She Keene of ‘A Girl Like Me Art’: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”

Women comprise 50% of the population. Statistically, half of the people creating and leading companies should be women! As a society, we should take advantage of the talents all human beings offer. But, women’s contributions are still often overlooked and undervalued. Much like my art serves as a visual reminder that girls and women can […]

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Women comprise 50% of the population. Statistically, half of the people creating and leading companies should be women! As a society, we should take advantage of the talents all human beings offer. But, women’s contributions are still often overlooked and undervalued. Much like my art serves as a visual reminder that girls and women can do anything, more women founders will influence other women to become founders. “Seeing” women in leadership positions is tremendous; as more women create and lead companies, they become role models for other women and young girls to join in.

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

She Keene is a born entrepreneur and fierce believer in the strength and abilities of girls and women. For more than 20 years, she was a robotics programmer and software developer for the Department of Defense industry, all while managing several businesses she built or bought. She now is the Owner, CEO, and Creative Force behind the “A Girl Like Me Art” business, creating designs that empower girls and women to know they can be ANYTHING.

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 “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I graduated from Georgia Tech and for more than twenty years, I had a successful career in Software Consulting and Robotics Programming. Throughout that time, I also created and bought various businesses. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always been drawn to entrepreneurship. I knew I wanted to retire a bit early from my highly technical career and pursue my “Chapter 2” but I had no idea this chapter would include anything art-related. I have ZERO training in art!

I grew up in a small Southern town where traditional stereotypes of women and men were the norm. Once a young girl graduated from high school, she was expected to either marry and start a family or go to college to study either nursing or teaching. Strong female leaders were not the norm. I never saw women CEOs or women running businesses. My view of the world and the possibilities available to women was quite narrow. Fortunately, I had a few things going for me. I performed well in school, I inherited a strong work ethic from my family, and I always had an inner desire to want more. More adventures, experiences, and opportunities. I wanted to do something different and challenging… which in the 1980s led me to Georgia Tech.

I selected Ga Tech because it had a reputation for being the most difficult school in my state. To me, just being accepted at Ga Tech was a monumental achievement. When I arrived on the Ga Tech campus, I looked around and realized there were not many people that looked like me. Lots and lots of men, but very few women. This theme of “very few women” continued as I started my career. When I entered the working world as a Robotics Programmer and Software Developer, I again looked around and didn’t see many women. Because I worked in a predominantly male-dominated career field, more often than not, I was the only woman in the room. I regularly out-performed my male colleagues, but I was still viewed as a woman first and a professional second.

Then, when I divorced and chose to raise my daughter on my own, I realized how it felt to be a “single Mother”. I am a fierce believer in the strength and abilities of girls and women. I am constantly inspired by the things that females accomplish. This inspiration began to develop as I raised my young daughter. It’s difficult raising any child, especially as a single parent. Raising a confident daughter in a world saturated with materialistic role models is especially challenging. I found there weren’t many positive role models for young girls, but the amount of negative, misogynistic rhetoric was overwhelming.

These experiences and my passion for raising confident girls, women’s rights, and equality for all shaped me. As I started to create my “Chapter 2”, I discovered mixed media art. I loved it immediately because there are no rules. You can create beautiful and inspirational pieces from anything! I knew I wanted to create more than just beautiful art; I wanted to create art with a message. Misogyny and sexism are alive and well. Inequality still exists. Women are still looked at as women first, then professionals… maybe. Through my art, and the words and dates I incorporate in my art, I want to change the way the world views and treats girls and women. I want to empower girls and women to have confidence and know for sure, they can do ANYTHING. I want girls and women to be surrounded in their daily lives with inspiration and visuals showing them their dreams are possible. “Seeing” is powerful. Do you know how empowering it is as a young girl or woman to see someone that looks like you in a position of leadership? Think of how many young girls are now inspired to be the VP of the United States simply because they see Kamala Harris, a strong, accomplished, and intelligent woman in that position. I wish I had these visuals when I was a young girl.

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

I live in a small, conservative Southern town. Not for a minute did I believe my art and my message of female empowerment would resonate with people in my community. However, it does! My art is featured at a local gift and art emporium and for the past two years, it has been the highest selling line at the gallery. I think that’s exciting, interesting and fascinating.

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?

So, at the time, this wasn’t funny, but looking back, I can chuckle about it. When I was in the early stages of trying to create my “Chapter 2”, and in the spirit of multi-tasking, I pursued so many possibilities… simultaneously. I turned wood on a lathe and created beautiful bowls; I thought seriously about growing my real estate portfolio since I already had several rental properties; I started painting furniture; I looked into buying an independent book store; I discovered art, specifically mixed media and encaustic art. I overextended myself so much that I found myself on the floor of my studio weeping because my head was filled with constant ping-pong balls! My lesson learned was FOCUS. Focus on my North Star. Art kept calling me, and I finally listened.

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?

Scott Mitchell is the owner of Travis Jean Emporium in downtown Macon, Ga. Scott took me under his wing very early on and immediately agreed to feature my art in his lovely shop. Scott is a huge advocate for all artists in the community and is a fierce voice in the fight for equality. Scott brought exposure to me, my art, and my message. He provides a space, both emotionally and physically, that allowed my brand to be seen by so many people. We share a passion for equality and respect for all human beings.

