On Monday morning, I woke up at 3:50am and set out for New York City in the middle of a blizzard. My destination was a CEO-only summit for the top 100 fastest growing SaaS companies. For the first time, WeSpire made the list.
I arrived slightly late due to the weather, walked into the room of 40+ CEOs and was relieved as a friendly face, Matt Bellows, a fellow Boston Founder, waved me over to his table and pulled out a chair. Then I looked around the room and my suspicion from a cursory review of the attendee list was confirmed. Yep, I was the only female in the room.
I’m very used to being in the minority. It started in grade school before girls had their own soccer teams. Continued into management consulting where most client teams only had one female on them. Then I went to a business school with a 75/25 ratio. Now I’m in tech, where only 10% of executives are women. I find it easy to get along well with men and have had several outstanding male mentors. I’ve also experienced inequities and endured my fair share of ridiculous comments along the way.
At the break, the organizer thanked me profusely for attending and I asked him if I was the only female CEO on the list. “No, there are 15 others, but they just didn’t show up,” he said in an exasperated tone. As he moved away, Matt asked me if I was speaking, which I wasn’t. “That’s ridiculous. Would you be open to it?” he asked. I thought for a moment and said, “of course”.
I don’t know exactly what Matt said to the organizer, but he likely pointed out that a) every speaker was a white guy b) I have a lot of great experience and c) one reason many of the male CEOs attended was because they’d been asked to speak. If he wanted to ensure better representation, he could have included some of the female CEOs on the agenda.
So at 11am that morning, I found myself on stage, sharing our experience with venture debt to a room full of peers only because a fellow Founder exhibited what it means to be an ally. He noticed an imbalance and spoke up. The room shifted just a little that day as a result.
We all face opportunities in life to be an ally, but it requires a mix of awareness, empathy, courage and persuasion. First, you have to recognize your own privilege. It’s not easy and might be uncomfortable, but everyone has some traits that give them an advantage. It’s not only gender, sexual orientation or racial differences. Are you able-bodied? Are you raising kids with a partner? Are you in the majority age group at work? Second, you have to use your own emotional intelligence and situational awareness to notice when someone is unique or different and may not feel included as a result. A friendly wave and a chair can be a lifeboat for anyone, but particularly someone who’s feeling different. Third, allies use their voice. A kind smile isn’t enough. Allies call out exclusionary behavior, repeat someone’s statement when they’ve been interrupted and give people credit when they are being overlooked. Finally, allies share their ideas and persuade others to improve a situation. I don’t think it took a ton of persuasion for the organizer of the conference to change course, he just needed Matt to push the idea.
Society needs allies. From CEOs and executive teams to middle-managers or factory line workers, data shows that being a minority at work, of any type, at any level, causes increased levels of stress and more negative health outcomes. So as you go about your week, can you look around and find a way to be an ally? Someone out there, maybe even your CEO, needs you.