Successful women share pathways to empowerment

April 12, 2006

Many professional women who have chosen different paths through the maze of the corporate world have discovered more than one definition of success and more than one ladder to climb. The business arena often can resemble the children's game Chutes and Ladders, where successful women work their way to the top of the game board just shy of the glass ceiling only to find themselves hitting a slide -- such as a layoff, missed promotion or stop-out for maternity. Even successes such as selling a profitable company or starting a business can leave a woman stranded at the edge of the board wondering how to get back up the ladder, which ladder to take, or whether she should climb at all.


So, how does a woman define and achieve her own idea of success in her work, personal and spiritual life? Several successful women got together to speak on the subject at the recent Women's Empowerment Seminar hosted by the W. P. Carey School of Business.



No such thing as "super woman"


Dismantle the super woman myth. "It doesn't exist," said Mary Gendron, a faculty associate in the W. P. Carey MBA program. "We can choose to develop many identities and opportunities. We set ourselves up if we expect ourselves to be perfect at everything."


A licensed psychologist, Gendron has spent 30 years as consultant, educator, manager, speaker and author. She urges women to understand their individual reality, yet recognize they can chart their own course. "It's really your story and you are the architect of your life," Gendron said.


Elaine Ralls, chief executive of Phoenix-based AIR Marketing, agreed that women have to take charge of their lives and prepare for success. "It's about putting yourself in place for opportunities. It's up to you to decide the things you want to do so are you ready to move to the next level," Ralls said. "Success equals preparation plus opportunity."


Ralls has been called a "serial entrepreneur," as she has created, or bought and sold, several different companies in her career. The barriers to a woman's success in corporate America include the lack of role models, an unconscious gender bias and what she calls the "stop-out and catch-up syndrome" experienced by women who leave the workplace temporarily while their children are young. Another obstruction is the still male-dominated informal network: "The decisions made in men's bathrooms or in the bars after work do not include us," she said. "Women get behind in the corporate world and it's hard, if not impossible, to catch up."


To get beyond the barriers, women must decide what they want and prepare for it by getting more education or professional experience. Both are important, and women must choose which one to achieve first: "Whatever industry you go into you have to prove yourself," Ralls said. Then, find yourself a good mentor or get into a mentoring program, Ralls said, and participate in professional associations.


Network, network, network


Vi Brown, chief executive of Prophecy Consulting Group, a company specializing in engineering, management and technical solutions, spent last year crisscrossing the country as president of the Society of Women Engineers. Brown advocated professional organizations as key to finding and developing relationships and partnerships. As president of the society, Brown not only increased her visibility with top firms and led a delegation to China, she found herself in the company of many so-called C-level executives and decision-makers -- and she continues to develop those relationships. "Somebody said women will become CEOs when they put themselves there," Brown said. "Well, I put myself there."


Make a plan and carry it out on your own terms, Brown said. "Don't let others plan for you. A manager who plans your future is really planning for themselves."


Brown, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in chemical engineering from Howard University and a W. P. Carey MBA, is also a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the Institute for the Advancement of Engineering, the Arizona Environmental Leadership through Mentoring, and the National Society of Black Engineers. "You have to understand the power of relationships and networking," Brown said, "Some women will spend $400 on a bag or shoes but not $25 to go to a networking event."


For some women, simply getting to the networking function is a challenge. A self-described introvert, Kelly Damron said approaching strangers terrified her, but she has come to realize the importance of networking to her business. As CEO of Prosper Strategic Finance, Damron provides finance and accounting consulting for retail, health care and nonprofit industries.


Damron also joined a leads group which gives her practice talking to people. "It gave me a place to build a circle of influence," she said. These tools helped Damron grow her business. "I'm working outside my comfort zone," she said. "For me that's a measure of success."



The mommy track


Some women have difficulty balancing parenthood and career. It's one of the reasons Damron left the corporate world to start her own company. She and her husband wanted children and needed fertility treatments. This meant a lot of time at the doctor's office during business hours. "If I had been in a corporate environment I would have been fired," Damron said.


The entrepreneur's twins were born seven weeks early, which meant Damron spent the better part of two months at the hospital. Being her own boss means she can dictate her schedule and allow herself the time to be with her family.


Nowadays her healthy 18-month-old twins are playing in the next room as she works from a home office. "Even though I'm not the one feeding them and playing with them, if I want to take a break to be with them I can," Damron said. "That's a huge reward."


Damron added that such intrinsic successes are often more important than money. Aside from working from home and not being hooked to a corporate schedule, she can plan her lunches and meetings around traffic. A certified public accountant who works for herself, Damron can control stress by choosing the types of work she does. She prefers strategic planning, so she does not do taxes.


Damron also sets her own deadlines and chooses her own customers. "If I don't want to work with someone, I don't have to," she said.



Emotional intelligence as means to alleviate stress


Not everyone wants to give up the corporate world for entrepreneurship. Maintaining a healthy personal life and a successful career can prove challenging, especially with technology blurring the line between home and work.


For this reason, Gendron said it is crucial for women to set boundaries between their personal lives and their careers. "Have some rituals to make the transition," Gendron said. "Close the doors at the end of the day and focus on your personal and family life."


It's tougher to solve problems under stress -- blood pressure rises and less blood flows to the brain, she said. "You find yourself speaking from the most primitive part of brain," Gendron said. "You may say things you don't mean and then you wind up saying, 'I don't know what happened.'"


Gendron called this "neural hijacking." In her master's level emotional intelligence (EI) class at ASU, Gendron teaches ways to circumvent stress that can lead to poor decision-making and even more stress. Use your emotional intelligence to motivate yourself and persist in the face of frustration, she said, to control impulses and delay gratification, regulate moods and keep distress from swamping your mind -- to empathize and to hope.


"Most of us are communicating with people who are in a hurry, who want a quick fix, and want to hear agreement," Gendron said. "EI helps you slow down the world, listen to disagreement … emotional aptitude determines how well we can use whatever other skills we have, including raw intellect."


Women must learn to manage themselves well by organizing time and energy, eating nutritionally, getting some sunshine, walking and getting enough sleep. "Don't give your power away to stress, food or alcohol," Gendron said.


Candace Joseph, an MBA student who works at Intel, thought she was good at dealing with stress until she took Gendron's class. After seeing her heart rate and blood pressure rise while talking about her job, she instituted a few changes that have made a vast difference in her life: "All those things we know and don't practice -- get out and walk, take a walking meeting, meditation, control breathing, go to a happy place." Joseph said. "These are things you can learn and do in everyday life."


Joseph said Gendron taught her a short exercise to restore balance. She called it her "island of calm" and she uses it at the office when things get busy. It involves closing her eyes, placing a hand over her heart, imagining breathing from the heart and recalling a positive memory. "It works," Joseph said.


Gendron also encourages her students to write down their goals and refer to them daily so they can see the progress they make. "Some days I fall short; we all do, we can't beat ourselves up over it," Joseph said. "You have to appreciate yourself."


Bottom line:

  • There are many paths to success; explore your options and choose what fits you.
  • Achieve your goals on your own terms, in your own time.
  • Get educated, get experience and network with peers.
  • Choose to live well to alleviate stress at work and at home.