When I created my company, Sparkfly, I was in my mid-twenties, and I had no idea how stacked the odds were against my success.
In my early naivety, I brushed off the idea that out of the gate, I essentially had three strikes already going against me:
- Sparkfly was centered in three industries that are traditionally dominated by closed male networks: Retail, Point-of-Sale Systems and Advertising.
- I was founding a technology company in the seemingly non-traditional tech hub of Atlanta, which could have impacted my ability to find and recruit extraordinary engineers and senior talent.
- My company was trying to solve a problem that had never been solved before, and because I wasn’t a known business leader, being early to market was not necessarily seen as a good thing. I was seen as setting myself up for failure.
By charting my own course, I learned one very specific thing about myself—I could not take "No" as an acceptable answer—to any question. It’s not that I wasn't told "No" often—I was told "No" every day, every week, every month, every year. But one by one, I turned those "No" responses into a "Maybe" and then finally to a "Yes."
The easy answer to the question of why I was told "No" so often is that I am a woman, but that’s over-simplifying it. Have I felt discriminated against, talked over, underestimated, and just plain doubted? Just about every day. But I also know numerous first-time founders and CEOs that feel the same way.
With this said, I do sometimes look at today’s landscape (especially for technology companies) and it’s disconcerting to see the lack of female executives. Even in my own organization, where I'm the founder and CEO, the demographic diversity isn't where you would expect it to be.
While we seem to make strides every decade, we're not there yet, and I'm determined to do my part to help my fellow female executives—and our female executives of the future.
Breaking down what's real and what's not real became a day-to-day activity for me, and understanding what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it was how I learned the art of not accepting "No."
Below are five tips that have served me well over the years that would be applicable for an audience of peers:
Every entrepreneur will encounter self-doubt at some point, and one way to counteract this is to find role models that can give you a roadmap to success. Personally, Kim Eaton, the SVP and General Manager of the Hospitality Division at NCR, showed me how to be a leader in a male-orientated environment and push an organization forward with both strength and grace.
Additionally, women's role models don't just have to be female. My uncle, Mackey McDonald, the former CEO of VF Corporation and current board member of Kraft and Hyatt Hotels, taught me that you don't need to be a bully to be successful, and the good guys can win too.
Successful leaders need to predict and prepare for the future and be laser focused on what it takes to get there. The path to success may not be completely linear, but if you want to get to the desired end goal, you need to know what that looks like.
Early in my career, I let people cast doubt on my abilities and tell me that I needed a more experienced CEO to come in and run my company. This is something I needed to actively work at to overcome. It is essential for leaders to be confident in their vision and ability to execute.
Obstacles come every day. From big obstacles like closing a contract with a Fortune 500 company, to small obstacles like managing a project with a challenging vendor, this is a part of business. As female executives, we can't go into work with the mindset that the deck is stacked against us in a way that is impossible to overcome. In some cases, this may be an obstacle, but it is just one of hundreds we see as we run a business.
Successful female entrepreneurs need to feed the ecosystem as mentors and investors. The world is full of strong, successful women, and we have to be there for one another.
I am a believer that change is incremental. We don’t necessarily need to defeat the current system, but learn how to manage within it. No matter what a woman may want to do with her life, if we can embrace and support each other, we'll have the opportunities to make choices for ourselves and find happiness and success. And it all starts with learning the art of not taking "No" as an answer.
—Catherine Tabor is the CEO of Sparkfly.
[Image: Flickr user Christian Haugen]