Free Enterprise Staff  | March 26, 2014

3 Women Business Leaders on the Evolving Workplace

Cinnabon, General Motors, Yahoo! These fast-growing list of major U.S. companies with women at the helm indicates there’s no real debate over the role of women in the workplace — all the way up the corporate ladder and across sectors.

Yet if anything, the conversation over how women can and should play a role has only increased in volume with the rising number of business success stories. Should women “lean in” to achieve their goals ahead, as Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, famously declared. Or is the answer to achieving the right balance to “recline”?

Ahead of the Center for Women in Business’s third annual summit, we invited three key speakers at the event to discuss the evolving role of women in the workplace and share some advice with the next generation of women business leaders.

Each of these dynamic leaders brings a unique perspective.

Kat Cole, president of Cinnabon, serves as inspiration for anyone who is trying to work her way up.

Starting out as a Hooters waitress at 17, she went on to become CEO of the restaurant chain. She is widely known for legacy business model innovation, building brands, humanitarian work in the U.S. and Eastern Africa, and mentorship and development of emerging leaders.

Debbie Sterling, founder of GoldieBlox, has made it her mission in life to tackle the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math. Her company, launched in 2012, raised more than $285,000 in 30 days through Kickstarter.

It became the first small business to have a commercial air during the Super Bowl after winning a contest by Intuit.

Jeanette Hernandez Prenger is founder, president, and CEO of Ecco Select, an IT consulting and services firm that is consistently ranked one of the top 500 Hispanic Businesses in the country. She was recognized last year as an Enterprising Woman of the Year due to her leadership and support for women in business.

These three inspiring women business leaders share their thoughts below:

Will the role of women in the workplace still be a topic of discussion in a decade, and how do you see the debate evolving?

Cole: The debate is evolving in three ways: It is more visible — between recently published successful books, media attention and public policy discussion, it is more in the forefront than it has been in quite some time.

It is segmenting — as it becomes more visible, women themselves are starting to break down the debate by socioeconomic status, race, age and more. That’s a good sign — people are personalizing as a result of trying to connect the broad messages to their situation and noticing a disconnect. That will pull out the variety of perspectives and voices that need to be heard to fully understand the landscape and drivers of the debate.

In some ways, it is making a growing impact (whether it’s the growing knowledge that gender diverse teams drive stronger financial results or the elevation of women as breadwinners and the topic of women on corporate boards and executive teams). In some ways it isn’t fast enough or progressive enough, but relative to where things were, some areas, companies and industries have made progress.

Sterling: We hope not! With GoldieBlox, our mission is to introduce spatial skills and engineering concepts to girls at a young age in order to give them more options than I had growing up. Most importantly, we aim to develop Goldie as a confident and accessible role model for girls to look up to. When it comes to engineering specifically, women only fill 13% of the jobs, yet nearly 50 percent of the population is female.

By normalizing an increase of women in this field, we hope the conversation about the role of women in the workplace won’t continue to be a topic of discussion far into the future. We realize this is only the beginning and that the work we do now will, hopefully, impact what happens ten years from now. That’s really a tremendous motivator for all of us here and everything we do at GoldieBlox.

Prenger: Unfortunately, I don’t see this debate being drastically different in 10 years. I do believe that we’ll make progress with respect to our ability to be seen as leaders and in the ‘C’ suite. I feel that some of our issues have to do with ourselves, as women, and how we judge each other. Our debate should be about how we respect our choices and help elevate those with potential, talent and drive instead of looking at ways to keep someone out of those leadership roles.

What is your key to success — whether it involves “leaning in,” “leaning back” or your own unique approach?

Cole: I don’t know that there is one key to success for anyone, but there are certainly fundamentals without which success is difficult. First, as it relates to success, I believe it should be defined individually. Success is what you believe is meaningful to and for you. I have always looked up to others and been inspired by others and thereby motivated to achieve my own goals, but I do not let others define my version of success.

Next, keys to achieving my own definition of success have always been: helping others, being curious, assuming positive intent, and building trust and relationships. Businesses are made of people, so ultimately, it’s a social experience, and those tips are about being able to serve and work with people productively and remain in a constant open state of learning and evolution.

Sterling: I’m a true believer in creating your own luck, so at GoldieBlox, we dream in the biggest ways possible.

Rather than sitting on the sidelines, we always say that “no” means “maybe.” You have to go out there and make it happen for yourself. You’re destined to succeed if you adamantly believe that the mission is greater than the company and you work hard toward that end.

Prenger: I didn’t lean in, lean back, but actually “fell into” a unique opportunity. Sometimes “opportunity knocks” and you just have to have faith that the door you open will not slam you in the face or hit you in the butt. I really had no idea how far I could take my concept, but as I kept attaining my goals, I just kept raising the bar.

What essential piece of advice would you give to the next generation of women business leaders? Cole: When you get a seat at the table, be sure you have a voice, too. Don’t just show up; speak up. If you are given a seat and don’t contribute, eventually they wonder why you are there and stop giving seats to people like you. Help others around you make the best of themselves and their circumstances. Represent the human race well.

Sterling: It’s so important to make your voice heard. Start by speaking up in meetings, going way outside of your comfort zone, talking to everyone and anyone to establish relationships with people you normally wouldn’t. Stay focused and put yourself out there in a big way and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Prenger: Find someone you admire and emulate their best attributes. Better yet, use them not just as a role model, but a mentor. Don’t rely on formal mentorships. Seek out those that can help you as you think about your career moves, choices you have and how to avoid pitfalls and follow best practices.