As a female CEO of a highly praised branding and marketing firm, I never wanted to be seen as successful as a woman. I want to be treated and seen in the same way my peers were–regardless of gender–thoughtful, forceful, and determined.
So how can a woman show confidence and strength without being dismissed as a bitch?
My advice will make a lot more sense if I start with my personal story.
I was an outsider from birth. As the first-generation American daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, born and raised in Texas, I had a unique advantage: a totally different viewpoint on life.
I clearly remember my first “aha, you’re not normal” moment. I’d just realized I was a person who innately followed my heart over my head, while everyone else relied on this thing called logic. I didn’t respect logic. I respected wisdom. I respected soul (which is now sometimes interchangeable with authenticity). I also respected people who didn’t care what other people thought.
I fell into business development accidentally, when I needed to pay half the rent on a house I shared with my college boyfriend. (This is always a mistake.) What’s funny now, is that as the owner of a branding agency, I judge recruits on whether they’re coming to the position for a paycheck, or if it’s because they love what they do.
I needed a paycheck and found out that I loved cold calling. I sold $2 million my second year in sales. Suddenly everyone wanted to pick my brain.
Instead of staying in sales, I pivoted from sales and used my savings to start an advertising agency (after giving birth to my daughter two months before). I created a team to build an app that uses what is now called “gamification.” The day it went live on the app store, crickets. Months later though, my Twitter feed blew up when our creation was rated as the No. 1 nonprofit app in the country. Soon after, I received the Digital Innovator Award from Austin Woman Magazine for 2017. In the decade since I started, my company has evolved into a full-blown growth agency.
I like to think that my success relies on me being an outsider because I have this innate understanding of what people want. It exhausts me to be fake. In any way. Today I ask prospects why they wanted to meet with me. I’ve heard, “I’m an outlier, too.” I’ve also heard, “I like your cockiness and irreverence.” Well, I own it. That’s me to a T.
Do you want to know the first time I thought about gender or race? It was through a client whose mission was empowering women with self-confidence. I came back from vacation and my managing partner said the client wanted to know how many women I employ. I was in shock, then proud, that I had never once thought of it. I was also disappointed. Now I was being pigeonholed as a female business owner–by a female business owner.
Another experience revealed how others were thinking of me. A client mentioned that a friend we knew in common said, “I’m not aggressive like Annie.” Sometimes I ask myself, “Would they bully or try to negotiate like this with a man?” The truth is, by creating a brand that is all me, I don’t attract the types that don’t like assertive women. The fact that I get referred to as hyper-aggressive is a good thing when it comes to venture capitalists, CEOs, and other business owners.
Aggressive doesn’t have to go hand in hand with being bitchy, but if aggressive means that I’m a bitch, then I’m a bitch. We are letting society define us, instead of defining ourselves. For me, empowerment means doing your own thing while respecting others’ choices.
So how can you avoid being called a bitch while being a badass?
- Be authentic. Be true to your mission. People can sense the difference between someone who’s driven and someone who’s posturing.
- If you take the first step, you’ll attract people who are inherently not put off by your assertiveness. Then seek out allies who won’t put you down for your gender.
- Don’t waste energy on those who would think less of your heartfelt convictions and strong will.
I’m proud to be called aggressive. For me, it means I don’t give up, there is always a way. And I don’t lose. If that means I’m a bitch, then I’m a proud one.
Annie Liao Jones is the founder and CEO of Rock Candy Media, an advertising agency in Austin, that has become one of the fastest-growing businesses in central Texas. Under Annie’s leadership, the full-service content strategy, design, messaging, branding firm, and growth agency grew from the ground up to grossing over seven figures a year.