Self-Care — For years, I worked LONG hours. I put myself last. I would take my work home with me because I wanted so badly to succeed. Unfortunately, working “all the time” left me angry, isolated, and bitter. I stopped and decided to volunteer in Armenia for a few months. It was the best experience of my life. Seeing how people there balanced work, life, family, and friendships helped me reprioritize what’s important to me.
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 Lia Parisyan-Schmidt.
Lia is the VP of Content at Insider, a B2B AI-enriched marketing platform. A jack(ie) of all trades, Lia has had the privilege of tending bars, packing pallets, selling designer shoes, and helping the world’s top brands find their voice. She is passionate about helping startups overseas navigate Western markets, nature, and photography.
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’m a first-generation American. My mother’s family came here Aleppo, Syria, as stateless citizens after my grandfather and his brother tried to change the government there in the late 50s. I grew up with multiple cultures, religions, and viewpoints. I lived in a seaside suburb in Queens, NY, where my family didn’t mix much outside of own little enclave. It wasn’t until middle school and high school that I got exposed to people outside of our community.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
I majored in Creative Writing, Poetry. I thought I would become a professor. I was considering an MFA, but my parents split and I had to start earning money. I chose Creative Writing because I enjoy analysis and that path could graduate me the fastest.
I also got my makeup artistry degree but had a hard time finding work in that field. Fascinated by SEO and HARO, I started contributing green beauty tips and started getting covered. I’m also a big foodie and grew up cooking with my grandmothers. Learning classic techniques. I started writing for the Examiner, which sadly is defunct. I didn’t have a traditional path. I wanted to make money writing about the things I love. I did A LOT of work for free, but was willing to put in the sweat, blood, and tears, despite the threadbare income.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I think my favorite experience was as a contractor at IBM. I met some insanely creative designers and UX specialists. That experience made me change the way I think about content, touchpoints, and experiences. It also gave me a deeper appreciation of how design, content, and developers can work together more holistically.
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?
- Resilience. If I had to get anything tattooed on me again, this would be the word. Giving up is easy. Vince Lombardi said winners never quit. No matter how hard things got, I stayed the course. I wanted to become a paid writer, but I kept an open mind, took jobs to pay the bills, took writing jobs outside of my comfort zone, and eventually ended up in brand and content strategy, which requires a holistic, “unsiloed” POV, I gained through doing so many different things.
- Empathy. Having a deep sense of appreciation for everyone you come across. I think we’re quick to judge at times. If I feel myself making a judgment, I look at where the impulse comes from and 9/10 it’s because I feel threatened, insecure, or because the person looks like or sounds like someone who may have done me wrong.
- Kindness. In movies, business leaders are painted as ruthless go-getters. I don’t think you need to step over people to be successful. In fact, being kind and helping others when you’re in a position of power empowers the people you’re helping to pay it forward. My grandmother used to say something in Armenian that roughly translate to “do an act of kindness and throw it into the ocean,” meaning do good without expecting anything in return.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
I’ll leave the brand out, but I was working at a company where I was more experienced and doing a more difficult role in a male-dominated environment. Despite accolades from product marketing heads and a reduced return rate (one of the biggest issues faced by the company), I learned I was making significantly less than a male writer. He also felt it was unfair that I was doing more work, had more experience, but was making less than someone who had just graduated. I left that job and started looking for a more balanced environment that had some women leaders at the helm.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
How people feel is often a reflection (and projection) of their own securities and biases. I try not to let those thoughts influence my behavior. Life is too short to pretend to be somebody else. I think it’s important to be upfront about who I am, so I’ll spend one-on-one time with people who feel uneasy around me. I’ll try to build rapport via Slack and social channels, invite them to (virtual) coffee or lunch.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
I think talk about it. Where does the uneasiness come from? I think in the wake of the #MeToo movement and with the isolation caused by the pandemic, there may be a need to have a safe, open, and constructive platform for men, women, and non-binary people to come together and have conversations. Learn about each other and discover their common threads.
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. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
Well, the most obvious one would be working behind the bar and serving tables. Waitresses and bartenders are expected to dress and look a certain way. These standards are usually more one-sided and sexualize women, but I had to pay the bills and as a result, had to put up with harassment. I think women who work in these environments are subjected to a lot of aggressive and uncomfortable verbal and physical advances from men. Also, most people I served were surprised to learn I had graduated college. There is a stigma attached to the service industry, and I feel for the women trying to make it in that field. Women chefs also must prove themselves in a mostly male-dominated industry.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Beauty. Women are judged by their appearance much more than men. I remember working at certain enterprises and people commenting on the C-Suite women’s attire. Men aren’t usually subjected to that sort of criticism. In general, thanks to social media and celebrity influencers, we’re become a very youth-and appearance-obsessed culture; this permeates every level of our society. Men are also under more pressure to look a certain way. Almost everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve seen diet culture firsthand of not being good” enough and a constant benchmarking of oneself to what’s societally acceptable.
There are interesting ties between diet culture and racism, the idea of bigger bodies being “bad” came out of racist texts in fashion magazines. Sabrina Strings has a phenomenal book on the subject called “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia.”
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?
