2min readBusiness 23 July 2019
Over the last year, I've been asked a lot about how it feels to be a female in the predominantly male advertising industry. More often than not I respond with a puzzled look because truth be told, I have never really faced adversity in my career. So, I have to wonder why? Why has my experience been different than so many others? After all, it's true – I'm a female Creative Director, and when I started climbing the career ladder I was one of the 3%. I have worked for men in almost all of my jobs, sat in many conference rooms where I was the only female, and yet I still didn't feel like this was any kind of “predicament."
I needed to understand WHY.
What I discovered was a commonality among the people I surrounded myself with and worked for. As I moved along my career path, and interviewed and accepted positions, I ended up working for men who naturally empower women. These men were expressive, kind mentors who challenged me and wanted to give me the floor when I was ready. No different than the way people have habits in romantic relationships, being drawn to people who may treat them in a certain way (good or bad!) – I believe I had a natural inclination towards bosses who would give me responsibility, let me shine, mentor me with respect, value my opinion, but most importantly allow me to challenge them.
Challenging myself and those around me is part of my DNA, and something that I am realizing comes from my Jewish upbringing. Growing up, I attended private yeshivahs where it was common to juggle nine Hebrew subjects, many of which were devoted to “probing ancient Jewish texts" to seek deeper meaning and truth.
These were deep commentaries where one could spend hours agonizing about the meanings behind a single word or examining multiple viewpoints.
This habit of questioning everything was prized growing up, and “thinking for oneself" was a quality I was encouraged to embody.
At the time, I probably complained about staying in school for 12 hours, but now I am thankful I have the rigor to volley with the best strategists, argue the merits of a headline, question the briefs, or our goals and objectives. At the heart of this learning style is also the ability to walk around and see things empathetically from various points of view.
As I envision the environments in which women don't succeed - it is where their opinion is not equal, or valued or if they aren't being HEARD or given the credit nor credence of their point of view. It's not like I haven't encountered the industry clichés.
I have had to shut down unwelcome advances, and have shouted above the fray of male colleagues with a booming voice, but I now realize that I am lucky it wasn't worse. I was fortunate to be spared a lot of what has plagued my industry – women who have been shamed, coerced and made to feel uncomfortable. Sadly, it is becoming clear that my situation is unique.
So, my advice to women of all ages, ethnicities, level of seniority and even industry: Be careful where you spend your time - don't just size up the work opportunities when deciding on your next move - consider the ecosystem.
Think about the way you felt in an interview, ask to meet the people you will be working with directly – make sure the environment is hospitable towards not just you, but women as a whole. Even after you have accepted a position - always continue asking yourself if you feel heard, supported and equal. If the answer is no, move on and find your tribe - because it's out there, I promise you.
We are living in exciting times – with a seismic shift upon us – #metoo and #timesup are not just moments- but movements that are defining our here and now and also creating a BEFORE and an AFTER. They are allowing our shared voices to have power, and conversations to be had out loud.
I hope this movement makes it easier for any woman to walk away from a situation that doesn't serve her – and to find support. Women are lifting others up in a way that I didn't see when I was moving through the ranks- and it's thrilling to witness.
I know that as a female leader in my field, the most important role I have is possibly as a shelter – where other women can come to talk or seek advice, but it is also my job to create a safe, welcoming environment for anyone who hasn't had a voice in the past.
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19 AugustFresh Voices
Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses
Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.
I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.
The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony
The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.
I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.
I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.
I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke
I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.
I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.
From Paper to Digital
We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.
The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.
I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.
I second guessed myself all the time.
A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.
I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.