These women aren’t simply breaking the rules—they’re reinventing them.
In a lively panel moderated by journalist and best-selling author Katie Couric, four women at the top of their fields elaborated on the unique challenges of forging their divergent career paths, cultivating mentorship for women, and upending entrenched workplace cultures.
In her wide-ranging career spanning high-powered positions at Ralph Lauren, Nike, HSN, and now as Weight Watchers International President and CEO, Mindy Grossman had to create her own playbook. “I never subscribed to the fact that there were any rules,” she said. “I’ve never been afraid to take risks.” She even created her own three-pronged mantra: Passion, purpose, and impact. Grossman wasn’t afraid to leave a company if its values didn’t align with hers, but as a champion of diversity and inclusion throughout her career, she said the fact that we still have to talk about these issues in 2018 is, well, infuriating.
Katie Couric joked that her favorite sign at the Women’s March was the one held up by an older woman, which said, “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.”
Growing up in the Middle East, Leila Hoteit faced different societal expectations—the primary goal was to get married and have a family. Thankfully, her parents encouraged her to pursue her education, but even as she rose through the ranks in her career—she’s now Partner and Managing Director at The Boston Consulting Group—she encountered sexism cloaked in false compliments. One boss told her she was a bad role model for women because she wasn’t spending enough time being a mother; another boss usurped her work presentation, saying that the men around the table wouldn’t have been able to concentrate because she was too pretty.
To counter, she built up her personal armor against corporate culture and social pressure: “One of the key rules is that you must build a deep belief that you are going to make it and never let anyone else touch that belief,” she said.
Diane von Furstenberg is a thriving example of cultivating that inner belief. Over her incredible career spanning fashion and philanthropy, the Founder and Chairman of DVF Studio said she lived the American dream early on, and has since had to constantly reinvent herself. She’s kept a diary her entire life, and turning now to any page she finds the same thoughts: “I always say ‘I’m at a turning point.’ All my life, all I did was turn,” she said, “But every day is a turning point.” “When people asked me, ‘If you knew then, what you know now, what would you do differently?’ I hated that question, because i never had an answer,” she said, “The answer is, I never had a business plan. I had 40-plus years [in my career] and my first real business plan is now.”
Forging your own path is something OpenTable CEO Christa Quarles knows quite a bit about, having reinvented her career from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. “It must be wonderful to be in two environments that are so receptive and hospitable to women,” Katie Couric said to knowing laughs from the crowd. “When I started on Wall Street, they had just outlawed strippers on the trading floor a couple years back,” said Quarles, who tried to blend in and curb her feminine side by cursing like a sailor or laughing at their inappropriate jokes. “I showed up as a man to be accepted by men,” she said.
Now she’s intent on transforming the culture at OpenTable, noting that sexism in Silicon Valley is more insidious than on Wall Street. “You look at things that go on around you and then get into leadership role and say, ‘It’s not just that I can change the rules, but I must.’”
Her solution? Start at the top of the funnel and analyze candidates brought in for positions. While working as Vice President of Global Apparel at Nike—commuting between Portland and New York every week for six years—Grossman created an inclusion survey across the company and their first leadership council to curb isolation and bring women together. They also wouldn’t fill an open position unless 50 percent of the qualified candidate pool was diverse. “And things change when that happens,” she said.
Integrating women into leadership positions begins by embracing flexibility—Leila Hoteit says every woman must have a different solution to childcare or constant travel—and having sponsorship: “Somebody who has your back and puts the spotlight on you,” she said. Her own personal mantra? “Convert shit into fuel.”
“I have done a lot of that,” said von Furstenberg, herself an expert in reinvention. To be a good mentor to women, she said, starts in cultivating their self-reliance. “The best gift you can give anyone is to make them understand that strength comes from themselves. You have to learn how to push that button inside them,” she said. “I always say the most important relationship in life is the one you have with yourself.”
But even DVF says she isn’t always a pillar of strength. “Don’t think that I don’t wake up often and think ‘I’m a loser,’ because I do, and we all do,” said the woman who created the iconic wrap dress that symbolizes empowerment for millions of women. “But when I do feel like a loser, this is what I say to myself, and I say it loud: ‘When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.’”
When Quarles doubts herself, she taps into her sisterhood—her literal one, she has four sisters and two brothers—and receives counsel from other female CEOs or female venture capitalists. “It’s so critical to have that authentic network that allows you to be vulnerable,” agreed Grossman. “When you get to a certain position, it gets very hard to have that network that you trust and support and you can say whatever and not be judged.”
Finally, the panel of ambitious women concluded with advice for young women who might want to follow in their paths.
“Put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others,” said Leila Hoteit, who also said that if you decide to have children “do it when you’re personally ready and don’t worry about the next promotion.”
Von Furstenberg took an optimistic view of the future: “I think women have the future in their hands with their children, and how we raise our sons is so important to how they will behave 20 years from now.”
“You need to realize the transformational power of believing in yourself,” said Grossman, who also noted the importance of having an acute self-awareness of your impact on others.
And, as Quarles advised, “When you own your vulnerability, you become the most powerful person in the room.”
Watch highlights and the full video of the conversation at the top of this story.
Additional reporting by Kristyn Martin.