May 15, 2014

Owning the Woman Card — At Last

I was Lisa’s only granddaughter in a sea of five grandsons.
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Today I learned another invaluable lesson from my grandmother, whom we called “Lisa.” Lisa was not present for the teaching; she died at age 98 in 2005.

I was Lisa’s only granddaughter in a sea of five grandsons. She always said there was something special about me being a girl. Beyond my gender singularity, Lisa believed in me. She told me again and again that I was uniquely talented, that I was meant to do or be something extraordinary.

Born in 1907 into a Jewish family in Mobile, Alabama, Elisa Morningstar was exceptional. She was one of eight children, and she gained admission to the New England Conservatory in Boston for college. I can hardly imagine the courage of landing in an elite northeastern town in the 1920s with that southern accent. She married her husband in Boston, and he died when their children were 16 and 10 (my dad). With no real option for income, Lisa set out to marry a wealthy man to support her kids. With a level of charm present until the moment of her death, she married for money. I think she was proud of her ingenuity and pragmatism. And she always missed the love of her life.

After Lisa died, my cousins and I were sorting through her papers, and we found an essay she had written in high school. The subject was the ladies auxiliary. Lisa delivered a subtle and sardonic assault on women’s groups, which she felt were home to silliness and frivolity. In these last weeks, this essay has connected the dots for me.

I have been struggling mightily with my aversion to claiming myself as a “woman entrepreneur,” or a “female” CEO, mentor or investor. I’ve historically avoided the gender descriptor, but I never understood the crux of my resistance. I like men. I get along great with men. I have felt we should all be held to the same standards. I’ve always measured up well against those.

Recently, however, something changed. I attended a conference and watched a six-person panel on business development that was comprised entirely of men. First, I was angry. It wasn’t a panel on aftershave but a topic on which many women I knew could speak insightfully. More recently, I posted a startup CEO role on Linked In. The results? Only five percent of the 200+ applicants for a publicly advertised role at a small company were women. Then Obama spent a week talking about the persistent pay gap. I read a blog that said the accelerator selection process favored young, “persistent” men. We all read theConfidence Gap piece in the Atlantic. I moved from anger to sadness, and then to conviction.

Look, I want to live in a world that is blind to racial and gender differences (as well as the others). And I don’t. For whatever reasons, women in business have not mended the rift in areas of leadershipstartup accelerator participation, and venture investment. I have been working with women on confidence issues and the barriers to their potential for much of my life. I decided it was time to get clean, to admit that I am well-suited to make a difference. If I am unwilling to try, who can I expect to step forward?

I also gained clarity about my resistance to the “female” label for me. I think I had adopted the stereotype that the label would render me weak. I wanted to preserve my track record for being “enough” to keep up with the boys too. I saw that I was insidiously perpetuating the very stereotypes against which I recoiled.

It’s time to end that pattern. I’m ready to address these issues directly as my primary purpose of my work. To that end, I am committed to creating a fund or an “accelerator” that focuses exclusively on female-run businesses. We would not only be choosing from women-led firms, but we would be designing a program that works uniquely well for women business leaders. We will be seeking these companies and these leaders out, with an invitation that is less likely to be ignored. Although our target companies will be led by women, our effort will be inclusive, leveraging the talents of all types of people who share our commitment.

After a lifelong ambivalence on this topic, I feel focused and sure-footed. When I first came up with this idea, I wrote down the names of two women, and they are both not only available, they are both willing to make material changes in their paths to make this concept a reality. We share the same equivocal approach to women’s groups as my grandmother.

We will endeavor to make ourselves obsolete, whether that takes one year or ten. We will not be the only group doing this (thank goodness); we will be one more thumb on the scale, and we think that matters. Moreover, we think this focus has a brilliant business rationale in choosing to invest time and dollars into women-led firms, which, on average, are high performers with strong returns.

The details will follow, including the identity of the astonishing “we” and more plans about the “what” and the “when.” This is, I guess, the “why,” and I would be enormously grateful for your thoughts.

I wish I’d been more clear about the steps my grandmother walked to make my journey possible. I wish I’d known then what she meant when she said (again and again) that I was meant to do something powerful. I get it now, Lisa. Thank you for the inordinate gifts of talent, conviction, courage, and your boundless love.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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