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?

Wow… so many! As you may guess, books that have strong female characters speak to me. Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things was fantastic. The heroine is a brilliant woman named Alma, and she teaches us that women are quite capable of living a full and satisfying life without a partner. This greatly resonated with me because I, too, lived most of my life without a partner and that time was extremely full and always exciting. I also keep Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic within reach at all times to lift me up in moments of self-doubt. Glennon Doyle’s Untamed inspired me to create a series of art depicting women breaking free of the cages that society or family still expects women to live within.

I recently finished The Four Winds by Kristen Hannah and was so captivated, I immediately re-read it. The story depicts a young Mother Elsa and her two children trying to survive during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. This book resonated with me because it speaks to the strength, bravery, and unwavering love of a Mother for her children. It speaks to being strong enough to stand up for what is right, even when the consequences are dire. And it speaks to strong women doing the work that changes the world for the better.

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

Oh, I have so many!I incorporate words into each piece of art I create because I believe words matter and serve to start conversations. So, here are a few that have deep meaning for me.

  1. “To those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” I worked for more than twenty years in a male-dominated environment. It took me a minute to understand that I was being treated differently than my male counterparts not because I was less intelligent, but because I was a woman. This quote helps me better understand why some men are strongly resistant to equality; to men, equality feels like the privileges they’ve had for their entire lives are being taken away from them. For example, in the past, men only had to compete with other men for jobs; now, they have to compete with the other 51% of the population, aka, women.
  2. “I didn’t wake up today to be mediocre.” I’m not sure who coined this phrase, but it resonates with me because my family taught me the importance of a strong work ethic.
  3. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt. Although I believe this quote applies to all genders, I think it is most applicable for young girls and women. I challenge young girls and women to say this to themselves daily, maybe even several times a day.
  4. “I can’t settle for just anything. My daughter is watching.” This speaks to me because I raised a daughter as a single parent. I believe our girls watch us and soak in every detail. She may grow up to emulate you, or not, but she will remember your actions.
  5. “You may shoot me with your words. You may cut me with your eyes. You may kill me with your hatefulness. But still, like air, I’ll rise.” Maya Angelou This quote epitomizes the struggle women and minorities have had, and continue to have in many ways, fighting for equality. But still, like air, WE will rise.

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

During the first 25 years of my adult life, I built a very successful career in the software industry. I also bought and created various businesses along the way. I took this success and all the lessons learned to create a beautiful business that empowers girls and women. I believe “Girls can’t be what they can’t see”, so I intend to show them through A Girl Like Me Art. I believe that girls and women can be ANYTHING, but often they don’t know it because they haven’t seen it. I create art and art-inspired products that empower young girls and women to “see” the tremendous possibilities the world offers. Possibilities not just for men, but them also!

I didn’t “see” these possibilities when I was young, and I know there are many young girls and women today that also don’t see the possibilities available to them. My art depicts women in strong leadership positions, and young girls doing fantastical things. I want to flood the world with these visuals so that the idea of a woman President or astronaut or weight lifter is the rule and not the exception. Unfortunately, when people visualize successful leaders, they see a man and not a woman. My art strives to change that.

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?

I think many barriers hold women back from pursuing entrepreneurship and a big one is women don’t “see” other women entrepreneurs. As more women establish and lead companies, it becomes more attainable for other women to do the same because they “see” someone that looks like them in those positions. An interesting 2013 study by Harvard showed exposure to highly successful women leaders (in this case, an image of Hillary Clinton) improved women’s performance and self-evaluation in stressful leadership tasks. (Latu, Ioana M., et al. “Successful female leaders empower women’s behavior in leadership tasks.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49.3 (2013): 444–448.)

From a purely social standpoint, I believe we haven’t yet realized the potential women offer. Women are still considered “less than” in many religions, workplaces, and life. Why do so many continue to ignore the potential women can offer?! You would think as a society that we would want to take advantage of the skills and capabilities of ALL the population, not just half of it.

Women are held to a different standard. When a woman walks into a conference room, points are “deducted” simply because she is a woman. In my experience, when a man walks into that same conference room, points are “added” simply because he is a man. Women have to work harder to get the same level of respect.

Women, especially Mothers, have less time to pursue entrepreneurship. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, women spend about four hours a day on “unpaid” work (household chores and child care), compared with about 2.5 hours for men. In her work and research, Melinda Gates found that on average, the time women spend performing unpaid labor is about seven more years than men. Think about it… this is the time it takes to complete a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. These antiquated gender stereotypes and expectations still exist, leaving less time and potential investment dollars available for women entrepreneurs.

Women have less access to investment dollars. Venture Capitalists are primarily men and they tend to give money to companies that are run by people that look like them. According to a report from Women in VC, only 5% of venture capitalists are women. According to Crunchbase News, only 2.3% of startup venture capital in 2020 went to women-led startups. When you realize that 40% of US businesses are women-owned, those figures are stunning.

