With recent attention and important conversation going on about the dearth of women in tech and venture capital it reminded me of a story that left myself and a colleague of mine with our jaws on the floor.
"Next time, can you bring the real decision-makers?" This is how a young venture capitalist ended our meeting.
We had agreed to meet at his office to discuss merging two new regional efforts to grow the biotech, life sciences and research industry and discuss a way forward.
With both our faces scrunched in confusion, we simultaneously said, "What?" We thought we had misheard him. After all, I was no slouch, I was a serial entrepreneur, had been elected Businessperson of the Year a few years earlier and was serving as the founding CEO of this new organization. And the Chair was the beloved former Mayor of Seattle, its first African-American one.
Turns out we hadn't. Furious, we politely shook hands and exited.
Later that afternoon, I relayed this story to my friend, Jennifer James, a noted cultural anthropologist and futurist. She explained, "You and Norm didn't realize women and people of color are only given day passes to the club, never full membership. They only renew the day pass when they believe you can be helpful to them." I have never forgotten this insight and it has helped me through the confusion and disappoint in the work life we sadly still find ourselves in.
So, if we can only get a day pass how do we get into the Boy's Club?
Here are my how to's:
1) Don't take it personally.
This is hard. Not getting that entrance card is probably not about you or your competence. That doesn't mean stop listening, observing, learning the non-verbal ways to be more effective. The most effective leaders never do. Just stop beating yourself up that "if only I were [smarter, worked harder, etc.]" you would get that sought after opportunity.
2) Do something incredible again and again.
Unless you checked your brain, eyes and ears at the house when you left in the morning you are seeing opportunities for extraordinary work all around you. Too often we are waiting to be asked or for the stars to align so risk is small. It ain't going to happen. Have the courage and determination to seize one of those insights and make it happen. Then the management and world will notice and whether you were in the Boy's Club or not will no longer matter.
Scary to imagine this and take the leap? Yes. But you are way more capable than you think. Will you bloody your nose along the way? Yes. You will produce beyond what you thought was possible.
And once you produce something amazing, do it again.
3) Where you work or whom you work with really matters.
If the top management or the layers above in your company are almost all white or all male- don't waste your time. Your skills and your ability to lead are not likely to be rewarded in that company or organization. Don't waste time wondering whether you could be the exception. Past and present screams, "not likely."
It might have been different in 1970 as the avalanche of women and people entered aiming for the top jobs. In 2015 it's, "What are you pretending not to know?" This makes me really sad. And I know there are some really inspired leaders who are remaking their companies. Work with them.
Find a place where you can hit the ball out of the park and get the brass ring you deserve. It may not have the biggest name on the door and therefore, some things will be harder to do. But, if people like you aren't being recognized for what they are delivering at the big name place, become a disruptor innovative or join one who is.
Yes, it's true. Life is not fair. But that doesn't mean you still can't have the most awesome life anyways. Go out there and get it. I try to remind myself of that this every day.