Originally posted on the MaRS blog on Wednesday, November 14, 2012.
Years ago, while working at TELUS Communications, I attended a morning breakfast panel with three of the company’s top executive women: Karen Radford, Judy Shuttleworth and Janet Yale. All three are exceptionally successful and driven women, and the conversation was refreshingly frank that day.
Instead of the standard “You can do it!” messaging and the typical pink-washing that tends to come from “leadership light” sessions, these women shared their struggles and the difficult choices that they had to make to get to where they were.
After the panel conversation, the executives asked for questions from the floor. One young woman in her early 20s stood and said: “You know, I find it really hard to work with women; it’s like they’re really jealous and catty.”
Almost reflexively, I whispered “Bullshit” under my breath.
Then, almost immediately, I heard Karen Radford say: “You know what? That’s bullshit!”
My jaw just about dropped to the floor. Finally—finally!—I had heard from someone who was like me, someone who was forthright, bold and unafraid to call it out—and she was an executive! She was an executive vice-president and president who was responsible for thousands of team members and millions of dollars of revenue and she thought just like me!
I don’t usually wait around to talk to panellists, but that day I did. I approached Karen and introduced myself, and then I thanked her for her frankness. I told her that, for the first time in my life, I saw myself “up there,” reflected in a position of power and leadership, and that in her own way, she had given me hope.
Karen was so gracious and warm. She said to me, “You know, it’s our greatest strength and our greatest weakness.”
That simple statement has stayed with me ever since, and in my best moments of reflection and vulnerability I come back to it often. It grounds me and it encourages me.
This week is Global Entrepreneurship Week, a time when the entire community of startups, incubators, accelerators and innovation centres comes together to inspire, enlist and encourage everyone who has ever thought about disrupting an industry and putting it all out there to create something that can change the world.
Tied to Global Entrepreneurship Week is the Canadian Mentorship Challenge, a nationwide event and challenge that is intended to create relationships between enterprising Canadians and mentors who are willing to embrace entrepreneurship and help set them on their paths.
Why is it that we need women, specifically, to become mentors in this entrepreneurial space? It’s because there is still an exceptionally low number of women in leadership roles in entrepreneurship and a ridiculous wage gap between women and men who do the same work. It’s also because it has been proven time and time again that when we all win, we all win.
There are a number of fundamental truths out there about the human experience. One of them is that we need to feel that we’re not alone. Seeing women in roles of power and leadership encourages others and sets a precedent for following generations. It allows them to imagine, “Hey, that could be me!” Just think of Jennie Trout or Agnes Macphail.
Get involved! Pay it forward through mentorship
According to Catalyst, when leaders act as mentors and “pay it forward,” the end result is greater advancement and higher compensation. Not only that, but those who have been mentored are more likely to continue that trend themselves. Catalyst has shown through their research that women, indeed, are actively developing other women; they’re actively debunking the “Queen Bee” myth and it seems as though Karen Radford was right all along.
This is why we need women to act as mentors. We need to change the ratio, continue to close the compensation gap and, most importantly, fill the incoming pipeline for economic prosperity and innovation with talented women who bring the perspectives and experiences that our next generation of companies will need in order to succeed on a global scale.