Today is my 44th birthday, and birthdays always get me to reflect. It’s also a few days before a workshop that I have organized in Oxford, England alongside the Skoll World Forum with a dear colleague of mine at Acumen, with support from some of my favorite corporations. The focus of the workshop is on how large corporations and social enterprises are partnering to create opportunities for women around the world. To thrive, to contribute, to lead.
I organize events on corporate/social enterprise collaboration twice a year and have for about the past five years. They’re designed to inspire people, to help us all work smarter, and to spark new partnerships. It’s always humbling to see it all come together because of the passion and commitment of the people who come and tell their stories and share their challenges, with a stark honesty about the social change work they do, whether they come from a huge corporation or a scrappy start-up.
I feel especially emotional about this workshop because the theme is women. This is a conversation about “us”, women, who are not only a group facing the challenges of poverty, violence, bias, and injustice, but also the group that is most likely to solve those challenges.
This is a conversation, at a time when we are seeing the power of women’s voices – linked in solidarity, undeniable, growing stronger every day – about all the ways that women can lead: women as entrepreneurs, pioneering new kinds of enterprises that embed values in their core; women as investors, using their capital to create value and build new businesses models; women as employees, that drive productivity and in turn support their families and communities; and women as customers, making considered choices for themselves and their families that can influence entire markets.
In each of these capacities, women have an opportunity to lead, to drive change, not only by showing up and participating, but by doing it in a new way. In a male dominated society, playing by the rules only gets you so far. To lead as a woman means reinventing the rules of the game. The thought of being in a room, in just a few days’ time, with so many women and our male allies who are shaking things up in so many different ways is thrilling and daunting. Because it’s forcing me to ask myself about what it means to lead.
One of my role models, a leading advocate for women’s issues, a public figure who has led and built organizations I deeply respect, recently confided in me that she sometimes wondered about whether she was having an impact. I was stunned and slightly disheartened. If she felt that way, after decades of vocally championing the cause of justice for women, and helping to lift up the stories and voices of hundreds of women, then why on earth did I think I could make a difference?
I found myself reminding her during our conversation that she was one of the biggest reasons why I started on this journey, to make gender inclusion a core facet of my work and a strength for my organization. She had always spoken up. She had challenged people to do more. She had broken through in a male dominated industry and had committed to helping others do the same. And yet she still wondered about what impact she was having. At that moment I realized that what it means to lead as a woman, as a human in fact, is to ask that question again and again. How can I lead, how can I create change, how can I have a greater impact?
So… on my birthday I again embrace that question, but also embrace my own leadership. It was November of last year when I stood in front of a circle of women organized by Suzanne Biegel (another extraordinary leader and role model) at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania and was asked to share a commitment. That day I said out loud, “the next meeting I organize will focus on women.” Five months later, and the meeting is three days away. 44 years into my own life story, I am learning the power of choosing. As women, we may doubt ourselves a bit more than we need to, and that’s OK. But as women leaders, we choose to lead, despite the broken systems we operate within, despite a history of inequality and oppression, and despite the occasional moments of doubt.
We have never lived in a world where women’s leadership was the norm, and have never existed in a time where women shaped society on equal footing with men, so we can’t imagine what the future holds. But I feel more excited about the future than ever, because more women are choosing to lead than ever – in politics, in business, in finance, in civil society and in media. It’s a privilege to be a part of it. And a wonderful birthday gift to be in such extraordinary company. My second birthday wish: tell me how you choose to lead.