Women may be a minority in the business world, but we've definitely arrived.
Early last week, I spent three days among some of the most powerful people in business, media, and innovation at Dell's 5th annual Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network, or DWEN, conference in Austin.
Yet even before touching down in the Texas capital, I came across a glorious sight: a newsstand brimming with women on the cover of glossy magazines. Not only did Brandi Temple of Lolly Wolly Doodle grace the cover of Inc., Yahoo's Marissa Mayer surfaced on Fortune, while the cover of Forbes showcased GM's Mary Barra, and Fast Company magazine showcased actress Anna Kendrick.
That's right. A number of leading monthly business--not fashion or gossip--magazines sporting the faces of some of the most creative, interesting, and controversial people: women.
It's easy to get caught up in conversations about gender disparity, the haves and have-nots, and a variety of other topics that make great headlines and likewise drive click-throughs. Vanity, at best.
The reality of today's business landscape, when reflecting on the past week, is this: Being a woman in business, surrounded by supportive male counterparts, is perhaps not the point anymore. That point has been proven. We are here.
Standing. Sitting. Executing. Empathizing. Supporting others in their pursuits, but not--God help us--at the expense of our own dignity.
As I sat among the innovators and business leaders of DWEN, which considers itself a "business conference, not women's conference," it was clear to me that the future of business is shifting under our feet. By and large, female-led thinking and strategy are driving this shift.
So what do these women see as most important to the future of business?
Empathy-driven, customer-first decision making
The rise of women in all areas of business, in addition to females making the majority of household buying decisions, has created an interesting shift in how to approach customers. Sprinkle social media on top, and what you have is a continuous feedback loop of buyers who are motivated by emotional responses and feelings of connection.
"We want an Internet that is broadening, not narrowing, our scope," remarked Nuala O'Conner, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, as she recounted a story involving her 6-year-old daughter's preprogrammed e-reader.
"The books targeted at her were all Barbie. The screen was pink. Barbie books are marketing materials," she says, adding: The algorithm was narrowing her experience. "She was being told 'this is what's good enough for you.'"
The point? Understanding your customer is possible only if you first empathize with him or her. By alienating him or her (or worse, pissing him or her off), you have no chance of building his or her trust or winning his or her business. Furthermore, the "Jobsian notion" of telling the customer what he or she needs (because he or she doesn't know what he or she needs) may be passé and likely worth rethinking.
Data-driven outcomes (with a side of humanization)
For anyone making executive decisions, it's impossible to undermine the importance of data in today's rapidly moving and changing business environment. Data allows companies to identify patterns, profile customers, and push products to market faster and with less risk.
But what are the boundaries, and how do we avoid neglecting the humans beneath our growing piles and piles of unstructured data?
Connie Guglielmo, editor in chief of CNET News, when leading an in-depth discussion about the "data economy," made an astute observation about its power:
"With data, we can adapt more quickly and adjust to changes, and we have a responsibility to care about that data. But there also has to be an environment of trust, and we have an obligation to do the right thing." She added that the first question must always be: "What is the goal and outcome of the data collection?"
In other words, it's no longer acceptable to blindly collect and process data without thinking about the endgame. Strategically, this makes sense: When humans stop opting-in, for fear of theft or perhaps because they grow weary of annoying, incoherent targeting, data will ultimately lose its power.
O'Conner perhaps summed it up best: "Big Data is a lot of little data put together, and collectively, this is data about a human being. We must remember the person and be mindful of the consequences."
A gender-agnostic business paradigm
Founder of Change the Ratio and The Li.st, Rachel Sklar, who is most well known as an outspoken advocate for advancing women in business, touched on a pivotal aspect of the evolving business landscape, which happens to be favoring women more and more:
"I'm always reluctant to attach the phrase 'woman' to something because often, as soon as you do, people dismiss it as not important or relevant. Instead, we have to figure out how we can use the skills we have to move the needle, and raise the visibility of women, from a practical standpoint."
To her point, practically speaking, most female leaders I encounter also have this view of gender conversations. Although it's important to acknowledge and understand the differences, the best-case scenario for everyone is that we look at the strengths of women and men as an aggregate force and allow space for variant thinking, working styles, decision-making approaches, and ultimately capacity to lead.
ROI: return on impact
What drives women in business is no longer about proving their worth as a female. Ultimately, what they/we really want and need is to be given the infrastructure, resources, and opportunities to have the most impact.
"I have never considered myself a feminist or a female entrepreneur," said Jane Poynter, pioneer in the "space travel" industry and CEO of World View Enterprises. "I'm just an entrepreneur. My advice to other women: Don't focus on being female. Focus on being the best entrepreneur and businessperson you can be." Nicely said, right?