What does feminism mean to you? Part of what feminism means to me is being able to pull other qualified, ambitious women into positions of power by sponsoring, mentoring, or being a role model. Ambition in Black and White: The Feminist Narrative Revised, a recent Coqual publication, showcases the wisdom of female role models who have climbed the corporate ladder and triumphed against considerable odds. We used their stories and advice to encourage other women to keep striving for that top job.
Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments; Joanna Coles, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine; and Monica Poindexter, head of diversity and inclusion for Roche Diagnostics, are examples of women trailblazers who were courageous and steadfast in their pursuit of a powerful position and some of the advice they share for women coming up the ranks includes:
1. Making Yourself Indispensable
After her sophomore year of college at Princeton, Mellody Hobson came home to Chicago to work at Ariel Investments as a summer intern. She was determined to prove herself at Ariel Investments, working weekends and late nights. "I'd come in, clean off my desk, and look for things to do," she recalls. In particular, she wanted to impress the firm's founder, John Rogers. She knew that John was obsessed with his mail. So, one Saturday morning when the mail bag arrived, she emptied the mail on the floor and began organizing the pile for John and the staff.
"What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who told you to do this?" Rogers asked Hobson when he saw her sitting on the floor. She responded, "I thought it would be nice, since you come in Saturday afternoon, to put aside your mail for you. No one told me to do it."
That was the moment Melody recalls John having an aha! moment. It was then he realized, "Holy s---, she's a keeper!" It had been her mother's advice, says Hobson, that she make herself valuable and indispensable. "She told me, 'You're not going to get fired if they can't live without you,' " recalls Hobson. "And something about that hit home."
2. Leading With a Yes
Joanna Coles, editor-in-chief at Cosmopolitan, won her first television role presenting news on the U.K.'s BBC2 network when the show's intended moderator had a heart attack en route to the studio and died.
"They called me at 4:30 that afternoon and said, 'Can you come in and do the show at 9:30 tonight?' " she says. "It was one of those things. I wasn't ready; I didn't know anything about the subject matter. But I absolutely knew that I had to seize the opportunity."
And she did. She canceled a dinner party she was hosting to take advantage of the opportunity. "I said, 'Of course I can be there, how soon do you need me? What do you need me to do?' " she recalls. Her superiors were highly impressed with her performance and they invited her back. "I presented a rather ramshackle, flung together show but it was live television and that is what you do. It was an incredibly good experience. I presented more shows, and then we moved to the U.S."
Yet women she manages today don't seem to have that same urgency and/or hunger for that stretch assignment. She recalls an instance, while working at Marie Claire, when she ran into Jennifer Westfeldt, who was directing her movie Friends With Kids on the Upper West Side. "I said to her, 'We ought to do something to publicize this.' She said, 'Why don't you send someone?' " So Coles turned to a junior person whose work had impressed her and asked if she would go interview Westfeldt. The junior person declined the opportunity because she had a Super Bowl party that afternoon. "I just couldn't believe that she would rather hang out with her friends than go and interview a female director on the set of her movie for a piece in the magazine," she continues. "It was her job, really, to go and do it." She adds, "It told me a lot about her."
3. Making Difference Your Distinctive Currency
When Monica Poindexter, head of diversity and inclusion for Roche Diagnostics, worked as a recruiter at Genentech, she noticed that every one of the companies competing with hers for diverse talent had a scholarship for students of color who were pursuing degrees in science. Knowing that Genentech also needed that competitive edge, Poindexter worked closely with the company's leadership funding and corporate relationship groups to launch the its first-ever scholarship program for students of color. Within the year, the scholarship launched, and by the time it ended (in 2009, when the company was acquired by Roche, a medical technology developer), it had given out $875 thousand in scholarships and brought 30 to 40 graduates of color into Genentech's workforce.
The launch of this scholarship program enabled Poindexter to develop a brand that made her stand out from other stellar performers at Genentech. "That's how I built my brand," says Poindexter. "I closed that gap, and people took notice."
Professional women need to be dedicated and resilient in their pursuit of a powerful position. The road to success might get tough but stories from female leaders like Mellody Hobson, Joanna Coles, and Monica Poindexter are there to remind women that reaching the top is attainable.