…create a culture where learning is encouraged, calculated risk taking is admired even if there is failure, and where the team is appreciated. If you have clearly communicated your vision and goals for the organization, then a culture that encourages those qualities and traits will bring out the best in people.
As part of our series on powerful women I had the pleasure to interview Tracey Welson-Rossman. Through her founding roles at nonprofits TechGirlz and Women in Technology Summit, Tracey works to inspire girls and economically empower women using technology. To date, TechGirlz has reached more than 10,000 girls across the country and is on a mission to reach 20,000 more by 2020.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is it about the position of CEO the most attracted you to it?
Nothing! After selling my first business, I made a promise to myself not to become a CEO again. I did not want the full weight and responsibility of a company on my shoulders. I embraced the idea of being on the executive leadership team and contributing to the success of a company, but I was not seeking a CEO role.
But the role found me. Driven by the realization that we need to bring more girls into STEM and technology, I launched a nonprofit named TechGirlz committed to that goal. My passion, insight and experience made the CEO role a natural fit. And this time I was ready because it was all about the girls.
The lesson for me was that it was not the role of being a CEO but rather the motivation that was the problem the first time around. Marrying my passion to my job was the key.
I was also much smarter about organizing and executing the role. With TechGirlz, I’ve built a team of great people similarly committed to our mission that can help take on the burden of managing such a large and growing organization.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does, but in just a few words can you explain what a CEO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other executives?
In my case — first as the CEO of a startup and then as the CEO of two nonprofits — it’s the equivalent of being the owner, general manager, head coach and quarterback all in one. It’s my job to set the strategic direction, tone, and business plan — then be the first person executing against it. That doesn’t happen in a vacuum; we have great teams of people contributing and supporting those processes. And one of my key responsibilities is to find and nurture those individuals and their talents. But at the end of the day, the job begins and ends with me.
What were your biggest struggles throughout your professional life and how did you overcome them?
My biggest struggle remains accepting my role as a recognized leader and role model. I have never doubted my abilities to get the job done, but I have struggled with being in the spotlight.
Today, that means speaking around the country on the need to bring more women into tech, writing at least one national contributor column, and commenting in a number of publications on it. Even thinking about that a few years earlier would have made me extremely uncomfortable.
While I am still working to overcome my reluctance, I have found the role to gratifying and a powerful way to expand awareness for this critical issue. Interestingly, I have also been successful tamping down my reluctance by making the subject of “unintentional leadership” one that I speak and write about.
What are the biggest challenges faced by women CEOs that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I know that women at all levels — not just those in the CEO role — feel they have to continually prove themselves and that they are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts. I look forward to the day when this question becomes obsolete — when it is not even worth remarking on whether a CEO is a woman.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a CEO?
Seeing someone I’ve mentored or helped advance in their career succeed brings me incredible joy. It also helps affirm why I do this job and keeps me motivated to seek out and help others.
What are the downsides of being a CEO?
This can be a lonely job if you have not built a social and professional support network. There are simply some things you should not or cannot discuss with your staff and teams. Every CEO needs a trusted outlet to discuss the fears and concerns that keep them up at night or just those things that nag at them.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The other nonprofit I co-founded and lead is called Women in Tech Summit (WITS). It is a series of conferences that helps women in tech hone their skills and build their networks, where all the speakers happen to be women.
WITS was meant to be an experiment and was not intended to be the revenue stream that it is today. It was also independent of my other nonprofit TechGirlz, which helps inspire middle school girls to pursue a career in tech.
After a first successful WITS conference, we decided to raise some money from sponsors for the next event and anything leftover would go to TechGirlz. We raised more than $20,000, and WITS has now turned into one of the revenue streams for TechGirlz. It is also considered a bookend program to TechGirlz and has grown to summits in five regions.
The lesson for me is to always test ideas and keep an open mind.
Specifically, what is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
For those who have never held the title or been close to someone with the job, there is often a gap between fantasy and reality.
I sometimes liken it to expecting your first child. You have an early image of your being pregnant and how it will progress through birth and childrearing. But as we all know, reality often has a way of dispelling these notions for the uninitiated.
For most people, being a CEO is not like an HBO series filled with private jets and international dining. There is a lot of hard work and stress. Of course, there are certainly times when you get to bask in the glow of the title, but you have to be prepared to put in the time and effort.
And like that firstborn child, if you commit and stay the course, there is often an enormous sense of satisfaction that comes with doing the job properly.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive
I would give the same advice to a male or female CEO: create a culture where learning is encouraged, calculated risk taking is admired even if there is failure, and where the team is appreciated. If you have clearly communicated your vision and goals for the organization, then a culture that encourages those qualities and traits will bring out the best in people.
Who inspires you to be a great leader? Can you explain?
I am inspired by people who have changed career paths to pursue their passions and wound up disrupting their new chosen industries. Julia Child is a prime example, starting her second career at age 47 and launching a revolution for home cooks. Another is Sharon Pinkenson, CEO of Greater Philadelphia Film Office, leaving the fashion industry to create an entirely new industry in a region where it did not previously exist.
I’m actually just realizing in real time that both of these examples are women. I believe part of that is because as we age and mature, women are less worried about how we are viewed by others. This frees us to make more personal choices.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There have been so many people who have been mentors, advisors and champions to me throughout my startup and technology career, and then again as I launched TechGirlz and WITS. But the person I am most grateful for and who has been there throughout is my husband Steve.
He’s been there through all the many twists and turns of my career, including the sharp ones. And while some have greatly impacted our family — financially or in time together — he has always been supportive of my choices. Through all of these changes, I have changed as well, becoming more independent and outspoken. I know some marriages would have suffered from these changes, but he has given me the room to grow and change.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
As the CEO of two nonprofits, my everyday is geared towards making the world a better place. I am committed to helping women find their economic power and voice through the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that is America’s changing tech workforce needs.
I am proud of our work at TechGirlz having helped tens of thousands of girls understand their place in the tech world, and the role WITS plays in supporting and nurturing more women already in the tech workforce. My success has also helped other people find their voice, and allowed me to lend my influence to other initiatives about which I am passionate.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I live and breathe this movement everyday. The notion of work and technology in America has created the need for millions more technology workers for everything from farming to video games to astronauts. We’ll never close this gap without engaging more women and nontraditional tech workers. Through TechGirlz and WITS we are inspiring and sustaining a more diverse workforce that will also help women expand their economic influence and standing within society.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
This is a game near and dear to my heart as I regularly challenge friends and colleagues to name their Fantasy Dinner Party guests. It’s such a great way to imagine a flow of ideas and conversation.
For me, I want to dine with: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Michelle and Barack Obama, Chris Rock, Questlove and Warren Buffet. The only question is what we’d serve!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
About the author:
Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 350 works in print and has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster and Thrust Global. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke