When asked to envision the quintessential CEO, most people imagine a white man with salt and pepper hair and an Ivy League degree hanging in his office.

When a CEO does not match this description, they often face an unspoken -- or spoken -- bias against their qualifications.

Take Holly Tachovsky, CEO of BuildFax, for instance. As she rapidly rose to the top of her company, she felt sincere reservation about her CEO appointment. She considered herself a placeholder CEO who investors might replace when they found a 'real executive.'

Fortunately for BuildFax, Tachovsky wasn't replaced. In the past 24 months, the company's revenue has more than doubled under her leadership and is on pace to double again in the next 18 months.

Just like Tachovsky, there are many unconventional leaders who are challenging the CEO stereotype.

Here are four reasons people think someone isn't "cut out" to run a company and the real-life leaders who are changing people's minds:

You're not white

When Coltrane Curtis, founder and managing partner of Team Epiphany, decided to go into the traditionally white, male-dominated marketing industry he knew he'd have to be fearless. He'd have to find his own way to avoid sacrificing the culture he envisioned for his company.

According to Jarrett Cobbs, vice president of strategy at Team Epiphany, Curtis did that by focusing on what he knew would work.

"For years, [Curtis] walked into the most corporate of boardrooms with his unconventional style and signature dreads and delivered innovative work," said Cobbs. "He's never afraid of a setting, person, or opportunity that allows him to be supremely confident in his personality and the work that he's putting forward."

Cobbs went on to say that what also sets Curtis apart is his dedication to his employees and the family-oriented, multicultural environment he's created.

You're not a man

Once a week at WP Engine, the executives hold a town hall meeting with all the employees. This allows the entire team to share updates and celebrate successes. But for CEO Heather Brunner, the meetings support one of her main goals as a leader: inclusivity.

"The transparency [Brunner] champions has created a culture of employees who see the impact their projects and decisions make to the business," said CRO April Downing. "Every employee feels as if they have a seat at the table and a stake in the company's success."

This is particularly impressive since Brunner has grown the company from 40 employees to more than 450 internationally.

"Not only is she involved in getting the right people in the door, she knows every employee by name and details of their personal life," Downing went on to say. "She is constantly pushing you to think about your next role and how to grow your career."

You don't have an Ivy League business education

Many people think a successful leader should hold an MBA from a prestigious Ivy League university -- but that just isn't true. In fact, research from the CEO Genome Project that was published in the Harvard Business Review in May found that only 7 percent of high-performing CEOs had Ivy League educations.

This is likely because coming from a different educational background gives a person a different perspective. Such is definitely the case with Sash Sunkara who studied engineering at California State University in Sacramento and is now the CEO of RackWare.

"[Sunkara] applied the logic and order that she gained as an engineer to the softer disciplines like sales and marketing," said Todd Matters, CTO and co-founder of RackWare.

"She puts tenacity and perseverance in everything she sets her mind to. Plus, she has an uncanny ability to observe and remember everything. I think her engineering background gave her, as a CEO, a unique perspective and framework upon which she builds and steers the company with."

You're too young

At just 35, Autumn Manning is already the CEO of YouEarnedIt. Instead of focusing on her inexperience, employees have seen that Manning's youth brings valuable insights. She has an innovative and fresh perspective few others have.

"Whenever [Manning] talks about YouEarnedIt, I am inspired," said Kim Dawson, director of employee and customer experience at YouEarnedIt.

"At any point, on any day when things are particularly challenging, listening to Autumn talk about her vision for our company and how what we do makes a difference in people's lives every day truly helps bring things into perspective for me and my day improves."

Published on: Jun 1, 2017
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