate this: We can leverage technology to interrupt decision making at every point along a person's career journey.
If you can make someone aware of an unconscious bias, not only can you help them avoid it, but over time they begin asking themselves those questions. It changes their thinking pattern and their internal decision tree. We’re never going to eliminate bias, but we can make it less prevalent.
Technology is an enabler. But the driver of change has to be the culture of the organization itself. It’s sad to say, but many big companies don’t want to crack the door on this issue. They’d rather turn a blind eye and not know than open the data and see just how ugly it is. If that’s the culture of your workplace, then you have to be careful as a gender-equity advocate. You need to gauge how open your leadership is and who could be your potential ally (or accomplice!) in advancing diversity and inclusion.
Reflections from Dr. Patti Fletcher
If you want to advocate for gender equity in the workplace, you need to be smart in how you go about it. Francis Ford Coppola said, “The way to come to power is not always to merely challenge the Establishment, but first make a place in it and then challenge and double-cross the Establishment.” While I’m not sure your motives need to be that nefarious, the point stands: To really effect change, first gather your power base.
"Pariah to Pioneer" with Anula Jayasuriya
Why is VC funding for female entrepreneurs important?
Our society, composed of 51 percent female, is being systematically deprived of the insights, observations, and management styles of women. We have all these studies that show the power of diversity. Of course, women’s and men’s management styles fall along a spectrum. It is not black and white. But if you look at the mean distribution, you see very different management styles and approaches to leadership between genders.
By the majority of funding going to men, we’re missing out on the different ways a woman might innovate than a man, or the different products and services women would create that many men simply wouldn’t see.
None of that comes to the fore if women aren’t given the first step of funding and contributing their different viewpoints, be it on the product itself or in the leadership of the company. The real question is: By not funding these women, what are we missing out on?
A venture investment decision involves spending a lot of time with entrepreneurs. You need to understand them, to relate to them, and to really get inside their head. You want to be able to trust the person to whom you’re entrusting limited partners’ capital [the institutions that typically invest in venture funds]. You have a fiduciary responsibility to your LPs. You want to have faith in these people that they know what they’re doing and that they’re going to do the right thing. It’s
much easier to do that if they’re like you.
It shouldn’t surprise us that if nine out of every ten venture capitalists are male, the majority of venture capital would go to the people who look, act, and think like them.
The VC industry is in the dark ages and in urgent need of radical change. I believe that until the number of women investors and women investees equal men, the playing field will remain skewed to the detriment of the economy and society.
Reflections from Dr. Patti Fletcher
You’ve heard Wayne Gretzky’s quote about the secret to his success, right? “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” Anula embodies that idea. She saw the opportunity for collaboration between business and medical science and put herself squarely in that intersection ahead of the curve.
You can see that she has a deep sense of purpose. She makes million-dollar decisions that, in addition to being prudent investments, also advance her mission of making the world a better place through women’s health. She gets that investing in women isn’t just a social justice issue but an economic issue as well. Companies do better, economies perform better, and overall socioeconomic opportunities are better when women compete on the same level as men.
To put a fine point on it: promoting women isn’t just good for women -- it’s good for society.
"Femtech Founder" with Surbhi Sarna
What's it like getting VC funding as a woman who started a medical device company for women's health?
So much of my life has been dedicated to women’s health. Not only am I a woman trying to do business, but I’m a woman trying to make a women’s health opportunity look attractive to male investors in a field that’s dominated by men.
Think about everything that goes into running a company. You can’t take on the additional mental burden of wondering, "Is the person I’m about to meet sexist? Racist?" That kind of mentality is a sure way to hold back any minority trying to achieve something. In order to succeed at this game, you have to have enough mind space available to think about the business, leading, innovation, your team -- how could you possibly stay competitive if you take on the additional burden of thinking about how hard things are for you or what additional barriers you have to face because you’re a woman or have darker skin? All your available time has to go into strategizing, creating an appropriate company culture, attracting investors, and developing products.
Entrepreneurs already have a terrible work-life balance, sky-high divorce rates, sky-high depression and anxiety rates, and that’s regardless of gender, identity, and race. You can’t add another layer on top of that of worrying about other people’s biases.
Remember that you aren’t superhuman. Things have to give in certain areas. You can’t link your happiness or your sense of fulfillment to the expectation of what you think society sees as success.
As long as you link your self-worth to anybody else’s expectations, you’re just setting yourself up for failure. Forgive me for touching on a darker subject, but you could die tomorrow. Do you want to be in a state where you died trying to get everyone else’s approval? Because as long as that’s your mindset, that’s the place you’ll always be in. You can’t please everyone; it’s never going to happen.
