As a Vietnamese immigrant growing up in the 80s and 90s in America, I didn’t see many women running companies and definitely didn’t see any female Vietnamese immigrants leading businesses in America. But I was very fortunate enough to see a strong female, my mom, work hard to make a living and learn English, so her children could live the American dream.
She constantly encouraged me and told me that in America, anything was possible. And so I learned at a young age, that the power of a strong woman can be passed along to another woman. Now, being the Founder & CEO of my own tech company, I realize the important role I play in female empowerment. Feeling empowered allows me to empower other women.
Today, women represent only 5.4% of CEO’s in the S&P 500 Companies, while make up 44.3% of the total employees. Our opportunity is to support as many of those total females employees, so they can have an opportunity to make it to the top.
Photo: HBS WSA
There are many great female focused events, panels and conferences nowadays. All with the aim to bring women together and have the much needed discussions about how to even the playing field. I recently attended and spoke on a panel at Harvard Business School’s WSA (Women Student Association) annual conference. The conference aims to empower and celebrate the next generation of female leaders, and this year’s theme, Women Empowered, was intended to “promote discussions on what it means to be empowered and what it means to hold power”. With an impressive lineup of 100 female speakers and 22 panels tackling some very key issues facing women today, the conference provided me some valuable views on female empowerment:
1. Female Empowerment Starts At A Young Age
Anna Maria Chávez, CEO of Girls Scouts of America from 2011–2016, the first Latina woman to hold this position, shared that as the daughter of Mexican immigrants, she learned what empowerment was by supporting her mother's run for public office. She attributes feeling empowered by her mom and by the many supporters around her. But it was her experience of working with millions of 8 year old girls that taught her the importance of girls supporting each other. Empowerment starts at a very young age and can be one of the most powerful things we can do as females for each other. If we teach our young girls to support each other, they will continue to do so throughout their lives.
Anna Maria Chavéz by RealSimple
2. You can’t be what you can’t see: Feeling empowered shows others it’s possible
It’s hard not to be inspired by Jeanne Jackson. She is the President, special advisor to the CEO, of Nike. Jackson’s successful career includes being CEO of Banana Republic, leading e-commerce efforts for Gap, and CEO of Walmart.com. In addition, she has served on the board of Nordstrom, West Marine, Nike, Williams Sonoma, and Harrah’s, Delta, Kraft and McDonald’s. During her keynote to the conference attendees, she shared that when she attended Harvard Business School, only 10% of her class was female. She jokes that back then, most women attended Harvard Business School to find a desirable husband, since the odds were in your favor. But Jackson had a love for retail, and ambition inside of her that propelled her to being at the forefront of retail and e-commerce. She’s been the only women in many boardrooms throughout her career, but she never took herself “out of the game”. She stayed in, felt empowered to do so, and has showed us that it’s possible.
3. Intersectional diversity is very important
We can’t talk about gender diversity without racial diversity as well. I was one of four panelists on the “Diversity In Tech: Women’s Leadership in Effecting Change” panel. My fellow panelists included Asha Keddy of Intel, Catherine Allegra of Markit and Jen Cotton of Twitter. As female leaders in technology, we discussed our efforts to bring more diversity into technology and to our companies. Inclusion of all genders and backgrounds is very important to the technology industry, and being women and minorities in the industry, we have the opportunity to lead the change. Technology can greatly benefit from the inclusion of women and minorities.
4. Flexible workplaces are essential
Jackson of Nike said she hoped that the women at the conference don’t take themselves out of the game. This topic surfaced a lot across the 22 panels and workshops of the day. Do women have a fair choice when it comes to staying in the game? One of the most important issues facing women in their careers is the balance of motherhood and childbirth. At Intel, Keddy shared that they have paid “bonding leave” available to both men and women after childbirth. In “The Current State of Feminism” panel, Anna Auerbach, CEO of Werk, stressed the importance of companies to evolve and have a flexible workplaces so women have a fair chance to make “the choice” to stay in the game. Not be forced to take herself out or opt-out.
5. Being empowered allows you to empower others
Heidi Cruz, Managing Director at Goldman Sachs and a HBS alumni delivered the closing keynote of the conference. Cruz, a fascinating and strong woman who just happened to be married to Ted Cruz, stressed that being empowered meant being flexible to face life’s challenges and opportunities. Cruz said she wasn’t about to leave her career for a man, but she could for her country. And that supporting and serving others, like your country, can be empowering as well.
Vicky Au and Lisa Wang of the HBS WSA, reported that with 1,300 attendees, this was their largest conference to date. Attendees were made up of a mix of HBS students, undergraduate students and young professionals.
After speaking to many attendees about their experiences for the day, it became very clear to me that female empowerment begins with ourselves and continues with empowering other women. Conferences like these are very important because they show young women that they can be a part of the next generation of leaders. And as female leaders, we can help show young women what they can achieve and help empower them to get there. Because after all, power is not diminished by being shared, it can only grow stronger.
Being stared at by strangers is something I have become very accustomed to. Not because I am a beautiful, ethereal being that catches everyone's attention (but I will take it if that's what you're thinking), but in the way that I am a Black woman, a Black person, and people tend to notice my presence. I don't think there is a Black person out there that can deny knowing what it's like to be stared at by a random person.