It was last Fall and I was sitting in a meeting with a representative from a well-respected financial institution, at a conference I had tried for years to score an invite to. I had set up meetings with a variety of people from a range of companies, some with a goal of potentially partnering with, others to hear how they would value my business.
For this specific meeting, the goal was the latter. I thought the meeting was going really well – the gentleman was very impressed with the financials of the business, the growth year over year and the industries we were focused on. Just before we were wrapping up, he turns to me and says, "so what's the deal with all of this money I hear you donate to charity?" I explained to him that philanthropy has always been a core tenet of EvolveMKD, and for me personally, I've always felt that when you are lucky enough to have success, it is your responsibility to make the world around you a better place. The meeting then took a quick turn towards negative town – he immediately started lecturing me about how I was impacting the long-term value and potential sale price of EvolveMKD – saying that any investor, private equity company or services network would immediately look at that as a waste of revenue. I politely thanked him for his perspective and ended the meeting.
Let's start with the obvious falsehoods around his point of view. Good karma and doing the right thing aside, EvolveMKD specifically focuses on charities that empower women and children in the U.S., working with organizations ranging from Safe Horizon, a shelter for domestic violence victims, MaxInMotion, founded by our longtime client, Jonah Shacknai and DREAM, an after-school athletics program and charter school located in Harlem. These organizations provide the participants access to resources and programs that they didn't have before – for example, many of the kids that participate in DREAM are the first in their families to go to college. From my perspective, those are all future well-educated consumers of many of the clients my company represents. More consumers equal more business, which helps fuel my agency's future growth. We also have hosted many events for DREAM students in our offices, which has resulted in us finding talented and hardworking long-term interns. Most recently, we hosted a group of high-school and college-aged students from the DREAM organization, educating them on the public relations industry and offering career advice. To see our very own senior intern, who we discovered through DREAM, lead a presentation about PR and Digital marketing to a group of students her own age was truly a rewarding moment.
The other business angle that was never considered by the gentleman I met with is how amazing of a business development and recruiting tool a commitment to philanthropy can be for a company. While we don't go overboard promoting our philanthropic efforts, we do highlight our commitment as a core principle of the agency in every new business presentation we do, as having values that match, is an important component of a successful agency/client partnership.
More often than not, when we sign on a new client, our agency's commitment to philanthropy comes up as one of the top five reasons EvolveMKD stood out from the competition. In our recruiting, the candidates will often come to interviews, asking about the opportunity to involve causes that are near and dear to their hearts and how they can potentially work them into EvolveMKD's programming. It's also been a huge part of our company culture – between donating our time, meeting new people and the financial support we provide, it's given the team a chance to bond and see one another in a different light. Plus, it never hurts to be reminded how much we have to be grateful for, especially on tough days, when nothing seems to go right with clients.
As I reflected more on that meeting, and the gentleman's reaction, I really felt that he was missing the big picture. Not only are we redirecting dollars to those most in need and providing our employees with something bigger than themselves to believe in, we are building our bottom line through philanthropy. That meeting helped to cement to me that if I ever do decide to take on outside investment, a partner, and/or sell business, an important part of my vetting process will be to determine how the company across the negotiating table views philanthropy. Philanthropy should be seen as a 5-letter word and that is "smart".
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."