3 Inspirational Women Leaders and What We Can Learn from Them

by Johanna Vondeling

March 21, 2018

The business case is clear. Companies that have more women in leadership roles are more adept at identifying new avenues for growth, building strategic relationships that strengthen businesses, and taking a whole-systems approach to problem solving, according to The Wall Street Journal. More women in leadership positions means better organizations. And the benefits extend beyond profit-and-loss statements into the larger community.

Let’s take a look at three inspirational women leaders who are making a difference in their organizations right now:

Rachel Williams, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at StubHub

Before Rachel Williams became the global head of diversity and inclusion at StubHub in January 2018, she had two stints at Yelp. From June 2010 to August 2011, she served as the Yelp recruiting manager and noticed that she was bringing in the same type of person over and over again.

“That person did not look like me,” Williams said at the 2017 Culture Conference. “There were five black women at Yelp.” And there weren’t conversations about unconscious bias, microaggression, or diversity in the tech field at the time. “I didn’t have the framework, the words to speak about what was happening to me,” said Williams. Not feeling a part of the culture, she walked away from the job. Yelp went public a short time later, and Williams said she “missed out on millions of dollars.”

When she rejoined Yelp in late 2014 as the head of corporate recruiting, diversity, and inclusion, Williams brought an important lesson with her: “The bigger picture is that when African-Americans, Hispanics, women, [and] folks with disabilities leave tech, they’re also leaving opportunities for wealth creation, so this conversation for me is so much bigger than just Yelp or Google,” she said.

One of Williams’ first tasks as head of corporate recruiting, diversity, and inclusion at Yelp was a listening tour of the organization’s offices across the country. She immediately recognized non-inclusive cultures like the very one she had walked away from in 2011. This time, she confronted these issues head-on. “African-Americans and Hispanics were pulling me aside and saying, ‘Can you tone it down with that diversity talk? You’re calling too much attention to us’,” she said. Williams persisted—and she continued to face resistance. When she tried to meet with gay and transgender employees, she was surprised when just five people showed up from an office of 600. When she asked where everyone else was, she was told that other employees didn’t feel comfortable being out at work. “I carry that story with me everywhere I go,” Williams said. Again, diversity without inclusion invariably falls short.

In The End of Diversity As We Know It, Martin N. Davidson writes: “The real value of diversity emerges when exploring difference becomes standard operating procedure. Organizations that [excel] in the global marketplace aren't thinking of diversity as a tangential activity handled by the HR department. Rather, diversity is mission critical.” Williams is a living example of that theory—and her courage to tackle difficult and sometimes uncomfortable challenges head-on has made Yelp a better company.

Today, Yelp offices are home to an LGBTQ employee resources group known as OUTBurst. When Yelp’s product team set out to add a feature that enables users to identify transgender-friendly businesses using the app, members of Outburst played a critical role in its development, demonstrating how employee resource groups can be leveraged in inclusion models. “If Yelp can come from a place where I didn’t feel included as an African-American woman to adding a feature that supports the transgender community, your company can, too,” Williams said.

Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code

Reshma Saujani is the embodiment of persistence. The daughter of Indian refugees, Saujani was rejected from Yale Law School three times before she was finally accepted as a transfer student from Georgetown University. During her convocation address to the 2017 graduating class of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Saujani recalled how she ran for Congress in 2010 and then for New York City Public Advocate in 2013—losing both races. Even still, Saujani found a way to help more people than she could have dreamed of. During her campaigns, as she visited New York City schools, she noticed the computer labs were filled only with boys. This observation led her to founding the company Girls Who Code and discovering her life’s work: breaking down gender and cultural barriers that prevent women from pursuing tech careers.

Through it all, Saujani said she learned that she was chasing perfection—the school of choice, her résumé, her political ambitions—but she already had the tools she needed to make real change. “I didn’t realize then that having that perfect résumé wasn’t what I needed—that I had to just get out there and do it. All that time I spent chasing Yale was time I could have been using to actually make a difference in the world,” Saujani told Quartz at Work. Girls Who Code embodies that message. “We need to start focusing on bravery over perfection,” Saujani told Quarts at Work. “We’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave. Most girls are taught to avoid failure and risk.” The bravery deficit, Saujani continued, is what accounts for the deficit of women in science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

Saujani had the courage to continue moving forward despite adversity and setbacks—and that’s no easy task. The Courage Way, co-written by the Center for Courage & Renewal and author Shelly Francis, explains that the modern world is “beset with rapid changes in culture, government, technology, social mores, expectation, and economic concerns.” The challenge with answering a wake-up call like the one Saujani experienced in the computer lab is that “we might not like the world we wake up to.” The real crisis, the authors argue, hits when “we interpret the world as so awful that it discourages us back to sleep—and we don’t trust in ourselves or each other to have what it takes to work together to find solutions.” Saujani found that trust—and she has inspired others to find it, too.

Kristen Swanson, Customer Experience Chief of Staff at Slack

How do you go from being a third-grade teacher to the customer experience chief of staff for a tech platform that aims to make email obsolete? For Kristen Swanson, the answer lies in applying lessons learned in the classroom to edtech—and steady upward progression. First, she became the Director of Technology for a school district. Next, she directed the research department at BrightBytes, a platform that blends data across edtech platforms to help K-12 administrators and teachers improve outcomes. Finally, she founded the Edcamp Foundation, which helps teachers run free professional-development workshops. “There is something I learned about the power of play when I was an educator and when I was a school leader that has never left me,” Swanson told EdSurge. “I think that there’s this sense sometimes when we get into the world of work that this no longer applies because this is a serious place where we do serious things.”

The “power of play” that Swanson describes is commonly referred to in the business world as “active learning.” Swanson recalls watching a third grader work tirelessly to design an interactive game as a classroom project. Then, when she saw how the girl reacted when a classmate played the game, everything changed. “What I saw on her face was, ‘Wow, I have created something that has made an experience happen for someone else.’ It became this kid’s superpower.” Fostering that experience has ultimately become Swanson's superpower at Slack, from creating choose-your-own-adventure themed training sessions to pioneering a “pull, not push” training experience that lets people pull needed training resources, instead of having lots of mandatory content pushed on them.

The Crucial Role of Women Leaders

We already know that we need more women in leadership. The benefits have been well-documented. And yet, statistics show that, despite some recent gains, women are woefully underrepresented both in corporate and political leadership.

Rachel Williams, Reshma Saujani, and Kristen Swanson are just three examples of leaders who demonstrate the unique and powerful contributions women have to make to organizations.

  • The refusal of Williams to dodge difficult conversations about diversity and inclusion teaches us that cultural change isn’t always easy; it doesn’t come without resistance, and it’s okay to make people uncomfortable along the way.
  • Saujani’s tenacity and unwillingness to accept defeat teaches us that success isn’t defined by perfection—and it’s often guided by small “failures” along the way.
  • Swanson’s ability to harness human curiosity and the power of play to pioneer innovative training experiences teaches us that creative learning extends well beyond the classroom.

These inspirational women leaders are reshaping our ideas of diversity and inclusion, organizational success, and professional development. And we’re all better off for it. It’s time for more women to have opportunities to do the same.

Topics: Your Organization, women leaders, Leadership and Management

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