October 07, 2011
Great Women at WITI: Isn't it Better to Have a Life of Oh Wells Than What Ifs?
Clearly I don't get to New York often enough, by now I would have met writer and products guru Maya Baratz, who is currently working on new products at The Wall Street Journal.
She started out by asking the nearly all women audience at WITI (Women in Technology International): How many of you are still waiting for your mentor? How many of you spend your time trying to prove someone wrong?
Mentors were a common thread throughout her talk. It's not that she doesn't believe in having them, but if you can’t find a mentor, don't wait around to get ahead.
"Waiting for a mentor is like waiting to follow someone else’s lead," she says. "Follow your own."
On innovation, she says, "innovation is about being unreasonable and along the way you sprinke it with reasonable."
She encouraged the women in the room not to be reasonable. "You don’t need to succeed," she says. We can fail. Women are shy of taking big risks and want to ensure they can succeed before moving forward.
Hear hear Maya. And to add to that, not only are women more afraid to fail, but they're more likely to hold back when they've accomplished something great. Many entrepreneurs will tell you to fail fast, early and often.
Failure is nothing more than feedback. And, when you do succeed, she encouraged, "don't just move yourselves forward, but move your female colleagues forward with you."
AND, taking risks was emphasized and re-emphasized. In other words, isn't it better to have a life of oh wells than what ifs? True innovation is about taking a leap of faith and that almost always means taking risks which can lead to failure.
"When you do fail," she adds, "speed up your recovery process. You shouldn’t spend your time reacting to failure. If you get stuck on the anger side, you’ll probably be stuck there for awhile. Leading a proactive life is dusting yourself off, getting up and trying again."
Women-led start-ups fail less than men yet women make up less than 10% of venture-backed startups.
The bottom line is that we don’t toot our own horn which makes us feel a lot more boxed in. We also don’t have role models to look up to....at least not enough of them.
It’s important for every one of us to tell our own story and get it out there, embrace what we've accomplished rather than be afraid of it.
She spoke of actionable things we can do now to further our lives. I can't agree enough that this is what it takes to grow. There's nothing truer than this (and having the our belief systems) to get ahead. We can have dreams and goals but if we don't get them down on paper and take steps to get there, it won't happen. When we have a little "win", it's human nature to own that win and use it as ammunition to move forward. It works for me.
I call them baby steps. Rather than think of the magnitude of the project OR all the potential obscacles that could get in the way OR the skillsets you don't have, just act. Baby steps are important because baby steps = action and action leads to results.
It's a bit like serendipity versus having a strategy, where serendipity is reactive and strategy is being proactive, infused with passion of course. Ask yourself what action can you take to make things happen?
Says a woman in the audience, "look at the way men talk about entrepreneurship – it’s okay for a man to take crazy risks and put themselves out there." Another truism.
Yet, how many times have we all thrown an idea into the wind and received negative feedback? So have hundreds of other entrepreneurs. Success stories today had dozens and in some cases hundreds of no's before they got to yes.
If it doesn't have immediate positive feedback, it doesn’t mean that its not a good idea. It may just mean that it’s new and it hasn’t been tried yet.
It's also okay for men to get tons of exposure and not just be okay with it but embrace it. I'm working on a photo book and have been turned down by a few women. Two very prominent women in the industry declined because they said they were "overexposed." I was in a bit of disbelief when I heard the response - twice. Overexposed? Really? Would a man decline an opportunity and say I'm overexposed?
Are you kidding I quietly thought when I heard the response. Deep inside, my reaction wasn't quiet - it was miffed, saddened, disillusioned and frustrated. I also couldn't help but feel that important female voices and insights wouldn't be part of an important project. Moreso, as a woman who's struggling to get support and access to great people to make the project succeed, I thought, "am I going to rely mostly on my male industry buds to help move this book forward in places I can't?" Again. (I had to say it, but yes, again).
We need to support and embrace women's journeys around us and there's no better way to do that than to be aware of their journey, where and how they're struggling and step in to help, even if its in a very small way. Baby steps. They matter.
It's also important that in the entrepreneurial process that we don't self judge ourselves but even moreso for women.
Obviously it's not the first time I've attended women events and conferences. I have been a regular at BlogHer since the very beginning, have been a member and attendee of various women organizations, attended an all girl's school and was active in 4H as a child which, while it wasn't for women only, there were predominantly girls in my club and the same applied to other clubs in my immediate area.
Yet attending WITI, a three-day event full of inspirational women in technology who are embracing challenges and hearing great talks like Maya's and others, is a reminder that while it's not easy out there and we may even recall some of the common mistakes we have made as we hear other stories, its freeing to talk about it and in the process, get feedback. Feedback can lead to action.
Not once in that session did the word confidence come up, not that I remember at least, although it certainly came up elsewhere and throughout the three days. Women don't have enough of it. Period.
I notice lack of confidence more than anything else and not just in business situations but in our personal lives as well. We need to remind women around us that they shine and tell them often.
When I got home from WITI, it was ironic that I ended up watching two episodes of Mad Men, two I had seen before. Yet somehow, watching it immediately after attending WITI made me view it with new eyes. If you're a woman, you can't ignore how women were treated at home and in the office on Madison Avenue in the 50s (and elsewhere in the world). Yet, the writing is so brilliant and authentic, and the program so great, the art wins. The storytelling wins. It was our history. America's history. AND, at least for me, I saw all of it in my grandmother's kitchen, my aunt's house, my school.
Here's one scene from the episode re-watch: Betty's friend comes over to borrow a dress for an occasion and then flops down on the bed as she says, "it doesn't matter, I'm invisible." Women were invisible in the Mad Men era and in some cultures around the world, they're less than invisible today.
Sure, we've made great strides, but we still need to step up, embrace our experiences, share our stories, toot our own horns and take more chances.
While I didn't do individual write-ups on all the speakers and panels, other women who particularly inspired and moved me include IBM's Sandy Carter, Xerox Corporation's CTO and President Sophie Vandebroek, Coca-Cola's CIO Miriam McLemore, professor Diane Pozefsky, AT&T's Alicia Abella and of course WITI founder Carolyn Leighton. (left)
On that note, I'll end with a few reflective, incredulous and humorous quotes to ponder not necessarily in that order: (what do you subscribe to? Feel free to share your own in comments).
"Men are allowed to have passion and commitment for their work ... a woman is allowed that feeling for a man, but not her work" - Barbra Streisand in 1993
"Every woman should have four pets in her life. A mink in her closet, a jaguar in her garage, a tiger in her bed, and a jackass who pays for everything." - Paris Hilton
"The happiest women, like the happiest nations, have no history." - George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
"The strength of women comes from the fact that psychology cannot explain us. Men can be analysed, women ... merely adored." -- Oscar Wilde, The Ideal Husband
"Modern women are just adored. There's nothing but media telling us we're all supposed to be great cooks, have great style, be great in bed, be the best mothers, speak seven languages, and be able to understand derivatives. And we don't really have women we're modeling after, so we're all looking for how to do this.." -- Jamie Lee Curtis in 2010
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