11/07/2013 03:20 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Risky Business: Taking Risks in Pursuit of Your Passion

I was recently interviewed by Moira Forbes, president and publisher of ForbesWoman, as part of a "Jam Session" hosted by 85Broads. I enjoyed our discussion on leadership and risk-taking, and I wanted to share with you some excerpts from our conversation together. After my 20-year career in corporate finance, I learned that the most important thing is to take risks and pursue your passion. Whether you are a seasoned professional or a recent graduate just entering the workforce, I hope that some of the lessons I've learned throughout my career resonate with you.

How do you define risk?
A risk is when I take myself out of my comfort zone. I took a huge risk when transitioning from a successful career in finance to the nonprofit world. I assessed my own risk based on a deeply personal thought process. I needed to determine the potential impact that this career shift would have on my family and support system. I had a great fear of failure. Did I fail? No. Did I make mistakes? Absolutely. When taking a leap like this, mistakes are par for the course. It's how you learn from them that counts. Looking back now, I realize that risk taking has led me to where I am today. In my case, I had an opportunity to think globally -- to be inspired to go beyond my corporate experiences. At times, the unknowns were great, but the risk of not learning, not reaching higher and not pursuing what I was most passionate about outweighed the risk of staying put. Often, the risk of doing nothing is actually the bigger risk.

What kind of impact does gender have on risk taking?
I believe it's a myth that women are more risk-averse than men -- and it's time to debunk that myth. Both women and men are equally able to assess risk and decide what is right for them. To think that one sex is more risk-averse is inherently flawed logic.

How have you seen women advance throughout your career?
EngenderHealth works in 20 countries around the world, including some of the world's poorest economies, to expand access to family planning and reproductive health care for women and their families. Throughout our work, I have had the pleasure of seeing an emergence of women leaders in many of these countries, as women rise up and assume powerful positions in Ministries of Health from Bangladesh to Burkina Faso. Most recently, I witnessed this in Kampala, Uganda, when I met with EngenderHealth-trained surgeons who conduct fistula repair in one of the largest hospitals in Uganda. The chief of fistula surgery in Kampala is a female Ugandan surgeon; she heads up a team of physicians who could not be more proud to work under her leadership.

How did you identify your mentors?
There is no one-size-fits-all roadmap for career success. It's up to each of us to design our own path around our passions, identify our strongest skills, and find areas that challenge us in new ways. With regard to mentors, I would like to change what has become a formulaic box to check as a predeterminant for success. Having a mentor for mentorship's sake does not necessarily add value or guarantee your success. Rather, it's more important to surround yourself with people who can push you out of your comfort zone and get you to test your limits and rethink the assumptions you make about your own abilities.

What is one piece of advice you would have given yourself 20 years ago?
I would want someone to whisper in my ear that this is not the biggest risk you will take. Keep going. And truthfully, this advice applies to me today. I'm not done taking risks. There is so much more to learn and do.

My advice to women who are either just starting their careers or contemplating making a career move is this: Bring your best skills to what you're passionate about. Keep amassing your basket of skills, and draw from that skillset in new and innovative ways as you move ahead. Leaving your comfort zone can help you realize your own potential. Never underestimate yourself. Take more risks. Follow your passion.

Follow Pamela W. Barnes on Twitter
Read More about Moira Forbes here