You have to know what’s important to you. If I died tomorrow, my family knows I loved them. My employees know that I sincerely cared about them and that I was always doing my best by them. I’ll know that I did the things that made me fulfilled. I didn’t chase the feeling of trying to be looked up to.
Reflections from Dr. Patti Fletcher
What a woman -- and barely in her 30s! She accomplished more in her 20s than most people do in a lifetime. Can you imagine what she’ll do in the next decade?
I love her attitude about being a woman of color. She just doesn’t have the time to think about other people’s potential prejudice -- she’s too busy changing the world. She knows that regardless of whether her company is worth $200 million or $2 billion, it’ll never be enough in some people’s eyes. She’s defining her success not by someone else’s metric, but by her own intrinsic values.
"A Fully Formed Woman -- Finally!" with Lisa Morales-Hellebo
How has your path shaped you and led you to entrepreneurship?
I’m a first-generation Puerto Rican, born here and raised in the Bronx. When I was about three, my father wanted better opportunities for my siblings and me, so we moved to Westchester, New York.
We were the only brown family in our town for quite a while. As fate would have it, we lived two doors down from a super racist, hate-filled man. He would dump bloody, severed deer heads in our driveway; he’d write “spic” in the snow outside our house; he’d cross the street if he saw us walking his way; he’d beat his children if they waved hello to us. I remember as young as five years old realizing that if I were playing at the neighbor’s house and his child came over there to play, too, that I needed to leave so he wouldn’t get beaten for playing with me. And it wasn’t just him. On the school bus, we were called “spic” and “n—.” Kids would spit on me to “give me a shower” because my skin was so “dirty.”
My escape was drawing. I loved doing creative things. Around eight years of age, I’d ask my mom to get Vogue and Bazaar or any fashion magazine, which quickly became my world. I fell absolutely in love with fashion and the supermodels of the ’80s. I loved the idea that you could become a whole other person just by changing your clothes, makeup, and hair -- that you could become something bigger than you were.
Thank goodness Carnegie Mellon accepted me because I had no backup plan. Their design school was way ahead of the design thinking movement. I tell people that I got a design thinking degree. I learned how to apply design thinking methodologies, which really enabled my career and has even become a sought-after business skill set.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was really an entrepreneur at heart. I like seeing companies grow, I like creating something from nothing, and I like doing the impossible.
In two years, my little company I ran out of the basement of my house in the suburbs of DC was an agency of record for Coca-Cola and some other great clients. I grossed more than $400,000 working nine-to-five, with no evenings or weekends. I trained my clients so well, I’d be on the phone with the guys at Coca-Cola and they’d say, “Oh, it’s 4:50 p.m. We’d better get off the phone so you can go get your babies. We’ll pick this up in the morning!” I knew that mutual respect was earned through my consistent results and was grateful to work with people who appreciated my design thinking.
It’s taken me a long time to realize that my whole life has been a culmination of experiences to prepare me for what I’ve been put on this planet to do: to reinvent this industry that gave me an escape from the hatred I lived with as a child, and that has informed my life and transformed me into the person I am today. I’m here to share what I know with the world. Who are you to judge whether I’m worthy? Who are you to define who I am and what I can do? This is my path, and I’m confident in where I’m headed.
Reflections from Dr. Patti Fletcher
One of the many things I love about entrepreneurs, especially female entrepreneurs, is that they are a special breed of crazy. Maybe that’s why I have become such a big fan of Lisa. Her life has been spent contradicting social and business systems designed for someone else. The odds are truly against women founders. On top of that, being an entrepreneur, by its very definition, means always doing something for the first time.
But the best route to combat the stress of failure is to create an environment where you and the people around you can be both vulnerable and strong, like Lisa, where you can turn the destructive internalization of failure into objective learning.
“Business Maven” with Jo-Ann Mendles
How have you approached the structure of traditional organizations to achieve the success you have today?
I don’t believe there’s one “system.” The system you find yourself in varies by the nature of the organization, and in order to successfully maneuver through any given system, I’ve had to hone what I call a “portfolio of styles.” I am being authentic to myself while at the same time accretively adapting to operating models and cultures. Sharpening acumen to create value within varied business models requires both deliberate and opportunistic risk taking.
I went from being a predictable, well-compensated senior executive into what I call my entrepreneurial period. That’s really where I expanded my experience across all sorts of different structures and sizes of enterprises. This kind of journey isn’t for everyone, but it really perfected my dexterity and gave me an immeasurable learning experience.
