Speaking at the first annual Women in Business Symposium at Torrey Pines High School, sales executive Marie LeRose offered insights learned over her long career: Don’t focus on title or money. Don’t give up on a class or job that you think is too hard or just for men. Don’t be jealous, work harder.
“Be a ladder,” LeRose said. “As you climb up the corporate ladder, bring the next woman with you. We want to bring other strong women with us.”
On Feb. 7, local business women like LeRose reached back to help the next generation of girls at the inaugural event hosted by the Torrey Pines High School Foundation. Throughout the morning students heard from the guest speakers about making the best first impressions in interviews, the advantages and challenges of being a woman in business, how to command respect and how to balance a successful career as well as having a family, as all of the speakers do as mothers to former and current Torrey Pines students.
The speakers and panel included Pam Hendrickson, founder and owner for Content Solutions Group, a marketing and content development business; Dr. Pamila Brar, the medical director for Human Longevity, Inc; Shelley Stevenson, the owner of construction company GeoX Inc; Trindl Reeves, chief sales officer at Marsh and McLennon Insurance Agency; and LeRose, an account executive for Blackboud, a company that sells management software to nonprofits.
“I want you to walk out of today with a renewed sense of confidence and excitement about what’s possible,” said Hendrickson, who led the symposium.
After Hendrickson graduated from Brown University, she worked for Tony Robbins as the vice president of content and product development at Robbins Research International. In speaking about finding balance in life, she talked about how she redesigned her extremely busy corporate identity to allow herself the ability to run her own business and have the lifestyle that she wanted of being a wife and mother.
In addition to redefining her corporate identity, Hendrickson said she was also challenged to redefine her identity as a woman when she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer six months ago and lost all of her hair. In a striking moment, Hendrickson took off her wig to reveal her bald head to the students, saying: “What makes me a woman is what I carry in my heart and mind, my courage and my strength.”
Hendrickson addressed the leadership gap that exists for women and highlighted the qualities that make women strong leaders, such as a tendency toward greater inclusiveness, creativity, empathy and better listening and communication skills.
“We need more women to lead,” Hendrickson told the young women. “So lead and, as you lead, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You have an opportunity to learn from your mistakes.”
When it comes to making mistakes, Reeves said the biggest one she sees women make is not putting their hands up when there are job openings, not going after the next job or promoting themselves in the office or advocating for pay they deserve.
“If you see something you want, set a path to make it happen and make it known, otherwise no one will know to help you get there,” Reeves said.
Reeves has 30 years of experience in the insurance industry but took a somewhat unexpected path to get there, despite her best laid plans.
A standout high school athlete, Reeves had designs on running in the Olympic Trials as a junior in high school until she broke her ankle, ruining her chances to attend UCLA on a scholarship. Instead, she went to UC Irvine and, to make money as a college student, started making cold calls for an insurance company.
After asthma sidelined her Olympic running plans for good, she took the plunge in the male-dominated field of insurance sales where she had demonstrated a true talent. She worked at Marsh and McLennon for 12 years before going to a small firm and doubling its business, which eventually led to it being acquired by Marsh.
She is now back at the company where she started, working as the chief sales officer, selling insurance to companies such as Cinepolis, Monster Energy and Bumblebee.
“I love it like the first day I ever did it,” Reeves said.
Reeves said in her career she’s learned that loving what you do is important, that, in business, relationships matter and that where there’s work ethic, there’s reward.
When the audience asked the panel how women can compete with men in business, Reeves said it all comes down to work ethic.
“There’s no substitute for good,” Reeves said. “If you get results, there’s no argument.”
Brar, an internal medicine doctor who now sits at the table on the management team for the genomics-based health intelligence company Human Longevity, said she was once advised to wear fake glasses in order to be taken more seriously by men.
For Brar, she believes all it takes to be taken seriously is confidence.
Raised by Indian immigrants, Brar said her parents always told her: “Don’t think of yourself as any different.” That was sometimes a challenge living in Louisiana but it was a mindset she has also applied to being a woman in business: She doesn’t think of herself as any different but also celebrates what makes her unique.
“You teach people how to treat you,” Brar said, noting that women should love being women and acknowledge what makes them different or unique as it can become a strength. “Understand your value and if you bring that confidence to the table, you can hold your own and feel respected.”
Like Reeves, Stevenson’s plans for the future “zigged and zagged” and she went with it, finding herself getting her contractor’s license and founding Geo X, a construction company specializing in retaining walls for all kinds of development.
“We may have best-laid plans but things change. Be open to those opportunities, be flexible and explore because you never know what path is going to be best for you,” Stevenson said.
For Stevenson, her plan was to go to Arizona State University but a teacher encouraged her to check out Stephens College in Missouri, an all-female university she could’ve never imagined. She thrived at Stephens, becoming the president of her college and getting her degree in business administration.
Stevenson said being a woman-owned company in a male-dominated industry has been an “awesome” experience.
“This industry is fun because we’re building the future every day,” Stevenson said.
LeRose, a mother of four children, found her ideal job with Blackbaud. Her career allows her to travel all over the world, which she loves, and she has the flexibility to work from home and be there for her family. That afternoon she was going to her daughter’s soccer game at 3 p.m. before catching a flight to San Francisco.
LeRose got her computer science degree and MBA from the University of Alabama and got her start in the business world in high tech sales—she has learned a lot from working for big companies as well as starting her own company, Destinations4Good, which helps connect people with volunteer opportunities as they travel the world.
LeRose encouraged the young women to ask lots of questions and network, to intern, find a mentor, travel, put their hands up for opportunities, challenge themselves and shine by being positive.
Many girls at the symposium had the “#MeToo” movement on their minds and asked panelists about their experiences with sexual harassment.
Stevenson said she had experience with sexual harassment in her very first job as a 15-year-old high school student. She loved her job and didn’t want the advances from her boss at the time to force her to quit so she stood up for herself and drew the line—he was ashamed and apologetic and they were able to work alongside each other in a respectful work relationship.
“I don’t know how I found the strength,” Stevenson said of her teenage self. “I challenge you in life to draw the line. It’s so flipping hard but once you do it you will get stronger.”
Reeves said it is a new day and it is important for women to speak out authentically but she cautioned against having a victim mentality: “You can be upset, angry or hurt but don’t wallow in that. At some point, you have to regenerate, be stronger and come out the other side.”
“Being a powerful woman means having respectful and empathetic relationships with men,” Hendrickson said. “It doesn’t mean putting down men. It’s about equality. And we have to lead.”