Absolutely. I couldn’t afford daycare when my husband and I first got married. I worked from home until my son was 17 months old. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it. I would get up early and work as much as I could, squeezed in meetings during his nap times, and did calls on LONG stroller walks. I learned the art of time management by being a mother, but it took a giant toll on me emotionally and physically. I think women leaders often don’t grasp the lifestyle change that happens when they become mothers. I wasn’t prepared. Maybe parenthood isn’t something you’re ever quite ready for, but it made me realize that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to give new mothers and fathers more time to adjust to their changed realities. I think employers could be more sensitive to this and expand on their maternity and paternity plans.
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?
Setting boundaries. Having had an ED (eating disorder), I learned that two of my root issues were perfectionism and people-pleasing. When I recognized this, I learned to set boundaries and prioritize self-care. If I don’t take care of myself or speak up when a deadline is unrealistic, then I’m doing myself harm. Sure, sometimes, we all need to burn the midnight oil, but if you consistently say yes, then people are going to expect more and more. You know the old saying, “you give an inch, they take a mile.” It’s about giving and receiving and respecting your humanity and limitations.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am 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 is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
I think women are held to stricter beauty standards than men. The best way to change that, is to rebel against them. For years, I tried to fit the cookie cutter definition of a successful woman. Being first generation American, there was a spoken expectation to live up to Anglo-centric (white) beauty ideals: blonde and thin. For years, I played the role, but after getting therapy, I learned to find myself and strip away the expectations. Today, I exercise because I like to. I don’t wear makeup most days. I dye my hair whatever color I want, and I don’t shave my underarms if I don’t feel like it.
I think feeling confident and beautiful is important, but on your own terms and whatever defines that for you. I can wear a hoodie and feel like a rockstar. I can wear a cocktail dress and feel self-conscious. I can torture myself in heels, or wear sneakers so I can pace and think in comfort. Each person is different. You have to find your beautiful. For me that’s black dresses (40s/50s styles , tees from my favorite places, unstyled hair, and my favorite scented hand cream.
How is this similar or different for men?
I think men are under increased pressure to look a certain way. You’ll see men of all ages at the gym, trying to get fit and muscular. Also, the rise in beauty and skincare brands for mean also hints that men are feeling the pressure too. Another good, but unfortunate indicator, is the rise in male eating disorders.
Again, the constant ads, celebrities, and influencers are putting pressure on kids, teens, and adults to look and act a certain way. My advice is doing the work, being curious about who you are and who you are becoming. Take courses, dive into new subjects. Focus on creating a beautiful soul instead of a beautiful body.
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.)
- Resilience — I wanted to be a paid writer. I was a waitress, and I would spend my free time writing. I always had a notebook on me. Working in restaurants, helping the chef and kitchen staff, I learned a lot about food. I come from a foodie family; my great-grandmother worked in the German embassy’s kitchens in Istanbul. I wrote about food for free for years. I didn’t give up. I took any writing gig that came my way. From art collector apps to industrial hardware to Manhattan restaurant reviews, no topic was off limits. Eventually, writing a whole bunch, helped me create a diverse online portfolio and got me into Creative Circle, which launched my career.
- Self-Care — For years, I worked LONG hours. I put myself last. I would take my work home with me because I wanted so badly to succeed. Unfortunately, working “all the time” left me angry, isolated, and bitter. I stopped and decided to volunteer in Armenia for a few months. It was the best experience of my life. Seeing how people there balanced work, life, family, and friendships helped me reprioritize what’s important to me.
- Mentors — I’ve had so many great mentors in my life. The first person who took a chance on me was a recruiter named John Fischer. He gave me so much great advice and helped me advocate for myself. The others are Chris Dutton, who is one of the most brilliant leaders I’ve met. He’s got the type of innate emotional intelligence that most people spend their entire lives seeking. Nicole Sholly, my friend and editor, honed me into a better writer. And my newest mentor, Angela Yuriko Smith, who is my soul sister from another mother. She is passionate driven, witty, and so wonderfully open and non-judgmental. I could go on extolling the virtues of my mentors, but my advice is, if you see someone you admire — -someone who has qualities you know you need to work on — -listen to those people and spend time with them. You’ll learn so much and teach them things in return too. Good relationships are never one-sided.
- Unplugging — My husband teases me about never having my phone one me. If I go for a walk, I will leave my phone at home or leave it in my backpack. I don’t take it because I’m consciously unplugging. We’re constantly surrounded by technology. It’s healthy for your mind and body to step away every day, even if it’s for five or ten minutes.
- Curiosity — my grandmother used to joke that I was too curious for my own good. I love to read and watch TV. I’m passionate about all types of subjects. For example, a dear friend of mine is into World War II history. I had never had a deep interest in it, but he was so passionate about it and was such a great storyteller that I got drawn in. I started watching shows and reading books about it. If you see my college transcript, everything from Astronomy to Ancient Roman History to French Film to National Parks Management on there. While I read a lot of digital content every day, I still love going to a bookstore or a library and picking something out that tickles my fancy. Right now, I’m reading a book about the Irish Diaspora.
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’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with Jenna Johnson, Patagonia’s new CEO. I love Patagonia and deeply respect the company’s mission and values. I’d love to chat with Jenna about what’s next. If I could book a table for three, I’d also invite James Reinhart, the CEO of ThredUP. I’m sure the three of us would have fascinating conversations about fashion and sustainability.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.