Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin of The Gaia Project for Women’s Leadership: “Learn to live with discomfort”

Learn to live with discomfort. Every new endeavor and every stage of our development requires discomfort. Your discomfort, whether with learning a new skill or unpacking internalized racism, is mandatory to your growth As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin. […]

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Learn to live with discomfort. Every new endeavor and every stage of our development requires discomfort. Your discomfort, whether with learning a new skill or unpacking internalized racism, is mandatory to your growth

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin.

Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin is the CEO and Founder of The Gaia Project for Women’s Leadership. A former Wall Street trial lawyer, Elizabeth founded her company a decade ago to push women to build a new, intersectional model of world-changing leadership. Her first book, entitled Becoming Heroines: Unleashing Our Power for Revolution and Rebirth, is forthcoming in July.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Elizabeth! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I spent about fifteen years as a Wall Street securities lawyer. While I was really good at it, I was miserable for at least the last seven years. The rampant sexism across Biglaw created a very hard-to-crack glass ceiling. After hiring my own executive coach to sort out how to address the challenges I was facing, I realized that there were few folks in the coaching/consulting industry who had actually done the 90-hour workweek thing and understood all its challenges and pressures. I’d been an activist my whole life, and leaving the law to start a business aimed at evolving leadership toward a model that works for everyone very shortly became a no-brainer.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There are so many, but I will say that there are a number of meetings I had with corporate leaders at companies that shall remain nameless where I really challenged them on their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Sometimes you have to plant a seed and hope it grows, even when it may cost you business in the short term.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

About six months after I started my business, I got pregnant with my first child. Because we were still really in the startup phase, I was pounding the pavement drumming up awareness and business the entire time I was pregnant, and barely took a month of leave. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it. Do not recommend.

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?

I am a single mother who is the solo caregiver to my two young kids. My kids have been with me every step of the way and their support is endemic to what I do. I want to build a better world for them and all of our kids.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Most recently, Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, has really marked me. When we are able to accept that race was invented to create structural inequity to justify horrifying abuses of power, the cracks at the foundation of our country are laid bare. We have so much work to do.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

At a pivotal moment in my life, my father sent me a note that said “it is your sacred obligation to make choices that move you forward.” I believe this is true not just for our individual trajectories but for the way we operate in the world. We have a sacred duty to humanity to make choices that move us all forward.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

My entire company is built on the principle that we are here to make a massive, world-altering, revolutionary change toward equity and freedom for all people. It drives everything we do.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Honestly, what is holding us back is two things:

1) Societal structures designed to support women outside of work, including universal child care, government-paid family leave, and single-payer healthcare. It’s hard to leave a full-time job to become a founder if you are dependent on your employer for your insurance and you can’t afford childcare while you do it.

2) Bias in VC funding. I have horror stories from fellow women founders who have seen investors throw money at men without a business plan and the most basic of ideas while denying women who have proven track records the investment they need to scale and grow. It’s infuriating. VC is overdue for a real reckoning in this regard.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

My work is built around empowering women to use their voices for change in every aspect of their lives. Thanks to white supremacist patriarchy, we’ve been indoctrinated since birth with the idea that we aren’t good enough, smart enough, worthy enough to create change — let alone to create empires. When we are able to recognize that the baggage of bias isn’t about our own worthiness but rather about power, our courage is much easier to access. That leads us to do great things that share our gifts with the world for the benefit of all. Furthermore, our work is designed to get those with the privilege to rethink how they can leverage and undermine it so that true success belongs to all of us, not just those born of a certain class or skin tone.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

So, women have been historically silenced and siloed into certain roles and certain fields. Without representation at every table, structures of oppression are replicated across every aspect of our society. I’d like to see more women, and particularly more Black, brown and indigenous women, become founders because when we are able to put our ideas into form, everything shifts. We are a part of the force that bends the arc of history toward justice.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

  1. Do the work of unpacking your own internalized bias. My book speaks to how to do this in detail. Until we clean up the garbage we’ve taken in from white supremacist patriarchy, we are either doing its work for it by limiting ourselves or being unwitting tools in its replication in terms of how we support (or destroy) other women.
  2. Learn to live with discomfort. Every new endeavor and every stage of our development requires discomfort. Your discomfort, whether with learning a new skill or unpacking internalized racism, is mandatory to your growth
  3. Collaborate with, fund and uplift women leaders. We’ve all been taught a great lie that there is only so much room for women to succeed, and that we must fight each other to get a piece of that pie. This is patriarchy doing its work through us. I’ll be happy when every company on the Fortune 500 has a woman as a CEO. And why not? Men have been in those seats almost exclusively for centuries. We must uplift and support women leaders, because when one of us wins, we all rise.
  4. Understand that equity is not just about optics. Too many times, I’ve seen male leaders who won’t put in the work to create real equity and inclusion for women, but rather treat diversity and inclusion efforts as though they’re designed to placate perceived rabble-rousers. Hire women. Fund women. Pay women (equally). Listen to women when they tell you how you’re failing them. Seek out new ways to hire and support women. Constantly check your own internalized biases. Be willing to leverage privilege wherever you have it, and undermine it to create equity for all.
  5. Work for societal change that allows all of us to use our gifts for the betterment of all. We can’t expect women to do the work of becoming founders without changing what has prevented them from succeeding as founders in the first place. Work to eradicate racism, sexism, any form of othering in policy, at work, at home and in the world. Systemic inequity is real. We still expect women to do the lion’s share of caregiving, to work twice as hard for half as much, to grow businesses on a shoestring without any support. The personal is political. The professional is political. It’s all linked and we need massive structural overhauls to allow women to rise to embody their complete potential, which by the way will benefit everyone, regardless of gender identity.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d like to see corporations band together to stop dark money in politics and to refuse to support media that spreads disinformation. One of the gravest threats to historically marginalized people is corporate funding of bad actors, and absent true pushback against those actors, our democracy is in profound jeopardy. We need those who believe in true equity and real democracy to put their money behind forces for good, not destruction.

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.

I am wildly impressed at the moment by leaders like Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, who are showing us all what game-changing leadership can do for a nation. As well, LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter (and who wrote the foreword to my book), is showing us all a model of revolutionary leadership grounded in joy and is inviting us all toward a future where racism is eradicated. Lastly, I’d of course love to share tea with Oprah Winfrey, who has constantly leveraged her platform to create a better world for all of us.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m very active on Twitter (@ECMcLaughlin), write regularly on Substack (resilienceandrevolution.substack.com), and my book is available for purchase here.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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