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“Wear More Lipstick”: What I Heard As My State’s First Female Treasurer

Janet Cowell got a lot of unsolicited feedback in her mold-breaking North Carolina political career. Here’s how she learned what to listen to and what to ignore.

“Wear More Lipstick”: What I Heard As My State’s First Female Treasurer
[Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash]

Years before the #MeToo movement gained steam and incited women in all sectors to speak out against harassment, before the 2016 presidential election inspired a wave of women to run for elected office across the U.S., Janet Cowell was working her way up in politics–first as a member of the Raleigh City Council in North Carolina, then as state senator, and later rising to become state treasurer in 2007.

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Janet Cowell [Photo: courtesy of Janet Cowell]
The first woman to hold that position, Cowell had a slew of successes during her tenure, which ended in 2016. Among them, she maintained North Carolina’s AAA bond rating from all three agencies–one of only 10 states to do so following the financial collapse–and grew her state’s pension assets from $60 to $90 billion, achieving an eight-year return of over 7.5%. Despite these wins, Cowell was challenging a deeply rooted status quo in North Carolina’s male-dominated political culture. To say it wasn’t easy is an understatement.

Yet her experience would prove a strong foundation for her new role as CEO of Girls Who Invest. Women and people of color manage just 1.1% of the investing industry’s $71.4 trillion of assets, according to the Knight Foundation. Girls Who Invest wants to make sure 30% of the world’s capital is invested by women by 2030.

Here’s what Cowell told Fast Company–in her own words (lightly edited and condensed for clarity)–about being the only woman in the room for much of her career.


Related: I Was The Only Woman In My Company For Two Long Years


On The Inspiration To Run

I was in China during the whole democracy movement [in the late 1980s]. It was a very powerful moment. I was living in a Chinese dorm during the demonstrations [of 1989, which culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre]. The whole experience of being a foreigner in a foreign land where you don’t have a voice and can’t participate [made me realize] I wanted to ultimately invest my time in the U.S. and go into public office and be part of a community and make decisions.

On Seeds Of Doubt

The pressures are very real. I was 32 when I started running and people said, “You are too young, you’re not ready, you’re not from here. What makes you think you can represent me? You should wait your turn, there are other more qualified people”–every single thing in the book they throw at women. I had my own panic attacks, like thinking maybe they’re right. I overrode that because I had more worldly experience–because I’d been overseas and done a lot more–so I had a lot more independent thought than a typical woman my age might [have had at the time]. Still, it is tough to get told that every day.

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Related: This Is What It’s Like To Be The Only Black Founder At A Pitch Event


On The Focus On Appearances

Once you decide you’re going to run, you get the “you’re not dressed right, you need more lipstick, I don’t like your shoes.” Sometimes I would go make a speech at some chamber and I’d ask a friend, “What does your mom think?” She’d say, “You should have worn more lipstick.” It is real, and it’s valid that you have to think about what you wear. I worked with EMILY’s List, the national women’s group, who told me I needed to wear bright colors and solids. So I did shift how I dressed. But look, that’s superficial stuff. Let me fight my fights on policy. I can wear pink, green, or purple–those are small adjustments to make.

On Family Influences

My own mother said the same thing: “You need to wear more makeup.” I come from a traditional Southern family who is supportive and broad-minded, but then I was trying to blend a tradition with more forward thinking. And I did end up wearing makeup.

Once I got in[to the Raleigh City Council] I got barraged by people. I was the only woman there. My mother, who is a lovely Southern woman–a sorority girl–taught us to be accommodating and supportive of people. I felt like I didn’t have the social skills. You have to get really firm, and some people would get disappointed. I had to adjust my whole emotional interaction. There was a lot to learn.


Related: The Woman Behind A Massively Influential Political Movement


On Moving Up To State Senate

I was on City Council for three years when I decided to run for State Senate. Once again I got, “Well, you’re not really ready, there are people who are from here who have family connections, who are wealthier who could run.” They made fun of me for driving a Toyota Corolla: “That is not a car a state senator would drive.” They also made fun of my house, asking if that was my rental unit. I lived right next to the state fairgrounds. People thought it was humble–you deal with all that, too. I think it is just old-school thinking, traditionalism, and the pettiness of public life.

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On Managing Once In Office

In general, it is a steep hierarchy. They had a lot of older, rural legislators when I was in the Senate, and the same people were there when I became treasurer. They were in their 70s when I was in my 30s, and I was low on the totem pole. I had to break through by finding subjects like technology and internet services, energy and water reform, electronics, recycling. I did what no one else was doing.

We had this one big vote when I was freshman legislator. We were voting on the lottery, and my own party wanted to get it through because it would mean more revenue for the state. The governor wanted it, the house speaker wanted it, and then it came to the Senate for this final vote, and they were one vote short. The Democrats looked at me and said, “You gotta roll over.” I was pulled into the back room, I got berated. I was told, “Let’s take a walk.” Then the governor called me. I wouldn’t change my vote, and ultimately somebody else took a walk. The house speaker [Jim Black] eventually went to jail over this.

I did find champions, like Senate president pro tem Marc Basnight, who supported me. He came over and told me I had a really good session, and they respected me more for holding my ground and not rolling over. You have to find those allies in the power structure who are willing to validate you and help you navigate.


Related: This Is How To Really Help Underrepresented Entrepreneurs


On Running For Treasurer

It was a woman from the Treasury Office who came to me and said, “You’re an independent thinker and you can say ‘no,’ but would you consider running for state treasurer?” That was another big leap because I had been representing an urban, highly educated group of people in the state and now would rep the broader state, where there is a lot of conservatism. It would mean managing an executive branch with hundreds of employees and billions of dollars. That is daunting and I certainly hesitated. I had those traditional thoughts like, “Maybe I’m not ready, maybe I need more management experience,” etc.

Some of the more mainstream Democrats had already backed another player, and I didn’t get some of the main consultants [to work on my campaign]. Once again I got, “Who do you think you are, running for this? You’re not really the person for this job.” You have to have a lot of self-confidence. It was a leap, but every [new] job should be a stretch.

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On Becoming CEO Of Girls Who Invest

My mother would say, “You always take the hard route.” From looking for a job in Asia with a backpack on to running for an office in a state I had just moved to years before, it requires some fortitude. As CEO of Girls Who Invest, we can help the next generation of young women to have the courage and fortitude to become trailblazers themselves, entering a male-dominated field and bringing much-needed diverse voices to the asset-management industry.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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