After amassing two decades of experience in leadership and program development, Stephanie Allen took the plunge in 1989 by founding her own for-profit organization called the Athena Group. Allen’s company now consults major companies, helping them to understand the potential of women as extraordinary employees. The Athena Group addresses gender differences at work, sexual harassment in the workplace, masculine and feminine perspectives, and methods for understanding customer bases.
Do you think your gender has helped or hindered your career?
Both. I’ve encountered men who are almost chivalrous in their desire to help you, who really go out on a limb to see you succeed. And then there are some who don’t even want a women near them, who wouldn’t hire a woman, who wouldn’t work for one. I’ve learned not to waste my time in those places.
How does your company promote and encourage the success and advancement of women?
Since I started the Athena Group 10 years ago, our primary focus has been on the advancement and retention of female employees. We work with companies or professional groups such as accounting and law firms that have realized that they lose money if and when one of their female employees walks out the door. In addition to economic reasons, some companies come to us because they’re involved in a lawsuit, and sometimes they come simply because a good guy says, “We’ve got to do better at this.” Our biggest challenge is convincing companies that changing their culture is systemic and not cosmetic.
Do you personally think of yourself as a pioneer in business?
Yes. I don’t know many people who decide to make a living by trying to get companies to advance and retain women. By starting the Athena Group, I did what I wanted to do and what I knew would make a difference.
Who are your greatest mentors and role models in business?
My role models were the bosses I had back in the olden days when I had bosses. By watching and being part of a company, you learn the basics of a business, and then you go and start your own. One thing that I learned from a former boss was how important marketing is — if you want to have your own business, you have to be a peddler.
Compared to your own experience, in what ways will the entrepreneurial experience differ for business women starting out today?
First of all, there will be women who are already doing this, women who can share their own experiences and offer advice to the next generation of female entrepreneurs. I think senior women are becoming much more interested in mentoring and bringing along younger women. A network of connections to expertise and markets is one of the most valuable resources that we can share with one another. When I was starting out, I tended to rely mainly on men for capital and advice, but that’s all changing now.
What are the greatest barriers to success still facing women entrepreneurs today?
Having only 24 hours in a day. Seriously, I think the greatest barriers are access to capital and perceptions of women not being “tough enough” to run a business. I don’t think women are as comfortable or have had as much experience in going after money. Not all women — some are unbelievably good at it. But I’ve seen some women who just aren’t used to all the bureaucratic nonsense that you have to go through. Learning how to deal with the old boy’s network is not an easy task.
Do you feel that MBA programs need to tailor some curriculums specifically for women entrepreneurs?
MBAs were invented by men to train men. They don’t acknowledge style differences in how many women lead and manage. MBAs programs don’t need to necessarily tailor their curriculum, but they need to provide places where women can gather by themselves without men. It’s a different world when you take men out of the game, and I think women need to experience that dynamic. They need to realize that they don’t have to always try to do things like a man would do them.
What do you think can be done to bolster women’s leadership positions in the economic sector?
Women should form alliances with each other and with men whom we call “allies.” There are some really fine men out there who really want to bring women in and move them ahead.
Do you think there are any unique problems for women in power positions?
Neither men nor women are accustomed to women being in power positions, so it is a two-edged sword. I see some women abdicating their power when they shouldn’t, and I see some men being very hostile to women who are in a position of power, simply because they are not used to having women there. When women take on a “man’s” role, some men immediately feel threatened or emasculated.
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