5 Female Executives Share Insights For International Women’s Day 2020

According to the most recent Fortune 500 list (June 2019), 33 companies of the highest-grossing firms are led by female CEOs. While it’s a record, the sum represents a disproportionately small share as a whole; just 6.6%. It also marks a considerable jump from 2018’s total of 24, or 4.8%.

In YPO, women CEOs are working to create balance for a better world and for better business. Equality is a business issue.

Gender equality is essential for economies and communities to thrive.

While there are a multitude of complex reasons why more women are not CEOs, including life choices, societal stereotypes of what a CEO should be, how they are supposed to spend their time and what their lifestyle is supposed to look like still exist.

“The reality is that today you can be a mom, have a working spouse, work fewer than 60 hours a week AND be a CEO without giving up anything else,” says Kimberly Jones, President and CEO of U.S. media and communications agency Butler/Till. “In fact, I think some of the best CEOs I know are women because they seek balance and are more receptive to alternative styles of work.”

Adds Rana el Kaliouby, Ph.D., Co-Founder and CEO of Affectiva and the author of the forthcoming book, Girl Decoded. “While we need to strive for more women in CEO and executive roles, we need to consider the whole ecosystem of their industry – in my case, in technology – and push for representation in all different areas. To break down barriers, we need to not only focus on specific roles, but also examine the structures that are holding women back.”

Ignite recently asked a group of female YPO members to examine what may be holding women back earlier in their career lifecycle by sharing top leadership lessons they wish they had known at age 25. Here’s what they said:

Get a mentor. “As a 25-year-old in Africa, it was not easy to find a mentor who told me the way to go in life. That’s among the reasons why I made a lot of long-term errors,” says Patricia Nzolantima, Chairwoman at Bizzoly Holdings. “I needed a mentor to teach me about being focused.” That is one of the reasons Nzolantima created a Women’s Economic Empowerment Hub (The Working Ladies Hub) in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, designed to incubate and accelerate female-owned companies. “People talk a lot about empowering women,” she says. “But how can we empower women if we don’t give them the tools and skills to grow their businesses?”

Do not hesitate to ask. “This is a life lesson,” says Sima Ved, Vice Chairperson of Apparel Group, a Dubai-based global fashion powerhouse and lifestyle retail conglomerate. She continues, “Whether this applies to negotiating contracts, locations for stores, even acquiring new brands, nothing is carved in stone and being an entrepreneur means being able to gauge how much ‘give’ there is from the other side!”  Ved believes the No. 1 reason women get discounted at work is because they try to behave like men. “This incongruent behavior makes us appear insincere. We have our own strengths when it comes to aesthetics, instinct and customer/client rapport. It’s detrimental for us to act like men and get into pissing contests or cigar room debates. We need to retain our gender authenticity and integrity.”

Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. “So many times, I wouldn’t speak up because I didn’t feel I was mature enough or had enough life experience to say what my ‘gut’ was telling me,” says Angela Hurt, Founder and CEO of Veracity Consulting. While gaining subject matter expertise and collecting and processing the right data is valuable, Hurt says, sometimes this must be balanced with an equal dose of intuition.

“I think many women fear making a mistake, which means they don’t always make a bold move that could deliver great learning lessons,” says Hurt. “When I speak to younger women, I always tell them to do something that scares the hell out of them — something they fear they can’t do.” That’s truly when women business leaders find out what you’re made of explains Hurt. “That’s what creates the growth you need to move toward that CEO position.”

Learn the nuances of managing people. Throughout most of her 30s, Jones says she viewed managing people as largely “directing others” and managed each person the same way because she was inexperienced. “While consistency is important, I have learned the nuances of managing different types of individuals, taking the time to understand what motivates them and how to draw out their strengths,” she says.  “Today I view managing not just as directing people on what to do but rather removing obstacles and creating the environment for them to be successful.”

“We need to retain our gender authenticity and integrity.” Sima Ved, Vice Chairperson Apparel Group 

Network with like-minded peers. When she was younger, el Kaliouby was so focused on her research on artificial emotional intelligence, that there was no time to network. “It had a huge impact on me, personally and as a leader,” she says. “As a CEO, I’ve often found myself lonely. I can’t vent or share my deepest concerns with my team, or my investors or board of directors. And family or friends may not always know how to help. That’s why it’s so valuable to actively surround yourself with role models and peers.”

El Kaliouby suggests joining organizations like YPO because it allows women, and business leaders in general, a space to get advice from others who have gone through similar experiences, and a safe environment to share deep fears or seek input on dilemmas you may be facing.

“For years I was my own biggest obstacle. But once I re-framed the doubting voice in my head, I realized that the board, our investors and our team were all on board with me being CEO,” she says.

For these YPO female CEOs, their overarching advice to younger women is to raise their hand and go for the opportunities they want. The voice in your head can hold you back, or it can be your best advocate. And once you’ve found your voice, el Kaliouby says, “use it to not only propel yourself forward, but also to help elevate other women.”

Mary Sigmond is a content strategist, an award-winning storyteller and editor in chief of YPO's Ignite digital magazine. She has the pleasure of telling the engaging stories of some of the most influential young business leaders who are making an impact across the globe.