Don’t Just 'Lean In': 10 Ways Women Entrepreneurs and Leaders Should Take Action Now

Standing almost a foot taller than most boys throughout my adolescence had at least one clear benefit: I’ve always been a girl’s girl. Whether bonding over shared passions, revealing our deepest secrets, or supporting each other through challenging times, I wouldn’t be who I am today without the amazing women in my life.
Now the founder of a soon-to-launch tech startup called AMP, it’s no surprise that I’ve found myself at events hosted by Girls in Tech LA, Women 2.0 and Dell’s Women Empowerment Network. It was at The Next Billion conference in San Francisco last month that I just couldn’t shake a common feeling I’d been having at these events. Something was missing (besides men)—there was a palpable lack of guardedness or need to prove, creating space instead for genuine laughter, authentic displays of vulnerability, and wisdom-packed lessons learned. The women on stage were not just embracing the strength and versatility of their femininity; they were sharing it without any apparent fear of attack.
Contrast this with intense recent criticisms of Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer (for disallowing remote working) and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg (for not being relatable enough to lead a women’s movement, and omitting systemic changes needed for progress in her new book: Lean In) and it’s understandable why successful women may feel the need to put up a guard. But Sandberg firmly argues that we must instead “lean into" this discomfort and engage in gender-related debate, as “ignoring the issue is a classic survival technique” and “shutting down discussion is self-defeating and impedes progress.”
In reading these words I could identify my own tendency to ignore social inequalities I simply wish did not exist. I’ve watched myself use every other descriptive word possible before mentioning a person’s race or sexual orientation, knowing full well that doing so might be the fastest identifier. I’ve pretended to be a “guy’s girl” when working in male-dominated industries (i.e., video games and tech) to fit in and avoid having to understand or articulate my emotional needs. I’ve even referred to previous female bosses as the “b” word in the company of men, likely attempting to create distance and appear more likeable.
Indeed, research shows that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. In order to be liked, writes Sandberg, “we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others. We put ourselves down before others can.” I couldn’t help but wonder: Is my confessional writing style not solely an attempt to be authentic, but also a form of self-defense?
In a recent piece for Salon, Linda Hirshman reminds us that “social change movements usually consist of outsiders, which leads to a suspicion of, if not outright hostility to, people like Sandberg, who have made it.” Al Gore spoke similarly when discussing the increased intensity of climate change deniers, suggesting it’s actually a positive sign that we’re nearing a tipping point. But why has Brené Brown, who has a very similar message to Sandberg and is leading a women’s movement focused on embracing vulnerability and Daring Greatly, experienced virtually no backlash? It seems to be this cross-section of women in business, and positions of power historically held by men, that’s particularly triggering.
Sandberg speaks broadly about the need for more female leaders, but focuses mostly on seizing opportunities available within existing organizations, failing to mention female entrepreneurship— my one criticism of the book. And I’m guessing I’m not alone. Forbes did declare 2013 “The Year of the Woman Entrepreneur” after all, and the growing number of online resources available to support female entrepreneurs can, at times, feel overwhelming. AMP aims to help, by organizing the best information and resources for sustainability students, professionals, and social entrepreneurs (with “women” as one of the many keyword tags).
During a recent discussion with the founder of Bettyvision, a vision-boarding platform empowering women to follow their dreams, the topic of how to best access venture capital and angel investment came up. This is another reality that I’ve been choosing to ignore as I continue cultivating relationships with potential investors: A mere 2-3 percent of venture funding and 12 percent of angel investment went towards women-led companies in 2011, which makes little sense given research published by Dow Jones showing venture-backed companies that include more women on their executive management teams are more likely to succeed.
Surely, we need more men investing in women. But we also need more women sitting at the investor table. Women are very comfortable donating to nonprofits; older women give a whopping 89 percent more of their income to charity than men, according to a study from the Women's Philanthropy Institute. But it seems more financial education is needed for women to feel confident as investors of for-profit ventures. MakinSense Babe is determined to make financial news and investment strategy easier to understand and more fun by boiling it down to the basics, and creating videos that both educate and entertain. Her site does not specifically target women but non-finance people in general because, as the tagline says, “Finance People Are Annoying.” It’s not the solution, but it’s one place to start.
Here are 10 other ways women can take action right now:
  • Stop talking about being a victim—words become beliefs that become reality. Be a positive voice in the gender conversation, and look for the gratitude and lessons in every situation.
  • Smile and say “thank you” when complimented.
  • Practice having honest and open dialogue—start with family or close friends and then move outwards. Be mindful of appropriateness, but eventually this kind of authentic vulnerability and boundary setting will feel seamless, natural, and empowering.
  • Don’t wait for an invitation—ask for what you want (watch this for inspiration). Nobody can read your mind, and life becomes much more fun when it’s interactive.
  • Stop discrediting your achievements, and do not apologize your way out of the discomfort you feel as a result of your growth. Own it.
  • If you’ve been talking about wanting to do something for a while, seek support and GO DO IT. Your taking action gives others permission to do the same (watch this for inspiration).
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself, and let go of the desire to be perfect. Watch as your frustrations with other people’s imperfections ease (read this for inspiration).
  • If you feel competitive with another woman, reach out and offer to help her out. It’s amazing what counter-action (and a little kindness) can do to dissolve negative feelings. Do this for yourself—resentment is toxic only to the one harboring it.
  • Stop obsessing and talking about your guilt. This self-centeredness stalls needed progress. Instead, use your emotions as a guidepost, allowing you to course-correct at anytime.
  • Raise your hand, and keep it up.
  • \n
Continue the conversation at LeanIn.Org.\n
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