I’ve consistently found all over the world that women tend not to take credit for their accomplishments. I’m competitive and I have something of an ego, so early in my career, seeing someone else get or take the credit for a result I accomplished annoyed me to no end. It is important to pick the situations where the record needs to be set straight, but if your real focus is on outcomes -- if you want to get results and have people come around to your way of thinking so they can get behind it -- then getting the credit isn’t as important as becoming known as someone who can successfully get things done.
I’m a petite female. Early in my career, I was less aware of that. These days, I’m more mindful of how our physical presence affects others’ perception. If I walk into a room filled with men, I’ll make it a point to make myself seem larger: I’ll be the first to extend my hand, I make sure I deliver a firm handshake, I lean in at the table, I’m cognizant of my voice projecting, I take up more room or whatever else I need to do to ensure my presence is felt.
Reflections from Dr. Patti Fletcher
I absolutely love Jo-Ann’s portfolio concept. It’s a beautiful analogy of how to embrace our authentic self while remaining aware of the practical considerations of a given situation. The concept of having a portfolio of styles that reflect ourselves while being appropriate for a scenario is great. We wear different outfits for a girls’ night out vs. a family event vs. those days when we have to be in a car or an airplane all day. It’s the same with running a meeting vs. being invited to a client event.
Jo-Ann’s approach seems like a mature, savvy one. Contrast it with those women (or men) who go out of their way to let everyone know everything: their political stance, their religious beliefs, their sexual identity, their relationship status, their childhood, how they believe the company should be run, and more. They have one “outfit” they wear all the time, rain or shine, regardless of circumstances.
“The Power of the Outsider” with Tanya Odom
How can women entrepreneurs (including yourself) honor the unique pieces of their identities?
My dad said if he saw my bio, he probably wouldn’t come to one of my sessions. On paper, I reek of privilege. It looks like I couldn’t possibly relate to the everyday reality of many people.
So, most people don’t know what to do when I tell them that my parents were the directors of a residential therapeutic drug community center. We lived inside the facility itself. Not a hippie commune, but an urban clinic. My earliest memories are of being cared for and cuddled by this extended family. In fact, my younger sister teases that there are very few pictures of me and her walking; we were always being carried. Later, I learned they were drug addicts and some had criminal records. Sometimes, they had to “go away.” As a kid, I was writing letters to people in jail who were family.
Add that on top of the fact that, despite the fact that I look and am always assumed to be white, my father is black and my mother is white, and people really don’t know what to do. I don’t fit into any neat little box.
I love Brené Brown’s TED Talk on shame and vulnerability. In order to get to the place where you feel like you belong -- she speaks to the concept of “worthiness” -- you have to embrace that vulnerability.
I think we have to tell our own stories in ways that support and motivate each other. The idea of diversity lands differently for women of color, women who are lesbians, or those from different socioeconomic backgrounds. These are things that make us diverse, and yet we’re often ashamed of sharing those pieces of ourselves, so we cover them up when we’re on the job or in a particular social setting.
We need to embrace what makes us different. I got a job in corporate America because of a white ally. She had been doing diversity work for a long time and recruited me into the firm. At the time, I was working in a dropout prevention program to help teens literally stay in school. I had never worked a day in a corporate job.
She said to me, “You will be OK because, one, people are going to think you’re white and, two, your education. Please -- you were just working with gang members on the Lower East Side. I think you’ll be fine on Wall Street.”
You know, people may say they understand diversity, but until you have lived it and have seen and heard the stories of people around the world, you really might not understand what diversity and inclusion really is or how important it is.
Reflections from Dr. Patti Fletcher
I love the balanced distinction Tanya makes between something being important to share with others vs. being so “important to me that I don’t hide it.”
Sometimes I wonder that, if we could all share even just a modicum more vulnerability and transparency about our backgrounds, our insecurities, and our truths, how many of us would sigh in relief knowing that we’re not the only one who sees ourselves a certain way?
“Diversity Goes High-Tech” with Gabby Burlacu
How do you see technology moving the needle for diversity and inclusion?
I was born in Romania, but my family moved here when I was two. Growing up and then entering the work force, it became pretty clear to me early on that I certainly looked at things differently than my peers and colleagues. And actually, that’s true for all of us. We all look at things differently depending on where we come from, how we grew up, our values -- all these things give us a different perspective than others.
