Today I received an invitation to connect from a someone who said she’d first heard of me when she listened to a speech I gave two years ago on being an entrepreneur and about my company, APPCityLife®, Inc.. It never really occurred to me that something I said so long ago might still be remembered. It brought home the lesson of just how important it is for us to take seriously the influence we have and to use it to inspire, encourage, and help those around us. This past week, strong reactions have arisen in response to the actions of women with the power to evoke great influence on a national, and even international scale. And as I’ve pondered the intensity of the backlash and what would cause someone to become that vehement over the choices of a complete stranger, my own experience has made it clear just how much we count on those with influence and power to use it for the greater good – and how disappointed we are when that doesn’t happen.
Sheryl Sandberg, of Facebook, recently launched a new website encouraging women to create “lean in circles” which follow several prescribed steps to help women become better equipped for the work world. Response to the circles and the concepts promoted have been mixed, and some of the reactions have been downright angry. In the same week, news broke of an internal memo sent to Yahoo! employees notifying them that the company was rescinding the current remote working option. Employees were given the choice of finding a way to work on campus or quit. The memo was sent from Marissa Mayer, the company’s CEO who gained international celebrity when she was hired to fill the role of CEO while five months pregnant with her first child. Whether she wanted it or not, she became an icon for equality in the workplace. The backlash to her memo has been strident, with many viewing her choice as a severe blow to working families in general and, more specifically, to working mothers.
As I’ve read numerous reaction essays on both of these women, it struck me that this national hew and cry is mostly coming from people who don’t know either woman and likely will never come in contact. Why then, this strong reaction and fierce judgment of their choices as being “anti women”, “elitist” and several more not-so-printable descriptions? We often have a tendency to immediately pass judgment based on how we believe their choices will the bigger picture. We throw out the specific circumstances of an isolated decision or action and instead extrapolate out our own theories to how those choices will advance or hinder the goals we see are common. The reaction becomes about the ripples created in a very big pond, ripples that others fear will rock the boats for many more as the ripples move out in wider and wider circle.
And as I considered the reaction to the ripples created by both Mayer and Sandberg, it brought to mind one of the worst days I’ve had as CEO of a startup. It was fairly early in my company’s history in the midst of a pivot and a decision to continue bootstrapping instead of seeking early investment. It meant changes in staff (translate: back to bare bones) to stay as lean as possible while we proved our concept and gained traction. In a painful moment, someone I liked and admired told me that I was bad for women, that I didn’t help them but hurt them in the work place. And I think they believed that about me, and it crushed me more than just about anything else that I’ve ever been accused of. I deeply regret that my unintended actions caused someone else to come to that conclusion.
I deeply care about the opportunities and barriers in front of women and have invested a great deal of time and effort to try to reach out to women in our community through internships, public speaking engagements, and mentorships. There are a lot of should’ves and could’ves in all of our closets, but that particular moment will always be a landmark for me for the day I realized just how careful I had to be with my choices, words and influence so I never, ever made another woman feel that way because of her experience with me.
I recently asked Joanne Wilson what inspired her to co-found the Women Entrepreneur’s Festival. “The big mantra then was there was not enough women in tech. I wanted to celebrate the fact that there were.” The ripples from that inspiration have carried far and wide, as women from across the country converge each year to enjoy the positive support, encouragement and sound advice about how to move forward with their dreams. Those are ripples that do good long after they’re started.
The thing about ripples is once you start one, you don’t decide when it stops or where it goes or what is affected by it – for good or for bad. I was glad for the reminder in my inbox this morning that some of the ripples I started quite some time ago are still moving on and having a positive effect.