Natalie Egan, 40
Not many of us get to see what life is like on both sides of the gender divide, but for transgender activist and tech entrepreneur, Natalie Egan, that unique vantage point has sparked an inspiring business idea. To help combat harassment and prejudice for others, the brilliant innovator founded Translator, a game-changing software that helps increase workplace empathy. “There is a ripple effect,” says Egan. “If we can make someone a little more empathetic it can actually save someone’s life.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
Since I was age 5, I remember being obsessed with solving problems and trying to start my own businesses. So of course, that became my career path––I am an entrepreneur! My current company, called Translator, is a B2B technology company dedicated to helping large organizations positively manage human interpersonal differences while fostering a more open and inclusive culture.
I started Translator based on my experience coming out as a transgender woman after spending the majority of my life as a white man with access, privilege, and resources. Long story short; I experienced bias, discrimination, and hatred for the first time and became obsessed with building a for-profit company that systematically promotes empathy and helps people be themselves. And while our ultimate vision at Translator is #EqualityForAll, my greatest achievement to date is just finally having the courage to be me.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
Ironically, my whole life I was told I could ‘be’ or ‘do’ anything I wanted, except the one thing that I wanted most: to be a woman. When I was born, I was “assigned male at birth” by a doctor and a society that never took into account my unique identity, how I want to express myself, my goals and aspirations, or who I am inside. I am not angry about it. We didn’t know any better. But we know better now and I won’t stand for it anymore. Not for me. Not for anyone. No one should be held back from living their truth and being their authentic self because of a body part, a skin tone, an ability, a belief, or anything. In my opinion, we are all humans and all humans are created equally.
3. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
As a transgender woman, I now face stereotypes and challenges that I never experienced in my life. People openly and blatantly discriminate against me. Others refuse to look me in the eye or won’t sit next to me. They pull their children away from me when I enter the room. When I walk down the street I don’t know if I am going to be verbally or physically attacked. I am told that I am mentally sick or perverted and that I can't go to the bathroom. And these are just a few of the challenges I face navigating the real world––let alone pursuing my career dreams. But none of this slows me down anymore. When people doubt or judge me it actually make me stronger. I am no longer bound by the limitations of other people's expectations. When I first figured out I was transgender I was so scared, but I no longer see being trans as a weakness. It is now truly my competitive advantage. My experience and point of view gives me a mental toughness in the business world that very few people can match.
4. What did you learn through your personal journey?
For me, #SWAAYINGthenarrative was about taking the ultimate risk. What if I just tried it? What if I was just me?
The reality is that I was programed my whole life to believe that transgender people were somehow “less than” everyone else. So much so, that when I finally figured out I was trans, I nearly killed myself. I had lost everything at that point. My marriage was in shambles and I had been fired from the company that I started by the CEO that I put in. But suicide would have been the easy way out and put those that judged me in a position of power and control. The moment of clarity and opportunity came to me when I realized I had nothing else to lose. I thought to myself, who cares what other people think? I am just going to be me and see what happens.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
My advice to all women and all people in marginalized communities is the same: Just be you. Don’t be afraid. It isn’t going to be easy but when you do it and do it consistently and authentically, good things will happen. People will be drawn to you and people are portals of opportunity. You are never going to be or do everything you want by yourself, no matter how strong you are. You need people and the best way to do that, in my humble opinion, is to just be yourself.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.