12/08/2014 08:30 am ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Angela Bergeson, Head of School at The IDEAL School and Academy of Manhattan

Angela Bergeson has been working in the field of education for over 25 years and is the Head of School at The IDEAL School and Academy of Manhattan. As an original member of the founding administrative team, she has watched the school grow from 20 students 7 years ago to 105 in K-8.

Angela is passionate about anti-bias issues, professional development, and creating a peaceable school culture.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I was raised in the Midwest by a working class family who ensured I knew the meaning of an exhausting day of hard work. I witnessed my parents never giving up, even when times were hard and situations bleak. When I was little, my parents started a church with four other families in my hometown because the local choices did not include a community-based option. They started by meeting at folks' homes, then rented the stockroom of a local JC Penney's, where I remember having Sunday School classes in a room full of mannequins assembled or disassembled in boxes! Their church became quite a success as it grew to over 500 people and built a permanent sanctuary on over five acres. Looking back, this is foreshadowing my future at The IDEAL School & Academy, where we also built a vibrant community around a powerful mission - sans mannequins!

I began working on local farms at the age of 12 and became a "crew boss" by the time I was 16. This meant I got to work first, usually at 4:45am and left last, usually after sundown if we worked a double shift. That work ethic has stuck with me to today. Also, I was lucky that my early experiences in high school and college allowed me to successfully play a variety of sports. This helped me develop teamwork, tenacity, focus, drive, and leadership skills. I also had to learn to balance a busy schedule and maintain academic achievements. Again, early training for balancing work and family!

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at the helm of The IDEAL School & Academy?
Over the years, I worked a variety of jobs throughout the country, under very different circumstances, with a broad range of people with different backgrounds and experiences. I waited tables, washed dishes, worked in retail, babysat, washed laundry for the sports teams for work study, I was also a page, neurologist, evoked response technician, etc.

Due to family circumstances and job opportunities, I moved around the country often when I first started my career as a teacher. This meant that I worked for over 8 principals--allowing me to experience first hand the good habits, healthy cultures, and excellent leadership traits as well as the toxic, ego-driven, and incompetent leaders. I was taking notes the entire time! Mostly, I learned what I would never do if I were a school leader.

I never thought about it until now, but unsurprisingly, almost all the principals and Heads of Schools I worked for were men. I have worked for 11 men, and only 2 women in the course of my working life. Both women ran schools in New York and were new to their titles. People have said that I exude a closer communication style to a "masculine" leader--which works for some....mostly men. Without a lot of practical experiences with women as a boss, no wonder it is hard to find our voice as women leaders when all we have been hearing is men!

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at The IDEAL School & Academy?
When building a school from scratch, the successes and failures each year and each day seem overwhelmingly high stakes-- the difference between a good and a bad decision can often be the survival of the entire project! Creating a rigorous, inclusive, diverse education program-- from staffing, to curriculum and institutional planning-- was and continues to be an invigorating challenge. Some highlights have included moving into new buildings in years 1, 6, and 8. Even though within the same neighborhood, each move into a larger and more impressive space has been an incredible milestone. Creating these new spaces with just the right balance of function, warmth, stimulation, and elegance has been both highlight and challenge. Now, as The IDEAL School & Academy expands to high school, I am sure we will need a final and permanent move on the horizon sometime in the next three years. I look forward to this wonderful challenge.

Personally, taking on a leadership position has been highlighted with those moments when something started as my vision on paper turns into an even better reality. The challenges have been very personal as well. Wanting to please everyone along the way and realizing the complete impossibility of that notion has been freeing! Other challenges have been on the homefront. Starting a business is demanding. Being the leader of the business even more so. The pressure to make sure the venture succeeds is sometimes palpable. At the same time, you have to go home and make sure your kids feel as important to you as your job. This is a very real pull, even if we all know our kids are more important, sometimes work demands the nurturing of an actual newborn too.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Don't kill the queen bee: We have to walk a fine line as women leaders-- we must play the role of vulnerable, relatable, nurturer matron AND the decision-making leader who inspires confidence, loyalty, and cohesion through boldness and confidence. Often women in these roles find that other women can be their harshest critics-- particularly when playing the latter role.

Grow some thick skin, keep going: Share the credit and absorb the criticism. Pay attention to what matters-- both personally and professionally. Try to save some of your emotional resilience for your family and friends and don't let workplace challenges haunt you during time with family and friends.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
The most important lesson I have learned is that I am more capable than I ever thought I was in both parenting and career.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have four children, ages ranging from 22 down to 8. I am the absolute worst at managing the so-called "work/life" balance. Honestly, for me, I'm not sure that is possible-- in fact, I often realize that sometimes you get work right and family suffers. However, I have gotten better over the years in leaving work at the door for the weekend and vacations.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The biggest issues women leaders face is a lack of historical women voices and role models. However, it is getting better! I am encouraged- from even my own experiences. Also, I think women face more criticism than men in leadership positions. This comes from all workers, irrelevant of gender. But, most shockingly it comes from the women in leadership themselves. We are our own worst enemies. Don't buy into this thinking! I challenge everyone to think about the role they play in ensure women are successful leaders. What stereotypes do we all, consciously or unconsciously perpetuate?

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My mother is my mentor! She held our family together while working a factory job. She put dinner on the table and did all the housework. She babysat in her later years to make the ends meet and she stayed up late to gossip with all of us when we came home late! She never judged, always loved, but said exactly what was on her mind. Don't forget, she started a church too.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Naomi Wolf because she calls out (and hopes to destroy) the myths and expectations-- cultural, economic, and personal-- that still mark the boundaries and limitations women face every day.

Arundhati Roy for her strength and fearlessness. Her writing moves me, as well as her activism and her role as an author who leverages her voice to represent those without.

Kate Chopin, whose writing spoke to me on a deep emotional level at an important time in my life.

Toni Morrison, whose provocative work tells stories that need to be told and makes people question the status quo. She opened my eyes to experiences and perspectives that I was ignorant of. Also, the vastness of her prose and the precision of her poetic voice.

Wendy Davis for her tenacity and grit.

Amy Goodman because she is a brilliant, bold, courageous woman who goes where few reporters dare. If more listened to her, the world would be different, brighter, more just.

Audra Zuckerman, Julia Harquail, and Michelle Smith-- the team of amazing mothers who mobilized their considerable personal, professional, and spiritual energies to co-found IDEAL with me from its inception through today. Wow. It's been a privilege to be on a team with such impressive women.

What do you want The IDEAL School & Academy to accomplish in the next year?
We are in the middle of launching of our high school program, and we hope that it will be as successful as our middle and lower school programs. I would love to see us become a successful International Baccalaureate member school. We also want to make sure that our scholarship program is funded successfully. Beyond that - our dreams are to change attitudes and build awareness about inclusion and educational excellence.