A good dose of confidence. — You need to believe in your yourself, see past the moment and situation and stay focused on the big picture. Celebrate the small wins along the way and appreciate that this is a marathon not a sprint, and that even when you are not where you want to be, you are further along today than you were yesterday.
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Areva Martin.
Areva is an award-winning attorney, advocate, legal and social issues commentator, talk show host, producer and entrepreneur. A Harvard Law School graduate, Areva founded the autism advocacy organization Special Needs Network, Inc., the Los Angeles based civil rights firm, Martin & Martin, LLP, and the health technology company Butterflly Health, Inc. A best-selling author, Areva has dedicated her fourth book to helping women worldwide recognize, own and assert their limitless power.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in a St. Louis housing project with my paraplegic grandmother and godmother, two strong black women who instilled in me a strong work ethic and sense of pride in who I was and who my family was. Although they were poor and not educated, they were very wise. The lessons they taught me have sustained me and have been essential to the success I have found in my career and in life.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in the 70s and 80s in a city that was, perhaps, as segregated as it was pre-1951. I witnessed much injustice with people alienated and ostracized from huge swaths of the community for no reason other than their zip code, their skin color, their lineage.
Attending a high school in a predominantly white part of St. Louis opened my eyes to gross levels of disparities. That started me thinking about how I could break out of the cycle of poverty that my family was in and even wondering, what could I do beyond that?
It crystallized for me at the University of Chicago. I realized that a legal career was the pathway to having a voice and addressing some of the inequities I had been reflecting on since I was a kid. When I met other students who had been accepted to Harvard Law School with similar or even inferior grades to mine, the idea of pursuing that career at one of the most prestigious schools in the country was suddenly in reach.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My first time on national television, I went on the Dr. Phil show to talk about kids with autism that had been abused in a classroom. As I was leaving after the show, a producer called and said, “Hey, you were so great on that last show. We’d love to have you stick around for a second show on Dog the Bounty Hunter,” who had been taken off the air for using the N-word.
It caught me so off guard. I knew generally about Dog the Bounty Hunter and his reality show, but I knew nothing about the story. And I am a studier. If I had to be in court for a 10-minute hearing, I would spend hours preparing, reading case files and taking notes and creating an outline. My modus operandi for speaking anywhere was to be as fully prepared and as knowledgeable as possible about the subject matter. Here I was being asked to give an opinion before millions of people, sharing a stage with a group of very well-respected, skilled thought leaders, like Bishop T.D. Jakes, who I thought the world of. I had less than an hour to figure out the story and develop a point of view. But I said yes, and then I sat there the whole time kicking myself, feeling like I was doing a horrible job because I hadn’t been able to do my deep-dive preparation.
After the appearance, the producers were so happy with me that they started inviting me back. I guess the moral of that story is that you have the ability to win, to be successful, to come out on top, even when you’re forced to do so under circumstances that are less than ideal for you. So don’t sell yourself short.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each.
I would say my work ethic, my resilience and perseverance, and my listening skills.
When I decided to start my own law practice, I had a lot of people discouraging me. I had a fantastic, high-paying job with a well-respected Wall Street firm that many people would consider a dream job. I was leaving a phenomenal office in a downtown Los Angeles high rise for a small, shared office space working for another lawyer over one of the most popular night clubs in LA. I also had moved into a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a pretty fringe neighborhood and bought a 10-year-old Jetta.
For my colleagues and peers, that was a huge step down — so beneath them. The choices I made went against the grain of my counterparts, all of whom were living by the beach with BMWs or Porsches or Mercedes. That wasn’t me, though. Being from the Midwest, those weren’t my values. And so, when I left the law firm, I got a lot of grief from those friends, and I had to separate myself from a lot of people because they were so against it. Their negativity had the potential to seep into my psyche and cause me to doubt my decision.
In those early days, I took a huge pay cut. I had just moved to LA and I had to build a practice from scratch while I learned to be litigator, because law school is all theory and not very much practice. So, I have no skills. I have no money. All I had was this work ethic. By day I’d go to court with this more experienced lawyer and follow him around to depositions and learn how to be a trial lawyer. I spent my evenings at networking functions and happy hours and bar events, trying to meet people and get clients. Then I’d go back to the office after nine o’clock and work til midnight to get ready for the next day’s court appearances. Obviously in today’s world of technology we can work a lot smarter and more efficiently, but that’s what I had to do in that era. You weren’t online meeting clients, you had to go out and physically press the flesh. I had to do that for several years to build a client base and to build a firm.