HR processes are now ultimately supporting decisions that we make about talent: who we choose to hire, how much we choose to pay, who we choose to promote, etc. Technology can play a role in presenting unbiased information to decision-makers and having them be able to use it to leverage better outcomes for the organization.
When you tell these leaders, “Look, the system is wrong. It needs to be changed. We need to elevate new kinds of talent. We need fewer people who look like you and more people who don’t,” they hear, “You succeeded in a flawed system. Your success comes from working in a system that favored people like you over others.”
If that’s the message they hear, even on a subconscious level, of course it feels demoralizing. Of course it’s more of a challenge to get their support. Of course we encounter more rejection.
It’s a sensitive topic and one that has many sides and perspectives. Someone always feels left out, hurt, or condemned. Nothing will change if the conversation doesn’t change. How do you change the narrative for these business leaders?
Technology allows us to bring some of these decisions to the forefront to help us detect those times when a decision may have been affected by our own cultural or embedded biases. One thing technology has been doing for some time is helping to determine salary by looking at a person’s position and responsibilities and then comparing it to their peers’, not just inside the company but across the industry. That way, we can make salary decisions without the additional lens of gender, age, or race.
HR tech is also viewed as an end-to-end process. Historically, the people who did the hiring never even spoke to the people who did the training and development. Now we know that having a comprehensive HR strategy is a lot more powerful. Technology allows this to happen as a system instead of individual activities done in silos.
Reflections from Dr. Patti Fletcher
Gabby could not be more right. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, technology does not determine success or failure. Cultural transformation is the answer. Technology simply enables cultural change. It is critical to scaling the change journey and ensuring that the change sticks.
Now that would be a game changer.
“The Power of the Tribe” with Miriam Christof
How did you start your own tribe, and how does it tie into your vision of being a disrupter?
Eight years ago, I moved to Boston, and I didn’t know anybody.
In the adventure with my own company, I attended a lot of networking events and became part of many organizations. These events were hosted and filled by a wide variety of people. All of them do really important work in connecting people, but I was looking for something that would allow me to make a deeper connection with select people interested in tangible results.
That is the difference between a tribe and a networking group. A tribe is a trusted band of people who all have one thing in common. In a tribe, you look to change things, to help each other with job placements, with the next gig, with support, and with all the other things that we can’t always get from our wider networks of friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. Being part of our tribe allows us to create relationships that are enormously valuable in our careers.
Most of the real networking doesn’t take place at networking events. These are quite shallow in terms of relationship building. The real conversations take place in informal discussions, through relationships built over time, on the golf course, or these other places that are often invisible or inaccessible to women. There are real limits to what traditional networking can do. If someone introduced this different kind of networking to the U.S., it would disrupt our whole approach to the activity.
You can talk to people in your tribe -- maybe in one-on-one conversations or sitting next to someone at the table -- and immediately they will start charting a potential course for you. They will reach out to their own networks and within the tribe itself, introducing you, saying, “Hey, let me connect you to this person,” and you know that the conversations will be kept in confidence. I wanted to be connected to the women in my tribe because I really believe we can disrupt the status quo when it comes to female leadership.
Disruption is looking at how things are currently done and seeing that it could be better and taking action. If you think networking could be done better but you let fear hold you back, then disruption cannot take place. If you think that people would judge you for trying something new or that if you created a tribe you’d be surrounded by a lot of bitching -- if you let fear hold you back, you will never be able to truly disrupt things and create something better.
Reflections from Dr. Patti Fletcher
Seth Godin popularized the word “tribe,” but his concept is more akin to people sharing an affinity around an idea, a movement, or a brand. As you can tell from my conversation with Miriam, for us, a tribe is a beautiful, unique blend of personal and professional relationships.
These relationships don’t take the place of our other friendships, of course. They’re not a proxy for relationships with our extended family. They don’t replace colleagues and peers with whom we have strictly collegial interactions.
It’s a similar sentiment to what John D. Rockefeller said: “A friendship founded on business is a good deal better than a business founded on friendship.” These are professional relationships that grow and blossom in sisterhood.
“Explosive Growth, a Controlled Burn, and a Self-Financed Fortune” with Nicole Sahin
How did you handle growth with Globalization Partners?
In my first year, it was just me. I knew that I wanted to build a great company. For me, that meant achieving something great but also being a place that I loved to come to work. I needed to prove to myself that I had a viable business before I started involving other people’s lives.
After a year, I finally realized how busy I was getting and had the confidence that the growth and momentum weren’t going to stop any time in the foreseeable future. I also wanted to get ahead of the curve and hire someone before I absolutely needed them, so I brought on my first hire and then, a few months later, brought on my second.
