In a sea of black dresses at the MBA Women International's awesome conference last week in Phoenix, it was difficult to stand out. Yet I couldn't help but notice an energetic young woman with blond hair and light brown streaks stride through the crowded ballroom. She wore a shiny gold cocktail dress and an air of confidence.
The next day she came to a session I was speaking at on entrepreneurship and afterward we had a lively conversation about juggling life's glass balls and rubber balls. On this morning, Laura had bright yellow glasses with no lenses on her head and frankly, the look really didn't work for me. But Laura was one of a few hundred MBA candidates being courted by companies in America -- ATT, Walmart, Intel, SAP, Sam's Club and a dozen more Fortune 500 companies -- so I wanted to learn more about her.
Like any strong current or future leader, Laura drew me in with great stories, including the time she was literally abandoned in the Himalayas by a team she was working with on a startup (and no, they were not sherpas).
As I got to know Laura better she opened up even more. After working for IBM -- a great experience for her in many ways -- she wanted to demonstrate that she was not just 'a suit,' but an individual. Her gold dress was "tasteful" and "fun" in my view, but I definitely thought she should lose the glasses-without-glass.
The whole Laura package really worked for me, though, and I wanted to help her get a job. Not just any job, but the right job for her. I secured her an on-the-spot private interview with two senior leaders at American Airlines who shared with me that they are looking for 'entrepreneurial' MBAs for their leadership program and that 17 women have risen to high ranks out of that program.
From my meeting with Laura high, I went to a panel session low. The topic: living, essentially, in a man's world. Some of the tips: Consider playing golf, get in and get out fast in making a point (aka don't use too much air time at meetings) hit the happy hours so you are 'in the game' with your male colleagues, how to deflect comments from older colleagues like "well before you were born... "
The panel points depressed me and made me appreciate even more that I was in a fortunate position these past 20 years -- leading a team of mostly women and men who were changing the game. The concept of not speaking up, playing golf, sitting pretty, being lesser than, changing oneself to work with boys and men in their 'sandbox' seemed like we were all moving back to an episode of Mad Men, but without Johnny Walker being poured at 10am.
But rather than wallow in my HonestTea, I found a quiet alcove of the hotel and began to envision a clear and lucrative playing field for women off the golf course. Frankly, I see a game where we can all embrace our yellow glasses freely and better leverage our creativity and comparative advantages.
And for the ladies in that game, I have 5 pieces of advice:
1) OWN IT! You're awesome! A lot of women expressed having an 'imposter syndrome' that they are somehow not enough and if they are successful it's just luck. There is a rap song I love by local D.C. artist Go Remy and the words are -- "Yo, I have an MBA, yeah, a Master's of Being Amazing!" It's not luck, so take it in and build daily your merit based self-esteem.
2) HELP OTHERS WIN -- Be aware of others and see how you can help them succeed. Relationships are currency in this new economy. Collect amazing people in your personal and LinkedIn networks. Understand their pain points and their dreams and help them move the needle forward.
3) DON'T PLAY GOLF -- unless you really like golf. I'll confess here I am a tech girl and way too ADD to spend hours on the course. I can't tell you how many women and men in the generation above me have encouraged me to take up golf. Maybe I am wrong here, but I'd much rather go to the spa and have a hot stone massage or throw a few softballs around. One of my colleagues is a great golfer, so he can network on the golf course and I can network in five dozen other places of my choosing.
4) CONSIDER WORKING FOR A SMALL BUSINESS -- Or a somewhat funded startup... We hire 37 percent of the employees in America, yet we are under 100 people each. People like Laura can be free to be themselves in small business and hit heights of leadership faster. Right now there are four generations of humans in the workforce, so look for the best culture for you and pick wisely.
5) SWING THE BAT AS HARD AS YOU CAN -- I was the captain of the softball team during my senior year at Sidwell Friends High School, and every time I went up to bat I knew I would swing my hardest and go for it. Entrepreneurship is more than about making money; it's about playing the game of life, and to me, now, it is also about personal freedom. If you want to go for it, go for it -- find a culture where you can be free and go for it, and this might include starting a business .
The thing is in business, cash is still queen. We all need to bring opportunities, partnerships and revenues in. This and being a great servant leader makes us indispensable and gives us more freedom to blaze our own trails.
I really hope you hit a home run, ladies and grow your free spirit in whatever course you choose. Remember that you have an option say NO to Golf or YES to Golf and to wear that shiny gold dress and pull out your bright yellow glasses, too. Embrace your own MBA, your Master of Being Amazing!
Julie Kantor is Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Barrel of Jobs, a new tech startup that crowdsources jobs and is putting America back to work.