In January of 2014 my snowflake of an idea turned into an avalanche, and all I could do was get out of the way.
Starting an event series for girls, another company, or a non-profit weren’t things I had ever planned on doing. Never even entered my mind. I have a busy day job, a young daughter, and I’m actually trying to become a professional kiteboarder, which takes practice.
I often get asked what it’s like to be a woman CEO in a high tech city like Seattle, in the fast growing field of User Experience. My standard answer used to be; ‘It’s great, and by the way, why does everyone keeping asking?’ Until the reply became a pattern. ‘Well, it’s pretty uncommon. There aren’t a lot of women leading companies, especially in high tech.’
The more I heard this, the more I started hearing it. I noticed it on the news, on the radio, in the paper, magazines, and in conversations all around me. ‘Why are there no women leading companies?’ or worse is the statement, ‘There are no women leading companies.’ I was becoming more and more irritated every day. I would do little experiments to see how long I could keep the morning news on before I heard a limiting statement about women, and had to shut it off.
I firmly believe that you look for, and find evidence to support your beliefs. And that society can shape our beliefs, whether they are good for us – or bad. So if the people around us, the news, the TV are all telling us there are no women leading companies, we are likely to believe it and find evidence to support it. Try for an hour just thinking about the color yellow and you’ll see what I mean. Suddenly you’ll see it everywhere. You’ll wonder why there is more yellow in the world than the hour before. Our brains are powerful.
The straw that broke my camel’s back came when I read the December issue of Powder Magazine. There was a six-page spread about our local skier, Ingrid Backstrom – the world’s most popular professional freeride skier. It was a fantastic article, except for the paragraph that said, despite Ingrid’s success, being a professional skier was nearly impossible for women and the ski movie biz was a flat out dog-eat-dog world. Naturally, they added how this mirrors the corporate world. Grrrr.
Shortly after, I saw Ingrid in the lift line I asked her about the article. She shook her head saying she didn’t know where they got that. Much to my surprise, I found myself asking her if she would be willing to come to my office for our next speaker series. An event we host at Blink for the local community to enjoy speakers on all subjects. I was thinking it would be fun to fill our office with a bunch of girls and talk about what is possible, and hear from Ingrid first-hand how much support she gets and how fun it is to be a professional skier. I expected her to smile and say she was too busy. But instead, she said ‘I would love to, how about May?’ And so it began…
By May, I had rented a (one-time special occasion) hall, invited a few more speakers (while I was at it) and a lot of girls. The Benaroya Hall is the opulent home of the Seattle Symphony, where all 10 of the speakers that I invited – out of the blue, showed up (only 2 of the 10 knew me). They each gave ‘Ted style’ talks about their lives and careers, their challenges, hard starts and triumphs, to an audience of 500 girls. I had pulled this off with support from one volunteer and did the rest at night, lunch time and weekends, and paid for it all out of my savings account.
My goal was to showcase what is going well, and give girls a vision to move towards. To show them what women are doing and encourage them, that with hard work, a belief in what is possible, some role models, that women will soon be leading in equal numbers.
Since then, I have tried to stop this little non-profit dozens of times due to pure exhaustion and lack of funds, but it won’t let go. The inspiration was contagious and it keeps coming back. Every time I’m about to quit, I get a note from a girl whose life was changed by one little event. By a few words she heard from one of our speakers. Don’t give up. Believe in yourself. Believe in your idea. Surround yourself with positive, supportive people. Failure builds strength, embrace it. Each time you get knocked down, you will come back stronger. Courage is something you can grow…
So with the ‘go big or go home’ philosophy, Girls Can Do is now a National event series, hosting events in every major city around the US and then the world, with the mission to: Inspire a generation of Possibility Thinkers and Ignite a vision for equal opportunity. To encourage young women to have big dreams and pursue them, and believe that anything is possible.
Now when I get asked what’s it like to be a woman CEO, I say, ‘Let me tell you, it’s great, and I’m in good company.’ And then I give examples of the 100 other women leaders they should call next.
By Karen Clark Cole
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