I have always been inspired by people who accomplish what was once unthinkable. For Women’s History Month, I want to share two such stories.
In the early 20th Century, Madam C.J. Walker decided to find a solution to a problem – one that she knew she was not alone in experiencing – a serious scalp condition that leads to hair loss. She began to experiment, seeking out ingredients that she could formulate into her own remedy, following the scientific method despite having never been trained. She started selling these hair products door to door, eventually building and training a salesforce made up of 20,000 women to sell for her. Madam C.J. Walker, an orphaned daughter of slaves with a grade school education, became the first self-made female millionaire in America. What she did, at the time that she did it, wasn’t just challenging. It was unthinkable.
Madam C.J. Walker reminds me of so many members of our Female Founders Alliance community, because even though most of us haven’t made a penny, this is what our members do. They create solutions. They address the problems they’re experiencing – that they see other women experiencing – because they cannot wait for someone else to do it for them.
Here’s another story that inspires me:
In 1946, a man named Eugene Meyer prepared to hand over the reins of his family business down to the next in line. Katherine, his daughter and heir, should have held those reigns, but because she was a woman, they passed to his son-in-law and Katherine’s husband, Phillip. It wasn’t until Phillip died in 1963 that Katherine Graham took over the family business, aka. Washington Post, thus becoming the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. We have her to thank for uncovering Watergate, an event that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for her memoir, Personal History, in which she candidly talks about how her husband’s mental illness impacted her, as well as the challenges she faced in a male-dominated industry.
This is what women do. We do hard things, and then we share our experiences so others can learn from them. We turn failures into opportunities. If we are mothers, we often assume most of the emotional labor – that which is unseen and often unrecognized. If we have careers, we add all of those plates and keep them spinning.
My whole life I’ve looked up to the pioneers who struck out and created these trails. Women who accomplish the unthinkable. Women like Catherine Kinney, who became the first Female President of the NYSE in 2002. And Janet Yellen, the first female chairman of the Federal Reserve. Greta Thunberg the Climate Activist. Women and Girls’ Education Champion Malala Yousafzai. The list goes on and on, and it’s only getting longer.
There was a time when it seemed normal, status quo, for women to be outnumbered by men in C-Suite and board positions – or completely absent, in many cases. That institutions like Harvard Business School, Stanford, and MIT have never had a female dean. But look how far we’ve come – because none of this is normal anymore. Now, it’s questioned. Next, it’ll be history.
What was once unthinkable, is now inevitable.
Because of women like Katherine Graham and Madam C.J. Walker, and a whole host of others leading with heart, intelligence and grit in the face of sometimes unfathomable challenges and unrelenting resistance from all sides, we have the opportunities my grandmother could only ever dream of.