09/09/2011 07:31 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2011

My Bright Orange Suit

Twenty-five years ago I was an ambitious young Latina starting a new job, wanting to make a great first impression. I planned the outfit I was going to wear so I would stand out and be noticed. That day everyone looked at me and I felt great about the impression I was making. My hiring partner and mentor later told me that my bright orange silk suit with large gold buttons had definitely made an impression, especially since everyone else was dressed in conservative navy suits with white shirts.
I don't have that suit anymore but I remember the lessons of that day. I was different from many people in my new environment. I could either be scared of that difference and let it hold me back or I could use it, learn from it and teach others about difference too. I chose the latter and have built my career largely based on that and other early experiences. In fact, I have made inclusion and diversity my mission.
I remember early in my career feeling isolated because I was different. The culture I came from wasn't represented in my organization. I once attended a networking event and felt so out of place that I went to the ladies room and spent the evening talking with the attendant. These early experiences showed me the necessity of inclusiveness.
At one point I was ready to quit because I felt I did not belong. My mentor said, "You can leave or you can stay and make a difference for others. If you stay, I'll help you." This strong sponsorship helped me stay and become an advocate for diversity.
In the early days of my career it was common to have no women senior leaders in a group or no women on a panel at an industry conference. And, it would turn out that there was also no discussion of why there were no women or which women could be invited... it wasn't a topic at all. Today that is different and there is more general awareness of inclusion and diversity. But, like most things, we still have work to do.
My main message these days is confidence. I can't overemphasize how important confidence is for women to move solidly into senior leadership. Much of the structural work regarding diversity has been done - laws against discrimination; increasing numbers of women, including Latina women, going to college; companies creating diversity programs and putting inclusion on the CEO agenda.
Now we must have more confidence than we've ever had before. We must have the confidence to take on stretch roles and say "Yes, I can" even when there will be a steep learning curve. We have to be confident to go for the top job. We have to encourage our peers and be confident in their abilities. And we have to confidently ask for help. Skills alone aren't enough. Women must be confident about what we bring to the table and confident enough to rally a network around us. You have to raise your hand, be vocal about your expectations and aspirations, ask for mentors and sponsorship, go see your favorite woman speak, and ask for her help. Make sure you and your accomplishments are noticed. Remember, you may work hard, but people still won't automatically notice even if you are wearing an orange suit.
And, if you are a senior woman, you have to help... do not say I'm too busy. I may be 25 years into my career but I still remember my differences and have learned to see them as benefits. "It takes a village" is a phrase that often refers to rearing children but it's true in other areas too, including getting more women into top jobs.
These women who come behind us, asking for our help and striving for the CEO seat are in your village, they are your family and they will be your legacy. So share your time and experience, your confidence and advocacy... share your heritage with them.