I recently took part of an online discussion among female founders about being visible to the gatekeepers. Gatekeepers are the folks who decide everything from which new businesses to feature in magazines to who gets VC money. The catalyst for the conversation was how magazines keep featuring ex-Silicon Valley employees, mostly men. Sure there are always exceptions to the rule, but the featured articles are often about startups founded by men. Needless to say, the irony is painful, given that women-owned businesses are expected to account for more than half of small business job growth by 2018.
So the question is: How do we women get past that?
There are undoubtedly many components to a satisfactory answer, and there are tons of articles online about the challenges that women face starting in business and running one. But there are two really important points that those articles seem to miss: Women need to show up and make sure the gatekeepers know we’re here, and we need to own who we are and what we do.
Unfortunately, we aren’t doing this in the most basic way.
I don’t care if you aren’t invited, SHOW UP anyway.
When I was in college, I met a former Black Panther, a guest speaker at an event I co-organized. He asked to meet with a few of us beforehand to share advice he deemed crucial: Do not wait to be invited to participate. Go for what you want. If you hear about a meeting, show up. Walk in that room like you own it. If you aren’t at the table, you don’t get to be part of the discussion. So SHOW UP.
A few weeks later, I decided to try my hand at this. School administrators called a meeting, and I was not invited, even though I knew more about the topic than the other students and several of the administrators who were invited. A few people looked surprised to see me, but they tripped over themselves to make sure I had a chair.
Showing up uninvited isn’t always that easy or well-received. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that you can only make a difference when your voice is heard. I know I did that day.
That said, simply showing up and “leaning in” isn’t going to solve the problem of access to the gatekeepers (see the Pao Effect). But it’s part of it. The more often we show up, the more the gatekeepers will be used to seeing us in the same room as them. The more familiar and available we are, the more often they’ll think of us when it’s time to find someone to feature in a story, or to dole out business.
Becoming comfortable with “different” takes time, and since there’s often little incentive for the gatekeepers to change their ways, we need to show up until they’re used to seeing us.
STOP PLAYING SMALL and put yourself on the f&*#ing pedestal, because you earned it. In other words, OWN IT.
My mom is an amazing entrepreneur, starting her first company in the 80s. She quickly learned that to get in front of the decision makers she needed to use the name “Chris” instead of “Christine.” When she’d show up for a meeting, the men standing around would inevitably mansplain they were expecting “Chris.” Upon clearing up their misconceptions, she was then able to (successfully) pitch her business. But the key is that she couldn’t even get in the door without playing to their assumptions.
Fast-forward 30-something years, and it’s no longer quite as necessary to hide our gender (although when read something like this article in the New York Times, you realize that it’s still an impediment to the corner office). However, the problem is now more endemic, because women are not owning who and what they are.
This epiphany hit me recently while I was networking on LinkedIn. I was specifically targeting folks who self-identify as entrepreneurs, founders and CEOs. And despite the fact that my network at that time was least half women, more than half of them entrepreneurs, at least 90% of the people who showed up in my search were men, mostly white men.
In other words, despite the fact that women are entrepreneurs, founders and CEOs, they literally do not have these key words in their LinkedIn profile!!
So READ THIS, fellow female founders:
I don't care if you're a solopreneur or just starting out or have 42 employees. If you are FOUNDING a business, then call yourself founder or entrepreneur. And own the title of CEO.
Do NOT say that you "work for" your company (something women do but men do not). You do not “work for” your company. You FOUNDED the company. Big difference, especially when it comes to credibility. YOU are The Boss.
Do NOT call yourself self-employed (also something women do in much greater numbers than men). Who would you rather hire, “consultant, self-employed” or “Founder & Lead Consultant, AMG Associates”? Who do you think commands the higher fees? Exactly.
Do NOT give yourself a title without also noting “Founder.” (Clever titles on LinkedIn are great for headlines, not so much for search results.) You started the business? Take the credit! When someone doesn’t give you proper credit, fix it!
My friend, Erin Horne McKinney, founded an amazing group called Black Female Founders (#BFF, look for the closed group on Facebook), an organization established to promote and support Black female entrepreneurs. #BFF was recently featured in an article, and incorrectly identified her the “organizer.” You bet she corrected that PDQ. She’s the Founder and CEO, and don’t you forget it!
In short, OWN IT. And I mean everywhere, not just on LinkedIn and Facebook.
And what does "owning it" do? Owning it legitimizes you and your business. When someone is looking for an expert, or the boss, you want to be the one who shows up in their search.
I've owned it
And due to my recent networking efforts, this means that I am garnering the awareness of my peers, who are fellow entrepreneurs and CEOs, as well as the people who are interested in startups. The result is several new business opportunities, new private clients, publicity featuring me and my business (CEOToolkits.com), and funding discussions. In other words, I’m connecting to the gatekeepers and power brokers, all in just a few weeks. And you can be sure that I plan to stay on their radar. You know what's so cool? You can, too.
I’d love to hear about your experiences and how things changed for you once you finally decided to show up and own who you are and what you do. Share your story below or send me an email.