Cindy Eckert, 44
Thinking pink is a way of life for Cindy Whitehead. The spirited pharma-tech entrepreneur, known for her liberal use of the color pink and for the $1B sale of her female sexual health company, is laser-focused on helping female entrepreneurs flourish. In 2016, she founded The Pink Ceiling, an innovative incubator which looks to build female-lead brands into success stories. “For those who thought I couldn’t do it,” says Whitehead, “I’d say the same thing to them today that I said then….watch me.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
Maybe entrepreneurship chose me? I most certainly didn’t fit in conventional corporate environments and was exasperated with the homogeneity and unwritten rules of how things get done. I recognized that ownership was my path to freedom; freedom to do things on my own terms, freedom to surround myself with other misfits who wanted to change how things get done and financial freedom.
"After building and selling two businesses, my greatest accomplishment is the ripple effect of ownership. I love watching the power that ownership has given to my employees to do their best work, to follow their passions and to pay it forward."
After building and selling two businesses, my greatest accomplishment is the ripple effect of ownership. I love watching the power that ownership has given to my employees to do their best work, to follow their passions and to pay it forward. That is the very basis of what I do today at The Pink Ceiling/Pinkubator--propel power through ownership. I’m going to help other female-focused businesses to have outcomes like mine and delight in watching each of their ripple effects.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
I was told I was too Pink to be Boss. Now I have lipstick in that custom shade.
"I was told I was too Pink to be Boss. Now I have lipstick in that custom shade."
3. What was the hardest part of overcoming this negativity? Do you have an anecdote you can share?
If you were to introduce an audience to a pharmaceutical CEO who has built and sold two businesses, the last for $1B, do you think they’d ever expect me to walk onto stage? Never. Now picture that for every major career milestone of my life! Bottom line, I am unexpected; I am pink in a sea of gray and blue suits. The fact that I don’t fit ensures that I will be underestimated, and the fun is letting that reality fuel me. I learned a long time ago to not allow underestimation to fill me with self doubt, but rather to harness it for the element of surprise when I show up and kill with competence.
4. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
I went right toward it.
With stereotypes you have two choices; you can rail against them to prove they are incorrect or you can go directly toward them since it’s obviously the conversation we need to be having. I show up in blazing hot pink. Always. I like pink and no one is going to take that away from me. When people called my medication the “little pink pill” the only thing missing was the dismissive pat on the shoulder.
So, I went to FDA meetings in hot pink since it was the dismissiveness of women’s sexual health that needed discussing. Pink to me is about owning it as a woman - and all you uniquely have to offer. For those who thought I couldn’t do it, I’d say the same thing to them today that I said then….watch me.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
I feel strongly that society is full of “unwritten rules” that hold women back. If a ‘rule' exists for absolutely no good reason at all, break it. Let the injustice ignite you.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.