After several weeks of weirder-than-usual, “spring” Rochester weather, this warm day felt like it was meant for today’s talk. Greeted by smiling faces, I walk into Kin Event Space to sign my name tag and then make a (small) beeline for the donut table by Boxcar Donuts. As always, there are so many choices and in the midst of making my decision, I also look to my right and start a conversation with someone who’s also struggling (because, let’s be honest, it’s too real, but I digress).
As I scanned the room looking for any familiar faces, I also took a moment to take it all in. If you’re reading this, I can only assume that, like me, you’re constantly on the go. From the moment you curse the alarm in the morning (or even worse when your eyes pop open 10 minutes before you’re supposed to wake up UGH) to the moment you finally pass out at the end of the day, your day is full and there’s no time to stop. I appreciated the opportunity, for once in a long time, to be able to take a breather and listen to inspiring stories. In that moment, I saw women embrace other women like they haven’t seen each other in ages, stand in line for Glen Edith coffee not in what would be the usual flustered manner on their way to work, and review the program in anticipation of our panel.
I snap back into accomplishing priority number one (donuts) and I notice a friend of mine make her way towards me to tell me she’s reserved a spot in the front. We sit down just in time to watch as RocGirlGang leader and badass, Sarah Knight, introduce herself and thank our lovely volunteers, her husband, Rusty, the staff at Kin Event Space, and our sponsor, the Rochester Women’s Council.
Before announcing our panelists, she shares an encouraging story about the female video game creator for Atari and her thoughts on what it meant to be successful. Referring to the game: “I created it and I’m proud of it.” It meant that “if you worked hard—if you created something and you’re proud of it, then own it. Give yourself a pat on the back.”
After Sarah introduces our four panelists, they make their way to the front. She jumps right into posing the first question regarding their backgrounds and childhood role models.
Sitima Fowler, the CEO of Capstone IT, recounts her rough childhood migrating from India at 11 years old and looking to the people that she read about in books.
Erin Tolefre, the Executive Vice President of Baldwin Richardson Foods, shares some words of wisdom from her two role models: her paternal grandparents who she said shaped the course of what her life has become. Her grandfather was a risk-taker, always centered in his spirituality, and had a strong work ethic. Erin describes her grandmother as “ a pistol…who believed that failure was NOT an option.”
Lauren Dixon, CEO of Dixon Schwabl, cites her father as her greatest role model and shared two rules of thumb for business: to hire people smarter than you and to motivate and excite your team to want to come back to work.
Dr. Lesli C. Myers-Small, Brockport Superintendent and author, has 2 role models, one she says is real and the other fake. Her grandmother taught her to always have a relationship with God, get as much education as you can and that no one can ever take that away from you…and to stay away from “nasty-tail boys.” Right on, sister. Right on. My geek heart appreciated her next answer – her fake role model is Wonder Woman, who even after all of her hero work took a break. “You can’t be everything to everyone all of the time.” Truer words were never said and it was something that I really needed to hear.
Encouraging still was the next question in which our panelists addressed whether or not they were natural-born leaders. Lauren remembers not making the cheerleading team and crying afterwards for a long time. Her father’s response? “You can cry for the next year or you can practice every day. Then, in a year, you will have more hours of practice than every other girl.” She made varsity that year and became captain. Sitima leaves us with some tough, but absolutely necessary love: Leadership is not a title that needs to be handed to you. We are capable of so much more. You have to take risks. You can also be a more effective leader by being your true self. You’re going to own all of your flaws and imperfections because that’s your strength. It’s OK to be vulnerable. It’s OK to be who you are.
Next, we hear about their challenges in their leadership roles. Sitima acknowledges that, in a leadership role, you’re making the hard decisions and putting yourself out there. Just because you fail doesn’t mean you recoil. Erin admits to it being a lonely place, but then asks herself 3 questions in making those tough decisions: What’s the right thing? (What is right is not always popular); What’s the right way (and does it align with our culture?); How do we do it the right way? Lauren learned to step back and delegate; she didn’t have to come up with all of the big ideas, but those ideas came when she learned to engage her teammates by “listening more and doing less”. Lesli recounted having to address staff, students, and family with tragic news and suffering from compassion fatigue. A colleague reminded her that “it’s OK to tap out” and to “give yourself permission to do so”.
To round out an amazing first session, each panelist shares their most satisfying leadership position and one message hit me particularly hard. Sitima recounts coming back from a family trip to India, learning that her parents had been in a bad accident, and dropped everything to travel back to India only discover that, in being their caretaker with no prior medical education, that she was capable of more than she could’ve imagined. There’s more to us than we think. We need to stop limiting ourselves and “think bigger”. It’s not just in our actions, but in our language as well. I made a promise to myself in that moment that I would stop talking myself out of doing things and sat for a minute to think through how I could do that.
Before announcing our break, our fearless leader, Sarah, suggests talking to at least one person that we don’t know. Or 3. Not only did I talk to more women than I had originally planned (which is my own personal win for me), but I also found out that it was the first time that either woman had ever been to a RocGirlGang function! (They’d heard about it and had always wanted to come, but hadn’t had the chance until now.) I contemplated having another donut (I’d been good all week and calories don’t count on the weekends, right?) and before I could make my decision, I saw our panelists begin to take their seats.
Sarah asks our panelists how they’ve seen the climate change for women in leadership in each of their industries…. Lesli stated that a colleague pushed her every step of the way into becoming superintendent. Lauren talks about only getting featured stories when she first started. After going into work 2 hours early and staying 1 hour later every day, she was told that she was going to anchor. Although she was convinced every day that she was going to get fired, she eventually stopped asking for forgiveness for the things she said and did to get to where she wanted to go. Erin used people’s perceptions to become more informed thus turning perceived weaknesses into her strength. Sitima’s leadership team is 60% women and 40% male. Her male colleagues can regularly expect meetings to begin with dance parties and conversations regarding hair styling “because your hair has to look good.” (Let the church say amen…)
Lastly, these fierce ladies leave us with advice they have for women who aspire to be in leadership roles in their industries and the largest lessons they’ve learned on their journeys… Sitima on business: It’s how you make someone feel. You have to have the emotional intelligence to communicate with someone with empathy. Work your butt off. Think bigger. Surround yourself with chipped china – slightly crazy, slightly weird – it’s OK for you not to always be perfect.
Erin on business: Take on things that make you uncomfortable. Game-changing opportunities come when we step outside of ourselves. Also, it’s always about the people – the people who care about the direction of the company, thought-leaders, and the energy people put into the business in the eyes of your customers. You have to invest in having the right team and setting them up for success.
Lauren on business: You have to be brave. You’re not going to get where you need to be unless you embrace a little crazy. Have the right team members in place – people who are selfless, not selfish.
Lesli on education: You have to care about kids. Also, stop saying “I’m just a…”; whatever role, you are a leader. You have to be willing to make mistakes and not beat yourself up. Be flexible and creative. We are constantly evolving. People aren’t always going to like you or agree with the decisions that you make and you have to be OK with that. Some people are just simply mean – hurt people hurt people; you can’t be a people pleaser.
This week… actually the past weeks… have been rough for me, but it was this panel that really brought things back into perspective. What started off as just another day (but with sunshine, thank God) ended up being a day to remember. I LOVE this community of women and I’m SO thankful to Sarah and our panelists for offering yet another inspiring talk.
Stay fierce and focused, all.