I didn’t give up. It was isolating. It was lonely. And I had to separate myself from all those people who thought it was drudgery, too beneath them, and meet all new people
And on the other side of all of that, I went out and started one of the largest African American owned firms and the rest is history, but it took a lot. And it wasn’t for the faint of heart.
As for my ability and willingness to listen: Although I’m a professional talker, I think I’m even a better listener. Throughout my career I have surrounded myself with really smart, talented people. I have met leaders who are territorial or even paranoid about bringing talented people into their space who they worry could undermine them. I have the opposite mindset. I’ve always wanted to be around really smart people. Me That often includes much younger people because so much of media today encompasses the internet and social media. This generation has grown up with social media as an integral part of their upbringing, and I have learned so much from them. Oftentimes people come to for mentoring, and it’s great because I have a lot to provide, but I’m also constantly seeking out younger people who can mentor and teach me and help me understand, whether it’s the latest slang pop culture references of social media sites from Tik Tok to Instagram. I think one of my traits as a successful leader is recognizing the value in reciprocity and listening and learning from people with different skillsets.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
Our white, heteronormative, patriarchal system was built to relegate women to second class citizens. If you look historically at how women’s rights were always tied to a male, whether it was her father or her spouse, it was all very much by design. That system never contemplated that a woman would ever be equal and definitely not superior to any man.
That is the premise of my latest book. The system is structured to not yield to women attaining power. That system has been in place for centuries. The unmaking or dismantling of it is not going to happen overnight. We need new generations of women and men to have the courage to challenge and reshape that system. The fact that we’re having to call out powerful women in ways that we don’t with men makes the very point.
Society is uncomfortable because there was never an expectation that women would be anything other than subservient to men.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
Just recently, I was on the set of a local political show. The host, a white guy, is a friend, and I’ve been doing this show for years. He always has conservatives and liberals face off with different points of views, and on this day the other two guests were also white men, one a younger man who is also a friend of mine, one an older guy who is not a friend, but we have been on TV together.
On set before the show, the older white guy talked over and past me and held conversations with the other men as if I was invisible. I had to purposefully bring myself into the conversation to remind them that I was standing there. The older guy did not think he was being rude in the least. He didn’t think he was doing anything unusual. It’s so ingrained in certain men, obviously not all, but a lot of men.
Once we were on stage doing the show, he continued to talk over me. That we can maybe attribute to two experts going at it. I don’t expect him to go easy on me in the heat of a debate. But it’s a different situation when we’re off set, having a casual conversation, and they look past me and exclude me.
Men are so used to ignoring women — we are so invisible — that when they encounter someone who refuses to accept it, that is shocking to them.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
You have a few of choices. In the example I gave from the set, I kept inserting myself in the conversation and reminding them I existed without waving my hand or making a declaratory statement. I kept looking in both men in the eye and speaking directly to them and reminding them that I was there and that I had something as valuable and important as they had to say.
Sometimes you may have to call it out more and to say more explicitly, “I’m here. Your purposeful dismissal of me is not going unnoticed.”
Then sometimes you have to decide if it’s a situation you want to be in at all, and maybe choose to excuse yourself from that situation. You need to pick your battles and decide what’s in it for you at that moment. Is it worth it? What are the repercussions that may occur if you do stand up and speak up?
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
We all have to start calling it out in whatever ways we can, whether it’s in that moment or finding an opportunity to do so later. If we continue to ignore it, it continues to persist because it is so normalized. We perpetuate its normalcy — and there’s nothing normal about it at all.
We have to call out the hypocrisy and the ways in which women are dismissed. The testimony we saw this week on Capitol Hill from the Team USA gymnasts abut Larry Nassar was shocking. We watched McKayla Maroney testify she talked to that FBI agent about Nassar’s abuse and the agent’s response was, “Is that all?”
Studies that show that women’s claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault are dismissed and disbelieved, even more so when it comes to women of color. Not doing anything about it perpetuates and continues those cycles. In the same way that we’re having conversations about structural racism and refuting people who would say we are in a “post-racial society,” we cannot fix it if we cannot acknowledge it.
