Tamzin B. Smith Portrait Photography
4 Min ReadCulture 20 February 2020
We have fought this battle before. We fought, we won, and yet were unable to claim a total victory
This is what ran through my head in 2017 when I was deciding whether to break my non-disclosure agreement with WNYC and talk publicly about the bullying and harassment I'd endured while working there. I wondered, "Are women doomed to fight the same battle over and over, generation after generation?"
As a journalist who had covered the issue of sexual harassment and discrimination for years, I already knew several facts about my situation.
- Tens of thousands of women had been in the same or similar situation
- Some had fought and won
- Some had fought and lost
- Neither the wins nor the losses had significantly changed the daily working lives of women
Before I decided what to do, I did even more research in the hopes that I could learn from what other women had gone through. As the novelist George Santayana once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
One of the first stories I read was about Lisa Mays and the women who sued Wall Street. Mays was sexually assaulted while working at Smith Barney and she filed a class action suit against the firm, along with 22 other women. Almost 2,000 women ended up joining the suit, and Smith Barney paid $150 million dollars to settle the case.
One woman told the Washington Post at the time that "It's like they have a manual in their heads as to how to crush women." The case was nicknamed the "Boom-Boom-Room," after an actual room in the firm's Garden City office where male executives consumed vast amounts of alcohol, made lewd comments, and groped multiple women. Think The Wolf of Wall Street, but real life and no Leonardo DiCaprio.
The women who filed the suit were battling mandatory arbitration, a system that forced them to handle complaints within the company and generally take their sexual harassment and assault accusations to white, male arbitrators. One broker allegedly told his female employee that charges of sexual harassment would be dealt with in the Boom-Boom-Room.
Those brave women won their case and helped establish legal precedent for claims of sexual harassment in the workplace. And yet, here we are decades later and 55% of workers who report harassment are still subject to mandatory arbitration. That's more than double the number in the early 2000s. Despite the court victory in the 1990s, one Wall Street lawyer told the New York Times that about 90% of her clients are blocked from legal relief because of binding arbitration agreements. Furthermore, employers have found other ways to silence their workers, like the non-disclosure agreement that I signed when I took the job at WNYC. I chose to speak up in 2017, breaking the NDA that I signed and risking legal action.
One of the great benefits of hosting the show "Retro Report" on PBS is that our mission is to bring greater understanding of today's events by tracing them back to their roots in history. We talked about the #MeToo movement, for example, by telling the story of Lisa Mays and the other women who sued Smith Barney.
Knowing our history, as George Santayana implied, can give us context and insight to better inform our current experience. Even recent history can help. While mulling over my options in 2017, I called the other women who had preceded me in my position to hear what they'd endured and how they'd handled it.
Despite the lessons of both recent and distant history, I was faced with a decision between remaining silent and safe or speaking up to protect the future but risking retaliation. I may have learned from the past but my employers had not. Or, perhaps we had both just learned very different lessons.
A number of the women who were part of the Boom-Boom-Room suit now say that change has been incremental or non-existent in financial firms. If anything, they say, legal victories have simply made the harassment and discrimination more subtle than in was during the heyday of 1990s bro culture.
To quote another famous philosopher, Georg Hegel once said "We learn from history that we do not learn from history." Time and again, we see that mistakes of the past are made by ensuing generations in a never-ending cycle of bad choices with little retribution.
If we are to truly learn from history, it can only be done by examining our past with a clear and honest eye, not seeking to excuse or justify anyone but, instead, to avoid the errors of our elders. I've learned to never sign away my right to justice. I hope other women will learn the same lesson from my experience and the experience of all the women who have come before me. We have fought this battle before. It's time to claim true victory: an end to the contract clauses that seek to silence us.
This piece was originally published September 30, 2019.
3 Min Read
"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.
Find A Need And Fill It
I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.
Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.
Have Working Capital And Credit
There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.
I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.
Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.
My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.
Know Your Product Thoroughly
I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?
My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.
My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!
More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.
Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth
I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.
I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.
Delegate From The Bottom Up
I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.
In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.