On each day since 2007, more than 1,000 net new women-owned firms have been launched in the United States, according to this year's OPEN State of Women-Owned Business report, commissioned by American Express OPEN. To celebrate women as key drivers of economic growth, students, aspiring entrepreneurs and business owners came together recently for "Power Play: What Makes Women Great Leaders," a Women's Entrepreneurship Week panel co-sponsored by American Express at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. Moderated by Linda Lacina, managing editor of Entrepreneur.com, the panel focused on the challenges and rewards of female leadership from the distinct perspectives of entrepreneurial, corporate and nonprofit worlds.
In these five tips shared by panelists, you'll find practical and inspiring ideas to help you thrive as a female business owner. And if you're an up-and-coming leader, said American Express Vice President, Global Commercial Payments Barbara Agoglia, who reported to several women on the path to her current role, "Know what inspires and motivates you and find leaders who bring out the best in you."
1. Advocate for other women.
"The one thing I ultimately want to see, especially with young women," said Adenah Bayoh, restaurateur, real estate developer, and founder and CEO of Adenah Bayoh and Companies, "is advocacy—women standing up for each other. We've all been at a table where a woman is marginalized. I'd like to see more of us at the table make more room for each other and speak up for each other."
—Adenah Bayoh, founder, Adenah Bayoh and Companies
"Not black women with black women, or white women with white women," she emphasized, "Just women, sticking up for each other as a powerful group. I'm always looking out for that woman who is not in her power yet or is working her way there. If I witness someone knocking her down, I'm going to absolutely speak up, and I don't care what it costs me."
2. Clarify and communicate your vision.
"Be clear about the cathedral you're building," said American Express's Barbara Agoglia. "No one wants to be a bricklayer, but everyone wants to build a cathedral. As a leader, you have to know and communicate where you're going so that people are really excited about the work they're doing. Focus on what people are good at and maximize that."
3. Listen, learn and be concise.
"Get out there," says Ruthi Byrne, founder of public relations and marketing firm Zinn, Graves & Field Inc. "Go to as many events as you can, and be as knowledgeable as possible. Read the newspapers. Know what's going on in the world. When you engage in conversation, be informed. The more people think you're smart and savvy, the more likely you are to get hired or gain clients."
Panel members from left to right: Debra Vizzi, Gail Mandel, Ruthi Byrne, Adenah Bayoh, Barbara Agoglia
Rather than dominate conversation, she urged, "Be a good listener. If you're talking, you're not selling. People like to hear their own voice, so let them talk. And when you do speak, synthesize your thoughts. Do not ramble. Speak in sound bites. It's the way we remember things."
4. Own your voice and encourage others to speak up.
"I've always been in male-dominated industries," said Gail Mandel, president and CEO of Wyndham Destination Network, which operates more than 112,000 vacation properties worldwide. "At times when I've been told to take the pitch of my voice down when presenting or talking, I've responded with, 'I can't. This is my female high-pitched voice. This is how I was made.' It's about being comfortable with who I am and confident in my competence. If I'm okay with it, everyone will be okay with it."
To encourage other women to get their own voices heard, especially those hesitant to speak in groups, she said, "I take them aside and say, 'I know you have great ideas. Next time we meet, you need to speak up. Because if you don't, I'm going to call on you.' Sometimes the 'wrong position' can be the right position, and we might need to hear that dissenting voice or pushback. I always appreciate folks in the room who are not afraid to take risks—who come prepared to present a problem and a solution."
5. Embrace and share your personal story.
Raised in foster care as a child, Debra Vizzi—now president and CEO of Community FoodBank of New Jersey—emulated those who protected her. "I'll never forget the social worker who rescued me from an abusive foster home at eight years old," Vizzi recalled. "She told me, 'I've got you. You'll be okay,' and that's who I wanted to be. Your personal life can be very useful to your vocation. That story in particular has been very important to my career."
Working under mostly male leaders during her career in human services, she was encouraged to use her voice for good. "It was an interesting transition for me, because as child, I didn't have a voice," she said. "To acknowledge that I had something really valuable to say and transcend that [silence] allowed me to use it for good—for fundraising and to express a mission."