To me, building the business of my dreams means having a triple bottom line. The shareholders need to be happy, but more importantly the clients need to be happy with what we’re providing and the employees must be happy. We’re building bridges between cultures all over the planet, connecting people from around the world with the world’s coolest companies. We’re redefining how companies -- and people -- do business globally.
So many people think they need funding before they can do anything. If we were building spaceships or something capital-intensive, no, our model wouldn’t work. But if you can build your business on cash flow and revenue, it gives you so much more freedom to run your company without outside interests potentially competing with your vision.
The most important thing for me, though, was company culture. I want to hire people that I’m going to enjoy being around for the years I’m in this business. I want to bring in people who are extremely collaborative, extremely powerful in terms of rolling up our sleeves and getting something done, and extremely effective at growing this business. If you work with us, we will love you. But at the same time, it is intense. We expect a lot out of every single person.
Reflections from Dr. Patti Fletcher
Nicole is the poster child for Disrupters.
Not only is Globalization Partners disrupting the professional employer organization industry, but the way she went about building the company turns the whole high-growth business tech model on its head.
Most of the tech world has embraced Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology. I like to think Nicole has pursued a woman’s version of a lean startup. She tested the market and her business model first to ensure viability. Then, she built the platform for a high-growth startup before bringing anyone else aboard because she was worried about the hypothetical lives of whoever her hires would be; she cared about her employees even when she didn’t have any.
Plus, she still sees the bigger mission: building bridges between people and countries. For her, the business is an end unto itself . . . yet at the same time, it’s a means to an end.
In Nicole Sahin, we see a beautiful balance of business pragmatism and personal idealism.
“When Women Thrive” with Pat Milligan
How do we move things in the right direction within companies when it comes to gender equity?
We’ve had lots of great conversations, surveys, and data, but the fundamental reality is that, as a society, we have not approached equity for women as a real business priority. We need passionate leaders who deeply understand the business and social rationale for having women engaged in the work force -- not just on the board or in management, but in all levels of the organization.
You need to understand not just how diverse your work force is but how inclusive it is. You have to look at the whole system to understand where you’re losing people, where you’re not gaining people, and where you’re not experiencing full engagement from people.
When we look at the data globally, we often see the research and attention on women at the top or on the board, but the biggest issue is really the drop-off at the middle-management stage, where women leave at about twice the rate men do.
We’ve found that male managers, despite being well-intentioned, often aren’t equipped to handle women in conversations about stress, flextime, remote working, what the company is willing to do, and other issues that they need to approach differently than they would for their male employees. When they understand why their female team members are at risk of leaving, and when they’re equipped to know how to respond, they can engage their female team members in an incredibly valuable way.
When I work with women’s business resource groups, one of my first pieces of advice is “Know your worth.” You should know what your economic worth is in the marketplace. You don’t have to be aggressive to ask the basic question of how a potential employer will measure that worth and the contributions you provide to their company.
If you’re a young woman, your supervisor needs to know that you care about promotion. You care about pay equality. You care about accurate performance reviews. You want to be rewarded equitably for your work. If you work in a company that isn’t willing to make this a priority, I think you have to ask yourself, “In the long term, am I going to thrive in this environment? Is this where I want to spend the foreseeable future of my professional career?”
Those are tough questions, but they have to be asked.
If I were a young woman entering the job market today, I would want to work for, and I would seek out, those companies that have a serious commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Reflections from Dr. Patti Fletcher
Disrupters showcases the strategies women in business have used to achieve success. As such, it’s focused primarily on what you personally can do.
Pat, however, brings up an important point: the necessity of involving men in the process. If we truly want to achieve gender equity, it has to involve all stakeholders. Pat’s pragmatic optimism inspires me, too: when men “get it” and become an ally of feminist women, they can become the most powerful champions for women and evangelists of equitable practices.
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Patti Fletcher, Ph.D., is the author of Disrupters: Success Strategies from Women Who Break the Mold (Entrepreneur Press 2018), gender equity advocate and expert authority on how to create a culture of inclusion to drive real business results. Fletcher is recognized as a futurist; a student of the inclusive talent economy and future of leadership; an innovation-through-inclusion expert; and a writer, advisor and speaker on topics related to driving progress through people. She has been featured in Time magazine, Al-Jazeera, Forbes, Newsweek, Xconomy and The Muse and advises corporate executives and board members from lean startups to Fortune 100s. Connect with Fletcher on Facebook and Twitter, and be sure to vist the Workhuman blog for further insights.