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Ibtihaj Muhammad: ‘Don’t wait for anyone else to tell you what you are destined to be great at’

By Kara Cutruzzula on April 12, 2019

“Practice your bitch.”That simple bit of advice came from venture capitalist Melissa Bradley, who wants women in business to push themselves to the top: “Come up with the most obnoxious, extravagant number that you think you’re worth and own it. Because there are guys who are coming out of Stanford and Harvard who can’t spell and can’t write and they’re valued at $50 billion.”Hers was just one of the relevant—and entertaining—pieces of advice shared by the panel of four highly accomplished and badass women at the top of their game at the 10th annual Women in the World Summit on Friday.

Moderated by CNN Newsroom anchor Brooke Baldwin, the panel touched on the prevalence of bias everywhere: Bozoma “Boz” Saint John, CMO at Endeavor, said she’ll get double takes or questions if she’s standing in the first class line at the airport—or Ibtihaj Muhammad, entrepreneur and Olympic medalist in fencing, will get pulled aside in the TSA line, and Bradley, Managing Partner at 1863 Ventures, said people will ask her if she’s really getting on the (more expensive) Acela train.

But of course bias is especially insidious in the workplace.

Bradley, who is raising a $100 million fund and working with 5,000 entrepreneurs around the country, recounted talking to a male CEO who said he doesn’t believe women are the future in entrepreneurship. Her response? “African-American women are starting businesses six times over compared to their white male peers. Get the facts, write the check, and move out of the way.”

Carolyn Tastad, Group President, North America, Procter & Gamble, pointed out leaders must build their own self-awareness, too. “This notion of bias is very pervasive and we have to start labeling women’s behavior as less than or lacking because it shows up different from the male prototype,” she said, using the example of a male CEO committed to gender equality who still was tempted to hire a male candidate who claimed he could “absolutely” lower the company’s corporate tax rate, compared to a woman who said she didn’t have enough information to make that decision. (He eventually hired the woman.)

Muhammad’s own confidence and tenacity came from being bullied as a young kid and transformed into fierce competitor. “I don’t like to wait for the people to get things done, I’d rather do it myself,” she said.

She urged other women to own their strengths. Growing up, she was told she had big legs (not exactly as a compliment). But watch what happened: “I used those strong legs to win myself an Olympic medal.”

Bradley isn’t having any trouble finding female entrepreneurs, but she is running into another problem: “I’m having a tough time finding women to articulate how much money they need and not how much they think they can get.” That’s where “practice your bitch” comes in.

At P&G, Tastad is ensuring her brands take a stand, and Gillette created an ad called “We Believe” commenting on toxic masculinity and setting an example for young boys. “We believe in the very best of men and the positive role model they can be for the next generation,” she said—and the ad sparked plenty of conversation, exactly its intent.

The panel closed with the biggest takeaways for issues that continue to trail women in the workplace.

Muhammad wants young girls to be their own biggest cheerleader and support system: “Don’t wait for anyone else to tell you what you are destined to be great at.”

And when Saint John shows up, she shows up with her full self. “I practice and work hard at not just superficially, but innately, bringing my full self to every situation,” she said.

Tastad has a brilliant tip: Flip the pronouns. A male marketing lead brought her a slogan for a new product: ‘When she looks good, she can be her best.’ Tastad asked him to put ‘he’ in that sentence instead—and that slight change made him realize how ridiculous it sounded. “If you can’t finish the sentence with ‘he’ instead of ‘she’, then please don’t say it for women,” said Tastad.

And Bradley encouraged everyone to find a group who will support you, but to always hold up your own mirror “to remind you how badass you are and that you deserve to be where you are.”

Additional reporting by Gloria Teal.

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