For far too long, we’ve let people hold up examples of one or two powerful women or successful women and say, “Look at Michelle Obama. Look at Kamala Harris. If you women work as hard as they work, you too can succeed. It’s not the system, it’s you.”
We’ve got to get away from this blaming of the woman and the baseless, meritocracy BS that we’ve been sold in this country, this “Work hard and you too can be CEO of a company,” because the numbers don’t bear that out.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. You have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
I hid my first pregnancy with my daughter until I absolutely, positively could not hide it any longer, and no man would have to deny that he’s having a baby for even a second. But because I was young, I was Black and I was a woman, I was fearful of my clients’ reactions. I had to worry they would think, “Oh my God, she’s pregnant. She’s not going to be here. She’s not reliable. She’s going to take off for six months. I’ll never see her again.”
Even when I had the baby, I did not tell people. I was back on the phone days after delivering my daughter, and it took me months before I even told some people I’d had a baby. That would never happen to a man.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Dealing with age old tropes and stereotypes about women.
When women make decisions, they can’t show the same level of emotions that men show without being attacked for it. They can’t be too nice because then they’re too soft. They can’t be too hard because then they’re angry. They are constantly fighting against stereotypes in ways that force them to be less than their authentic selves. A loud, aggressive woman is often told to tone it down, don’t be so abrasive, don’t be so loud, whereas a loud, aggressive man is just ambitious. He’s a bulldog, and we like that. If you are a woman who is quiet and introverted, you’re too soft. You can’t make tough decisions.
Kamala smiles too much. Hillary is too hard. We’re constantly having to prove something about our personalities and our ability to manage, right down to having our facial expressions constantly judged.
I’ve had people challenge my intellect because I dressed too stylishly. You couldn’t be smart because smart women dress more conservatively.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
My son has special needs, so we had myriad school appointments, medical appointments, and service provider appointments while I was trying to maintain a full-time job and be a parent to my other two children, and it was incredibly challenging to juggle all that.
Once I was livid about something that had happened at my son’s elementary school, and I wanted to speak to the superintendent of schools to register my complaint. Of course, you can’t just call the superintendent of the second largest school district in the country. But I was determined to do so — and I had to sit on a phone for six to eight hours on hold because they kept telling me there’s no one available and I refused to hang up and call back. At the end of the day, they finally let me talk to the deputy superintendent and I got my issue resolved.
I realized in that moment the privilege that I had as an entrepreneur and someone who was self-employed because most people would not have the flexibility to stay on that phone.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
For me, I would say it was recognizing the importance of teams — and letting go.
For a lot of women, we try to do it all. I had a moment at a talk and lunch with a very successful when I heard her say, ‘I don’t make it all, but I make it happen,’ or something to that effect. Her point was, no, I’m not home every night making dinner for my kids. But because I heard a good living, I may able to hire someone to cook a meal or bring meals in. I make it happen.
That was an important moment for me because oftentimes as women we’re told if we are not making the meal or cleaning the house or driving the kids to school ourselves, we’re not good parents. But she put in perspective, I don’t make it all, but I make it happen. That was a turning point for me in recognizing that I had at my disposal lots of people that to help me. And it did not make me a bad mother if I didn’t make every meal or my hands weren’t directly tied to everything that was going on in my house.
As professional women, in particular, your income, your colleagues, the circle that you create — all of that you can manage more with the help of others. And it’s okay to enlist that help. The village concept is real and you should take advantage of it.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I’m very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty in your role as a powerful woman and leader. How much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that’s superficial or has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean
My answer is complicated. African-American grandmothers and mothers have always placed a great emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene, respectability politics, which have always been a big part of the black community. I was taught to always be neat in appearance, in clean, pressed clothes. Appearance in that is very much a tradition out of Southern black households: You were poor, but you were going to be always clean and respectable. That was ingrained in me. But on the other hand, there’s a story I tell about my godmother she suggesting I should learn to type. In her case, she meant don’t rest on your beauty or your laurels but learn something very practical that you can do that will allow you to always keep a job.
I have a complicated relationship with beauty. I love fashion, but I was never the image of the flighty girl who spent all day in a mirror with makeup. It had importance, but what you accomplished beyond outer beauty was always more important for me.
