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Six Lessons From Inspiring Women Leaders and Entrepreneurs

Portrait of senior white businesswoman with laptop smiling and listening to multiethnic female colleagues in boardroom

March is National Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate and honor the amazing contributions women leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs have made to our society. Below are a list of lessons or examples you can take from history and apply to your own business:

1. You Can Disagree But Still Respect Others: Any workplace faces differing personalities and opinions. Whether a boss with employees or co-workers and peers, differences arise and it is essential to maintain a level of respect. Look to the example set by Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first and second women appointed to the United States Supreme Court. While the two women were vastly different – One Democrat, one Republican, one Jewish, one Christian, they knew it was important to work together on matters of great importance. By respecting each others’ differences they were able to collectively affect some of the greatest issues impacting women’s rights, including gender equality and healthcare issues.

2. Be True to Yourself: While she is fictional, Elle Woods from the movie “Legally Blonde” eventually wins the day in an important legal case by not denying her roots as a ‘Cosmo Girl,’ becoming valedictorian of her class at the end of her journey. In those remarks, she says “you must always be true to yourself.” Her determination to not deny her inner voice and compass eventually leads to her success making her a role model for other young women.

3. If no one Makes it, You Make it!: Sarah Blakely is known as the first self-made female billionaire in the United States. Her breakthrough? She was seeking the benefits found in control-top pantyhose without having to wear warm nylons. There was nothing like it on the market and no one in the hosiery industry (dominated by men) would support her initial concept for “shapewear” different than traditional girdles or those without attached pantyhose. After finally gaining support from one manufacturer (at the urging of his daughters), at the age of 27 she produced her first samples and sold them to a few outlets of Neiman-Marcus. She knew she had a winner and was determined to spread the word about her new product, “Spanx,”, eventually landing up on Oprah’s “Favorite Things” list leading to exponential millions in sales.

4. Lift Others Up: Women are wonderful role models when it comes to the idea that you don’t have to beat someone down in order for you to succeed. The idea that a ‘rising tide lifts all boats,’ applies in business as well. American Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize nominee Maya Angelou summed this up with her quote: “I learned a long time ago the wisest thing I can do is be on my own side, be an advocate for myself and others like me.” Being an advocate for others costs you nothing and can lead to a better outcome for all.

5. Find Different Ways to Reach Your Customer: Madam C.J. Walker gained notoriety as America’s first female self-made millionaire. Based on her past experience with her brothers that were in the barbering business and her own struggles with dandruff and hair loss, she created the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company originally in 1905 as a mail-order business. While her product was not entirely new (there were others on the market that used the same established formula of Sulfur and Petroleum Jelly), Walker succeeded in ways others did not by finding new ways to sell her product. She was one of the early adopters of training her staff in the products through a salon then encouraging them to go out and build their own businesses as an ‘agent’ of the company. In a time where there were very few professional opportunities for women, this gave thousands the chance to create their own means to support a family. Her push for women owners and leaders in her sales force led to the company’s exponential growth.

Walker’s innovation led to the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents and their first national conference in 1917, believed to be one of the first of its kind specifically for women. This model went on to be the model for countless other successful companies including Avon, Mary Kay and Tupperware, among others.

6. Don’t be Afraid to Speak Up: Too often women may find themselves marginalized in critical decisions or conversations relating to business development or strategy. If you feel you have valuable input to offer in times of discussion, speak up! Ursula Adams was the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company — Her willingness to question the status quo and look for new solutions helped her climb the corporate ladder and shatter the glass ceiling at Xerox. Burns was of the mindset that your opinion counts when you’re at the table: I learned from my mother that if you have the chance to speak, you should speak. If you have an opinion, you should make it known,” Burns said.

Throughout the month of March, take a pause and look for lessons from the women around you in your workplace or your home (don’t forget mom!). A great first starting point – ask the simple question, “What is one thing you wish others knew about your job?” to gather some great first-hand advice!

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