Until ten years ago, I had never actually met a professional woman – an educated female that made a living wage. Growing up in fundamentalism, I was raised in a culture that did not acknowledge gender equality and restricted women to very limited roles as wives and mothers. I had no idea what developing a career involved or even how to get started. The majority of my homeschool education had been focused on the domestic arts – childcare, cooking, cleaning, etc. – and neglected subjects like math, science, and finance (all the things you wouldn’t find in the job description for a housewife).
My junior year of college, I finally encountered a real-life professional woman – a visiting professor of biochemistry. She was confident, educated, and owned her own house. I knew I wanted to be just like her, but I had no idea how to get there.
Recognizing my knowledge gap between where I was and where I wanted to be, I made it a point to seek out accomplished female professionals as mentors. Sometimes, this mentoring involved a one-time chat over coffee; other times it evolved into long-term relationships with monthly mentoring sessions. My mentors have played a large role in shaping my career, and provided me with a wealth of advice that continues to help me navigate the uncertain waters of entrepreneurship.
Here’s a collection of the most impactful advice I’ve received from female mentors that empowered me to conquer my career:
You are always worth investing in.
The gender wage gap made me hesitant to invest in my own education. What if I went into debt for an advanced degree that reported high returns for its predominantly male graduates? How would the pay gap affect my educational returns? Would postgraduate education be a good investment for a woman like myself?
When presented with my return on investment questions, one of my mentors responded, “You are always worth investing in. Even though the pay gap exists, the knowledge you gain from your educational investments will provide you with great opportunities.” Still skeptical, I researched graduate programs with caution and was careful to pick something that would provide me both employment opportunities and entrepreneurial education.
The degree in which I choose to invest – Masters of Business Administration (MBA) – offered a variety of tracks for post-grad success, and opened doors to opportunities in academia, corporations, entrepreneurship, government, and nonprofits. I now can’t imagine a career without those opportunities, and I’ve benefitted personally and professionally from the knowledge I gained through my MBA.
Make your career work for you.
Like 10 million other millennials in the United States, I’m a family caregiver for a chronically ill or disabled loved one. My husband – a former military officer–was injured during a combat deployment to Afghanistan and has lived with chronic pain and debilitating nerve damage ever since. Being a caregiver means I juggle regular doctor’s appointments (last year, my husband had over 200), pain management regimes, and daily living assistance on top of running a business and teaching college classes.
I used to feel as though my postwar life would constantly conflict with my professional one; however, at the recommendation of a mentor, I explored ways to make my career work for me. During the early years, this meant running my consulting business from hospital waiting rooms; today, it means starting my workday at 4:30 A.M. First I focus on client work, which can be anything from social media strategy to public relations projects, until around 9 A.M. I then help my husband get set for the morning, go over his rehab schedule and communicate with his medical providers. For the remainder of the morning, I wrap up client work, then transition into caregiver-mode for the afternoon. Following doctor and rehab appointments (we drive 3 hours round-trip for one), I spend my late afternoon/evenings teaching college classes or tending to our cattle, depending on the day.
While becoming a caregiver has certainly impacted my career, thanks to my business education and my entrepreneurial pursuits, it didn’t kill it. By customizing my career through virtual work, flexible schedules, and self-employment, I’ve been able to reach my professional goals by creating a job that allows me to be both a caregiver and a career woman.
Stop being afraid to fail.
I’m naturally a pretty risk averse person: I like to do my research, find the right answer, and proceed cautiously. But I can’t always do that as an entrepreneur.
When starting my company, not all of my clients worked out, not all of my projects were a success, and not all of my investments paid off. Several clients went MIA when it came time to pay their bills, my business partner and I parted ways over conflicting ideas of our company’s values, and overseas competitors squeezed my retail startup out with prices I couldn’t beat. It’s hard to stay positive about business when your company loses money and you don’t have enough reserve to cover next month’s rent. I used to mentally beat myself up over my failures through negative self-talk, and felt these mistakes served as evidence to why I didn’t have what it took to be a business leader.
A mentor helped me reframe my failures as learning opportunities. “Without those experiences,” she argued, “you wouldn’t have the knowledge you need to create an effective growth strategy. Stop being afraid to fail, as failures are how you learn.” Once I started embracing my failures as part of the process and recognizing the valuable insight they provided, I was able to develop my company, attract better clients, and really enjoy my work.
It’s okay to be the only woman in the room.
The majority of my career has been spent in male-dominated industries such as agriculture, business, and technology. It’s not unusual for me to attend a conference or meeting where I’m one of the only women in the entire room. During the early part of my career, this lack of gender representation made me feel uncomfortable, like I didn’t belong.
My friends would often ask why I didn’t just switch industries and go into something with more women. I actually tried to change my work focus multiple times, exploring opportunities in industries that touted more equal gender representation, but nothing worked out. Turns out I was really good at raising cattle, marketing agriculture organizations, and leading educational classes and workshops on all things finance and technology.
When discussing my frustrations over “always being the only woman,” one of my mentors asked me to consider how my career trajectory would have been different if I’d met another trailblazing woman who’d succeeded in these traditionally male-dominated industries. After reflection, I realized that such an inspirational encounter would help me feel as if I did belong in agriculture, business, and technology. Turns out I do belong, and I decided to stay the course so that I can be that woman for the next generation of business leaders.
Conquer YOUR Career
Mentors have played a huge role in my professional success. Without these key inspirational women business leaders providing advice and guidance along my journey, I’ve no doubt that I would not be where I am today. Establishing an empowering mentor community can be a tall order for young professionals; that’s why I’m super sold on the Forté Foundation’s many resources for inspiring female business leaders. Whether you’re a college student thinking about next steps or an experienced business school grad looking for new opportunities, the Forté Foundation’s incredible resources can help you turn your career dreams into reality.
Take the #ConquerYourCareer Challenge
You can help encourage other women by joining the Forté Foundation’s (@fortefoundation)
#ConquerYourCareer challenge. Just go to Twitter and post your best career advice using the #ConquerYourCareer hashtag. By sharing our professional journey, we can help others dream big and achieve their goals!