We tell young girls and women that looks don’t matter but at the same time we are in a society where women are judged and treated differently, in the workplace in particular, based on their looks.
What I’ve always told my kids is look neat, but don’t get caught up on outer beauty because it’s fleeting. What’s inside is far more important. And at the end of the day, for me, it was always about working hard.
How is this similar or different for men?
Men aren’t bombarded with the same beauty messages. It’s true that there is a subset of men today who spending more on cosmetic surgery, but the overwhelming message to men is that having power, money and success are far more important than a man’s physical appearance. You can be slovenly, dirty or unkempt. If you have money and stature, that’s all that really matters.
Women hear the opposite message. They are expected to live up to a certain, established beauty image. For many years, that was a very Eurocentric image. We’ve seen that change over time from Twiggy in the seventies when super thin was beautiful and women were having fat removed from their cheeks to today when the trend toward more voluptuous bodies has women getting Brazilian butt lifts and lip injections. Many women are on a constant treadmill trying to keep up with those beauty standards, whereas the standard for men has always been power and money.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- A champion or advocate. A woman in the workplace needs a champion or advocate who will speak up and go to bat, and validate their qualifications in the room where decisions are made. This goes beyond mentoring to leveraging real power and authority to help women move up the ladder. Many of my early speaking engagement opportunities happened only because someone in authority vouched for me and validated my skills, expertise and professionalism.
- A mentor. Every woman needs someone to provide advice and help make career decisions. When I reached a low point in my law career, I was contemplating a major career change. I loved planning events and thought a career as an event planner held promise, but when I had the opportunity to shadow a fellow Harvard Law grad who had built an event planning business, I watched as her client barked orders and berated her over the floral arrangements at an over-the-top Sweet Sixteen birthday party. It was an aha moment when I realized I’d rather have a judge scream at me and that I should stick to party planning as a hobby for friends and family. But it was a difficult time for me and I went to my mentor to talk. She reassured me that I would get through the rough patch and dissuaded me from selling my practice, assuring me that I was creating generational wealth. Now my daughters are off at law school, with plans to return to our family practice. My mentor was right and helped me see through the when things weren’t so clear.
- A plan. You need a plan specific enough that it gives you something to work toward each and every day — but flexible enough to bend when life throws you a curve ball. My story of considering selling my firm when things got tough is a great illustration. The remedy to that kind of panicked decision-making is a methodical and intentional plan, whether you are going back to school to advance your education, saving money to start a business, or doing something completely different, you need a very concrete plan that you are reevaluating and reworking over time.
- A network. Everyone needs a network of ambitious people who will celebrate you and affirm you when you encounter negativity. Having a network you can lean on is essential, and your network is broader than the people you spend regular time with. Early on as I was growing my civil rights practice, I knew of a woman, a classmate from law school, who had a big job in government. I didn’t know her well but reached out to her and told her about my practice. She hired my firm and ended up being one of my biggest clients. I had a similar experience with a high school friend. I hadn’t been close with her but when I wrote Make It Rain, I contacted her knowing she was living in New York and told her about a book event I wanted to do. She was a consultant for large nonprofit that ultimately sponsored one of my most successful book events ever, bringing over 250 women together for a unique book signing and shopping event. Your network is all the people you have interacted with and encountered on your journey. Too often women think of network too narrowly and are sometimes reluctant to access those people not in their immediate friend circle at that moment in time.
- A good dose of confidence. You need to believe in your yourself, see past the moment and situation and stay focused on the big picture. Celebrate the small wins along the way and appreciate that this is a marathon not a sprint, and that even when you are not where you want to be, you are further along today than you were yesterday. When I applying to college, I was told by my high school guidance counselors that I should consider only state schools — that it was unlikely I would be able to attend any private university. I didn’t believe them. I had been an average student my first two years of high school, then really hit my stride my third and fourth years with grades and AP courses. I knew the second half of high school was more indicative of how I would do in a more challenging academic environment. I gained admission and did exceptionally well.
You will hear no, you will be told it hasn’t been done or that you are not capable. Fight those negative attitudes.
We are very blessed that some very prominent 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? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Simone Biles. She’s achieved incredible success and triumphed over difficult circumstances. It would be fascinating to me to hear she plans to use her skills for new ventures outside of pro tennis.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!