During Women's History Month, I'd like to salute the many female entrepreneurs, women who've broken through the glass ceiling to make tremendous contributions and become inspirations for what we can do when we pursue our goals. I think of self-made women like millionaire Madam C.J. Walker, who founded a successful line of beauty and hair products for Black women in the late 1800s, and billionaire Oprah Winfrey, who joined Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball as the first women in the American entertainment industry to own their own studios.
I believe these women and others like them have been "leaning in to their ambitions," as new Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg calls it, for decades. Yes, we need even more women to "lean in" and, in order for that to happen, society, its institutions and barriers must also "lean in" to the unique contributions that women can make.
I love how determined women find their way to success even when the path is not what they expected. Mary Kay Ash founded Mary Kay Cosmetics in 1963 after writing a book intended to inspire women, but which instead inspired her business because it became her marketing plan. Almost 10 years ago, I also wrote and published a book, Journey to the Top: 12 Steps to Take Charge of Your Career and Your Life. I did it without a big publisher, publicity or a well-financed marketing plan, so unsurprisingly, the book never became a bestseller or staple on the desks of women around the country.
This didn't matter to me because I wrote it during a period of great transition and, in some ways, it was the equivalent of thousands of dollars of couch therapy. My son had been diagnosed with autism, my mother had passed away a couple of years earlier, my mother-in-law was dying of cancer and my law partner and I had ended our decade-old business relationship. I needed to find purpose and meaning to the many things that were happening in my life.
Like many women, the thought of embarking on my own in the male-dominated legal field was daunting. I had the skills, I had the training, the Harvard Law degree -- but still, I hesitated. Still, I questioned my ability. Did I have that intangible that Sandberg and others say keeps women relegated to low-level positions, limited by the proverbial glass ceiling?
I believe I did have it, but I also had something else, and so I leaned in to my ambitions despite my fear. I decided I had no choice but to forge ahead using what has always gotten me through the toughest periods of my life: faith and hard work.
My book was about excelling and being successful, and it was the biggest pep talk I've ever given myself... it helped me pick myself up, harness my determination, find direction, realize that I could indeed lean in. Past and present women entrepreneurs have all relied on some similar brand of faith and hard work.
"Leaning into your ambitions" is never easy, and it means different things to different women: not everyone aspires to be a billionaire or marketing magnet. Wherever you are in your life, step out on your faith, rely on your intuition and lean into your unique dreams knowing you stand on the shoulders of generations of female business owners and leaders who've paved the way.
Follow Areva Martin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/arevamartin