I never thought being a woman in business was a disadvantage. I grew up in a household where my mother was the primary breadwinner. My father also worked full-time and took on the role as my main caregiver as my mother worked longer hours, went to college at night, and later became an executive for a major international bank. I listened in on accounting classes and as a young kid I spent the weekends at the bank with her. I learned to use my imagination and kept myself busy while she worked. There was no indication from my caregivers that a dream or goal would be unachievable due to life's circumstances or because I was a woman.
When I joined Wall Street, my learning curve was steep with a background in professional ballet and journalism. I became so preoccupied with trying to figure out what a high yield bond was that I did not have time to think about the fact that I was one of the few women on Wall Street. In the late 1990s, there were no "women's circles" or "diversity groups" or "power lunches with other women" like there are now. Never once it entered my mind "I cannot do this because I am a woman" and no one at my bank said, "Well, as a woman you should think about changing careers."
In 2006, while I was visiting business schools, an adviser to the private equity group at the University of Texas at Austin said to me after I expressed an interest in private equity that "Private equity firms do not hire women because women leave to go have babies and the life cycle of an investment is anywhere from three to five years." He then told me I should think about majoring in marketing and that I should really consider working at RadioShack corporate because they have a real marketing problem that is waiting to be solved. I was in a state of shock. I usually have something witty to say in times like these but I said nothing. I marched out of New Admit Weekend at the University of Texas and submitted my deposit to attend Northwestern University. At Northwestern, I majored in Finance, became a co-chair of the Private Equity Club and landed what was at that time my dream job.
Post MBA, I started to notice a few changes in the industry. I was liked enough by management to be coached but I was also being trained to act a certain way because I was viewed as "too passionate for middle-aged white men" (their words, not mine) and that moment is when something started to die within me. I am Cuban-American and I am also not a man. My career was smooth sailing when I just one of the minions whose job was to work like a horse. Top management would prove to be more about office politics and I did not want to play the game.
At Harvard, when I was working on my second master's degree, I was bombarded with statistics of inequality from lower wages to the dire number of women executives in corporate America. While I appreciated the information, I did not understand why we spent so much time talking about inequality and not enough time putting together a plan of attack to overcome it. The issues other women faced in their careers like not being direct enough, or not speaking their mind, or not leaning in, or not being assertive, were not my issues. I had the opposite problem. I was too direct and I did not just lean in, I would barge in. My coping strategy to "soften my image" was using humor as a way to defuse difficult situations, which had its own unique set of challenges.
Rather than continuing to feel like a square peg in the round hole, I changed careers driven primarily by my values system. I knew I wanted to be creatively free and I wanted to be in control of my own life. I think people with my personality type, which is ENTJ according to Myers-Briggs, are probably going to be happiest as an entrepreneur or working in an entrepreneurial environment where one can take part in shaping the company's core values. I knew I was never destined to be just another cog in the wheel and I did not want to play by anyone else's rules. I would set my own rules. Startups are not utopia, we have our own set of challenges particularly if you require funding but it's a game I am at least willing to play because there is a purpose. There is no purpose behind office politics other than ego and power.
I used to be obsessed with every article about women in the workplace. They would depress me or fire me up. I attended women's circles and networking events. But I stopped doing all that this past year. Once I found my tribe, all they demand of me is excellence and as Mark, one of the founders of the company I work for says to me when I want to complain about how life can be unfair sometimes, "If you want to overcome sexism and racism, be the best!" Sounds simple enough.