What 8 Successful Women Executives Wish They Knew Earlier in Their Careers
Vishal Harnal, general partner at 500 Startups in Asia, told Entrepreneur once in an unrelated interview that entrepreneurship is a very hard, isolating, lonely endeavor, and it takes a lot of midnight oil-burning, and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations to succeed.
And being a woman in a (regrettably) patriarchal world often affects the way they navigate their startup journeys, and careers.
We spoke to eight women executives about some things they did early on in their careers that made them successful, including how they grabbed a seat at the 'table'.
Be Grateful for Help
Zee Der-Levine, partner at Think & Grow, a startup talent and growth firm, says:
"No one will work as hard for your business as you - so always be grateful for help.
Every little bit of help, especially in the beginning, is supremely valuable. I’m including words of affirmation, constructive criticism, not so constructive feedback, hands on help, all the way down to the waitress at your local cafe letting you sit for eight hours next to one peppermint tea!
Starting is the hardest and losing faith is almost inevitable. Remembering these moments helped me get through the challenging times and the rearing of self-doubt. Showing appreciation will build goodwill and that’s an asset not to be underestimated for both your business and your reputation."
Don't Strive to be Liked, Strive to be Respected
Sarah Liu, founder and managing director of The Dream Collective, a global diversity and inclusion consultancy, says:
"Don’t strive to be liked, strive to be respected. I see too many young women doing everything they can to be liked by others, especially in the early career stage, and this can often lead to us compromising our own values, priorities and goals.
I can’t say people I’ve crossed paths with will always like me, but I work hard to make sure that my expertise, capability and work ethics will earn people’s respect. And that is what will last the distance.
Prioritise and invest in yourself, instead of spending money on fashion, beauty and lifestyle. Allocate allowances to actively invest in learning, networking and development opportunities.
You only have a limited amount of time, resources and energy, spend it on the right people and the right things that will actually enrich you."
Trust your Instincts
Jess Renden, operations Manager at cryptocurrency exchange platform, Cointree, says:
"Trust your gut! Reflecting on the early stages of my career, my gut was right 99 per cent of the time. It’s easy to question the decisions you make when starting out. Is this the right choice? Should I trust this person? Who is influencing me in this situation? Early on, I didn’t always consider that my gut could be right. This is how we learn over our journey.
Looking back, I often reflect on decisions made, and my instincts have proven to be right in the majority of cases. Making a business decision based on instincts can be hard to justify to someone, particularly business executives, but all I can say is always weigh up the facts and follow your intuition, don’t ignore it. Your instincts will point you in the right direction."
Don't Rule Out Postgraduate Studies
Michelle Gallaher, chief executive officer of ShareRoot, a SaaS company for social media marketing and digital marketing consulting services, says:
"Don't rule out postgraduate studies. Coming from a healthcare background, a number of managers and mentors suggested I didn't need to do postgraduate studies in 'business'. Having jumped into a global executive MBA this year, I can't overstate the translated value to my current role. It has been immeasurable. Don't box yourself in professionally and commit to lifelong learning...it will only pay off in spades."
Find Your People
Dee Behan, co-founder of Frankly Co, a flexible workspace, community, and digital platform, says:
"Find your people! Finding co-founders that are equally as passionate as you, and get you, will be invaluable. You’ll share the workload, the highs and lows, and pick each other up on the tough days, (there will be a few). Having each other has allowed us to go further, quicker, and stay sane in the process.
Start talking about your idea, yesterday. Don’t keep it so close that it can’t grow. Speak to as many people as possible about it, and be prepared to refine, alter, and change it, depending on what you hear back.
Reach out to professionals in the industry who you admire for feedback and help on specific areas. You’ll be surprised how much others are willing to talk, as long as your request is genuine. Not everyone will get back to you and that’s fine, but we’ve found that approaching the conversation from their point of view and thinking about what you can offer them in return, helps."
Speak Up for Yourself
Gemma Lloyd, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of WORK180, a global jobs platform, says:
"When I first started in my career, I went all in. I was confident and ready for anything, but soon -- because I was young, a woman and working in a male-dominated industry -- my clients and even colleagues started assuming I was in a PA role instead of their equal. This made me feel less confident to the point where, even if I had an idea or knew the answer, I lost the courage to speak up.
Eventually I started to regain my voice, and soon a better job and higher salary followed. I just wish I knew then that I didn't have to stay silent for so long: if you're good, if you have ideas, you need to speak up for yourself from the get go. No one else will.
Another thing I struggled with was reaching out and asking for help. Entrepreneurs have a tendency to think they should solve all their problems themselves. It took me a while -- specifically, going through the Startmate accelerator program -- to learn that I didn't have to do everything by myself. There are so many people willing to help you, to mentor you, that there's just no point in suffering in silence."
Embrace Your Doubt
Carly Stebbing, founder and principal of Resolution123, a tech company that provides affordable employment law advice to employees, says:
"Your HSC (higher secondary school certificate) is not everything. There are other ways to get into the course you want, the university you want, the career you want. Hard work will always trump pedigree. Yes, there is a bias against some regions, schools and universities and yes the old boys and girls club is still hard at work, but you can rise above it by being good at what you do, knowing what you don't know and building a solid support network based on reciprocal respect.
Embrace your doubt, it will serve you well, but don't let it fester into imposter syndrome. Doubt makes us check things, it makes us curious, it makes us ask questions and that's how we learn and grow."
Go Your Own Way, and Back Yourself
Richenda Vermeulen, founder and chief executive officer of ntegrity, a digital strategy agency, says:
"Back yourself. When you’re trying something new, people will be sceptical. Especially if you’re the only woman in the room.
Your time is precious, especially when you’re just starting out. Learn to say "no" early to opportunities that aren’t the right fit. And when it’s a fit, move quickly from conversation to contracts. Don’t get stuck in the polite middle — it drains your time, energy and bank account.
Being an entrepreneur is like doing improv: sometimes it’s great, sometimes you’re just terrified everyone will laugh at you. Either way, you learn more than anyone in the audience.
Go your own way. Plenty of people thought I was dumb for chasing purpose over profits. Turns out, it’s a perfect way to attract ethical clients and passionate, smart employees. You get to define your own success — make sure it matches your values.
Choose meaningful work. I’ve watched plenty of people chase status and salary. But when you’re intentional about the impact you want to make in the world… that’s a superpower. That’ll push you to take risks, and push forward, and grow in leaps and bounds.
Inevitably, it’ll get hard. Try to see hard times as a gift. They’re painful, but they’ll teach you more than good times ever can."