On a panel at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, CEOs from The Daily Beast, Vimeo, and Daily Burn gathered onstage to talk about entrepreneurialism inside of big organizations. The conversation quickly turned to the burden of trying to ascend the corporate ladder as a woman.
“Am I being too aggressive? Or too ambitious? Or too impatient? Those are all words that I have been accused of, and, in a certain way, am,” said Vimeo CEO Anjali Sud. Women, she argued, disproportionately have a difficult time owning their own entrepreneurialism because of the way their peers view them. Others seem to agree. Several studies back up the idea that women who are confident are perceived differently than their male equivalents. While the lack of environmental support never stopped her from going after what she wanted, Sud said, it did make her anxious, and it took her a long time to get comfortable with being ambitious.
“I think for women in particular, ambition can be seen as selfishness; bold courageousness can be seen as bossiness,” said Heather Dietrick, CEO of media company The Daily Beast. “So, I think you need to find your allies in the organization who are progressive and understand that you are going after something you think is right for the organization,” she said. Allies, the two women agree, can serve as an antidote to sexism. But allies, they urge, aren’t necessarily people who are higher in rank or people who might be perceived as mentors.
“I’ve always been jealous when I’ve had friends who are like, ‘I just had breakfast with my mentor,'” said Tricia Han, chief executive of workout app, Daily Burn. “You’re always imagining it’s Gandhi or they’re getting down-from-the-mountains wisdom and advice,” she adds.
“You can get so much from the people around you, whether they’re your direct reports, or your boss, or your friends and family,” said Han.
“I’ve never felt that I’ve had a formal mentor in my career,” said Sud, “my experience has been building a peer network—and actually those below—is often one of the most valuable things.” Sud moved up at Vimeo quickly. Over the span of three years, she went from head of global marketing to general manager to chief executive. “I went from being in some cases the peers of people and in some cases being below people to being their boss overnight,” she said. Along the way, she said, she developed trust at all levels of the organization, which set her up for success when she transitioned into the company’s top position.
In developing a support network, she said people should be strategic, but also genuine. “The most valuable way to be an ally is not to be, ‘What can I get out of this and how are they going to help me?’ It comes down to: How am I adding value? If you can take that lens, you end up building more sustainable relationships.”
“You can be ambitious and aggressive, but still generous and kind,” said Han. “I think this is where we forget it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can be a whole person and go after these things.”