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

A Girl Like Me is built around empowering girls and women to know they can be ANYTHING… the President, a Scientist, a Farmer, or an Entrepreneur. Through my art and the words and dates I incorporate within my art, young girls begin to understand the possibilities available to them because they “see” it.

I incorporate a slightly hidden date in each piece that represents a day in history that a woman performed a fantastical feat for the rest of us ladies. In fact, one of the dates I’ve used in my art is the birthdate of Madam CJ Walker. Most people have never heard of Madam Walker, but she was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. She launched her entrepreneurial journey with a hair growth formula she developed, then built upon that success by creating a line of shampoos and cosmetics. Did I mention that Madam Walker was an orphan, married by the age of 14, widowed at 20, and was a single Mother who worked as a wash woman? Take that!

As a single Mother raising a daughter, I was always aware that I was the primary role model for my daughter. I hope that I serve as a role model to other young girls, as well. I’ve been an entrepreneur for most of my life. A Girl Like Me Art is a company that I never dreamed I would create, but here I am loving the challenge.

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?

Women comprise 50% of the population. Statistically, half of the people creating and leading companies should be women! As a society, we should take advantage of the talents all human beings offer. But, women’s contributions are still often overlooked and undervalued. Much like my art serves as a visual reminder that girls and women can do anything, more women founders will influence other women to become founders. “Seeing” women in leadership positions is tremendous; as more women create and lead companies, they become role models for other women and young girls to join in.

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?

  1. I believe empowering girls at a young age is critical for them to fully understand they, too, can create and lead companies. According to Glennon Doyle’s research for Untamed, ten is the age when young girls begin to lose who they are. We start teaching our young girls how to please and be accommodating. In contrast, we teach our boys to be strong and aggressive and to go after leadership positions. Let’s all agree to raise strong girls, teach them to use their voice loudly, but respectfully, and to know for sure they can do anything. Let’s all agree to encourage not just boys to pursue leadership roles, but also girls.
  2. I often tell my daughter I wish I had learned how to effectively debate. I believe debate increases our confidence, poise, and self-esteem. I also believe it fosters quick critical thinking and teaches us how to effectively articulate and professionally defend a point. Respectful debate is necessary for navigating life, and I believe it offers the tools to more effectively knock down obstacles, many of which hold women back. Imagine if “Respectful Debate — 101” was a required school curriculum for all young people. It could only garner good results, right?
  3. Women and minorities must always, always VOTE. This is the single most important privilege we should value, protect, and utilize. Voting is how women can create real and broad change to empower not only women entrepreneurs, but all women. Gloria Steinem brilliantly summed it up by saying: “The voting booth is still the only place that a pauper equals a billionaire and any woman equals any man. If we didn’t fall for the idea that our vote doesn’t count — an idea nurtured by those who don’t want us to use it — we could elect feminists, women of all races, and some diverse men, too, who actually represent the female half of the country equally.”
  4. I wish someone had taught me earlier that failure is part of the journey. I believe more women than men are afraid to fail, and this fear holds them back. The most important part of failure is learning. If you learn something, then it’s not a failure, it’s a success! Let’s teach our young girls that failure is not a bad thing; it’s an incredible opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t work. Then, you can make adjustments and keep moving forward.
  5. Support your local women-owned businesses. When you buy from women-owned businesses and you tell friends about the business, you are offering invaluable exposure for the owner and the business. Highlight local women-owned businesses in newspapers and social media. Not only does this help the business become successful, but it also shows other women and girls visuals of successful women founders! “Girls can’t be what they can’t see”… so let’s show them.

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.

The world was created by men for men, specifically wealthy men. They hold the power. Since men comprise about 50% of the population, we are not tapping into the capabilities of the other 50% of the population, aka, women. Imagine if we worked not as “men” and “women”, but together collectively as human beings, without sexism or misogyny or any other inequalities. Imagine what we could do collectively. Combat pandemics, improve education, and fight poverty are a few that come to mind. With permission from the American rock band, I will call my movement “Collective Soul.”

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.

Two people come to mind. Although she wasn’t an entrepreneur, I would have loved to have a private chat with Ruth Bader Ginsburg simply because I believe being in her presence and getting an opportunity to see how she thinks would be incredibly empowering on so many levels.

My next choice is Sara Blakely. If I could have any mentor, it would be her. For me, Sara is the perfect role model of what an entrepreneur is. I listened to her tell her story on a MasterClass podcast. She did what every entrepreneur does, but she did it so brilliantly! Sara found a solution to a problem. Then she researched, created a patent to protect her idea, bravely walked into manufacturing facilities and convinced them to help her create a prototype, created and trademarked a catchy name (Spanx), cleverly convinced a Neiman Marcus buyer to follow her into the ladies room so she could better show the benefits of Spanx, walked into department stores and moved her hosiery to different locations to create more sales, then contacted friends and near-friends and asked them to go into stores and buy her product. Pure Brave Genius! Although I’m a bit older than Sara, she is “who I want to be when I grow up.”

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me at, @agirllikemeart on Instagram and Facebook.

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

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