Opinion: An open letter to Oprah on getting girls ready for the executive suite
It’s been some time since we talked on your show about women and money.
Nearly 15 years later, shockingly, the needle for women in the workplace hasn’t moved. Sadly, some 75% of abused women say they stay in bad relationships because of financial concerns. No wonder women fear speaking up when there’s so much on the line.
At the Golden Globes this week, you said you want “all girls to know a new day is on the horizon.”
And you are right. So how do we give those girls, like my own daughters, that new day if we don’t create the pathways for them?
We not only need to focus on today’s workplace; we need to change it. That, as you well know Oprah, starts with the next generation. It’s about creating the pipeline so that women will rise to the top, as CEOs or as entrepreneurs — like yourself.
We need more programs like the small pilot taking place in Connecticut to equip young women, our future leaders, with the confidence and the business skills to truly thrive. Just halfway into Girls With Impact’s online academy, fully 100% of girls say they feel more “career ready,” and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what they are getting out of this program.
Why are programs like this needed? Think about these ugly stats: Only 6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, 14% of engineers are women, and 36% of women are entrepreneurs.
How many of us have an Apple AAPL, +1.03% product of some sort? Women make up 50% of the professional workforce, but at Apple (just one example), what share of women hold tech jobs or leadership roles? Only 20% and 28%, respectively.
It’s a firm’s culture — with Uber serving as the poster child — that’s driving women to leave companies, even at the top.
After working in Silicon Valley and in the media, and seeing all the talk in Davos among CEOs about wanting to drive gender diversity, I realized we’ll never change the trajectory for women until leadership at the top changes.
So how do we change this? How do we really change the trajectory for women in the workplace that we’re all talking about while solving some of our nation’s most pressing issues?
The answer is with those young women 14, 15 and 16 who are coming up the pipeline. Why?
It starts young. Unlike our generation, this generation is leaps and bounds ahead. They’re capable of building things, even in high school. As one father told me: “This is business conditioning my daughter needs”; “it starts now.”
Some schools have business or economics in high school but, frankly, it’s hit or miss. We as a society are guilty of holding women back if we don’t provide better, more relevant education earlier.
Early proof. In the Entrepreneurship Talent Gap report, we found that while just 18% of women participate in college business competitions, a whopping 60% of the winning (first-place) teams included a woman among the founders. As compelling, 40% of the first-place teams had a woman CEO. Yes, these young women are few, but of high quality. If we don’t show the young women behind them — before they hit college or the workplace — what they’re capable of, they will miss out on these economic and leadership opportunities.
The confidence factor. Your dear friend, the late Maya Angelou, once told me directly about confidence: “There’s a way you walk when you go into a room. It’s not braggadocio, but there’s some confidence. And if you have some confidence, it is likely that an employer will look to you with more felicity, more warmth, more respect. And people feel, then, I can be safe here. This person is really going to look after my affairs.”
But how do we do that, when fully half of girls feel paralyzed by the fear of failure during puberty, according to a Procter & Gamble study? The fear is so intense that “many girls opt out of important growth opportunities during this time, like taking on challenges and trying new things.”
Even in our early pilot, after taking high school girls through a mini-MBA where they began to build a business, four of five parents said they saw a difference in the confidence in their daughters. It’s this confidence, the kind that comes from execution, that leads girls to feel powerful.
The pipeline issue. Just about every public company has gender diversity as a priority — some hiring chief diversity officers as a new marketing ploy, others trying this or that to recruit more women. Putting aside the talk and marketing, how will corporate leaders ever get to the “50-50 by 2030” that the UN talks about and to which many have committed?
If we train girls early on with the entrepreneurial mindset and business skills so essential for leading in today’s chaotic world, won’t companies have that talent pipeline they say they want? Indeed, there’d be no more excuses.
Triple impact. Early business training isn’t just impacting the trajectory of women. Participants in the 12-week Girls With Impact Academy are starting businesses and initiatives that are making parents’ and business executives’ jaws drop — from one-touch mobile emergency help to mentoring kids with cancer. Their impact will be seen not just in their personal success, but in their communities, in the jobs they create, in the workplaces they lead one day.
When 16-year-old Jody Bell says “I feel powerful” while at the same time building her venture, I.C.O.D. — an advice site “in case of deportation” — we know we are on to something. The same for 16-year-old Jess Takami, a lifeguard and CEO of Sonar Saver, pursuing GPS-like goggles to detect victims submerged under water.
Let’s do it, Oprah. Let’s really make Time’s Up happen.
If we turn that 18% of young women into 50% of young business leaders, we’ll hit a triple home run: More women at the top, more women-led innovation to spur our economy, and greater equality in the workplace.
Let’s train the next generation. Let’s demand that companies and executives put their money where their mouth is by supporting this education, and let’s truly ensure women have both the financial and business wherewithal to stand up to anything.
Jennifer Openshaw is CEO of Girls With Impact, an entrepreneur and leadership academy for girls. She previously founded and served as CEO of Women’s Financial Network, and served as the head of the Financial Women’s Association and chief marketing officer for Mercer’s When Women Thrive research platform. Follow her on Twitter @jopenshaw.