One of the criticisms to Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, is that her success is due in part to extraordinary opportunities that many of us simply do not have, including wealth, an Ivy education, and a A-list network.
Ms. Sandberg, for example, went to work for Larry Summers, when he was Secretary of the Treasury, right out of college, an opportunity and relationship that has served her quite well throughout her career.
While pondering the book over my morning toast and coffee, I realized that we all have opportunities, experiences and gifts — and it’s what we make of them that counts.
Last summer, while speaking at the AWAI’s B2B Copywriting Intensive, I had a number of women ask me how I got started in B2B. The easy answer is, “My second job out of college was managing a small manufacturing company for seven years.”
But after reading Lean In, I realized it was much, much more than that.
Like Sheryl Sandberg, I was incredibly fortunate. I come from what is now politely called a “disadvantaged home.” I won’t go into details, but suffice to say, in my childhood home, education was not a priority — in fact, it was a luxury that was so out of reach I wasn’t even encouraged to go to school.
Due to various events, I became an emancipated minor while a Junior in high school — and because of that, I got on the radar of a high school guidance counselor.
At the beginning of my senior year she asked if I were applying to college and I replied no — of course not, I didn’t have the money. She told me about special programs for people like me. One in particular was called the EOP — Educational Opportunity Program. With her guidance, I applied to California State University, Hayward (now East Bay) under this program — and was accepted with a full financial aid package!
(Two years ago I read Condoleezza Rice’s autobiography, A Memior: My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and learned her father had developed that program for African American youths. I wrote her a tear-filled note telling her how much that program benefited me.)
During my college years, I worked many manual labor jobs. I did boat maintenance (meaning, I’d get sailboats ready to go out on the weekends for local charter companies in the SF Bay Area). I made sails for sailboats. I cleaned houses. All of these jobs taught me many lessons, from how to fix things to how manufacturing production lines work. Because I worked for companies that sold sailboats, I got to prepare new boats for boat shows — experience I later used while working at Varian Associates where I helped get products ready for trade shows.
In fact, my first job out of college was at a non-profit marine association; its two biggest events were the local winter and summer boat shows. My trade show experience includes both the exhibitor side and the “management” side.
It was at this job that I learned all about direct mail. I used to have to send out the thousands of show applications to boating organizations across the U.S. For days I’d stick labels, sort the pieces by zip code, put them into bulk mail bags and drive them to the main post office in East Oakland (scary!).
Due to my production sewing experience, the sailing, and my English degree, I landed the job as office manager at Precision Technical Sewing. For seven years I did everything and anything from payroll and accounting to shipping/receiving, customer service and sales. I answered four phone lines. I made bank runs and coffee. I picked up a ton of knowledge about production processes, cloth, military specifications and how to treat customers.
From Sally Lindsay, the owner of PTS and a world-class sailor, I learned quite a bit. The one piece of advice that still sticks in my mind today is, “We’re not in business to lose money.”
From there, I went to Varian Associates, where I learned how to write Marketing Communications collateral. While interviewing, I had to meet with the President of NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance), one of the business units. This president was one of two women who headed up the various units with Analytical Instruments. During the interview she said to me, “You’re going to be working with a bunch of arrogant, rude, egotistical men who have PhDs in Chemistry. You’re going to need a thick skin. Tell me how you’ll stand up to them and push back when they tell you they don’t like your marketing.”
I don’t remember my answer, but I do remember taking a deep breath and thinking, “A trite answer won’t work here.” Whatever I told her, it must have satisfied her, because I got the job. And she was right: working with a bunch of arrogant, rude, egotistical men was rough (and yes, I was reduced to tears more than once), but boy, did I learn a lot!
Funnily enough — or maybe not — my client base today is made up of 90% men — men who own or work at small businesses. Many of them are tops in their fields and are super smart. I learn a lot from them.
I’m also at ease around these men; I like working with them and talking and listening to them. They tell me their stories, which I use in my work, and over time, we get to know one another.
One client recently said to me, “You’re a really good listener, did you know that?” Dennis Woodruff, CEO of ClearView Consulting Company, said, “You know what’s in my head better than I do myself.”
Which brings me to today — and Sheryl Sandberg’s book. Her book, which she’s billing as a sort of “feminist manifesto,” is about how women sabotage themselves in the workplace. I think the book really is about looking at your opportunities and experiences, determining how you view them and then taking advantage of and using what you’ve been given.
Yes, Sheryl Sandberg has had some extraordinary opportunities. But so did Condoleezza Rice — who came out of Jim Crow. So do I. And so do you. In our current culture, there’s a lot of talk about the haves and the have nots. Many of us actually have much more than we think we do. It just depends on how you look at it.