TAMPA — As the founder and president of Working Women of Tampa Bay, Jessica Rivelli has sponsored a vast number of events that help nurture and guide women in their respective careers.
When she recently read the Sheryl Sandberg bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, the last chapter penned by the Facebook chief operating officer really spoke to her. It encouraged women to be a voice for other women in the workplace instead of going it alone.
Rivelli, who was moved by the book and read it as soon as it came out, wanted to echo Sandberg's call to action and keep the book's conversation going.
The result was a "Lean In Lunch" last week that drew more than 120 businesswomen, who heard speakers with leadership experience encourage them to shed their fears and go after their dreams.
As Sandberg points out in her book, 30 years after women became 50 percent or more of the college graduates in the United States, few women hold positions in the upper echelon of corporate management and few serve on public boards. The statistics are even worse for women of color. This also applies to academia, law, health care and technology, stereotypically a male-dominated field.
Women are making gains in the mid and lower levels, but not as COOs and CEOs.
And Sandberg notes that in 2010, women earned 77 cents for every dollar men made.
The bottom line: Not many women are moving into the corner suite, and few are making the big dollars that go along with it.
"The greatest enemy to human potential is our comfort zone, staying where we are used to staying and where we feel comfortable," says Kelli Chickos, director of learning and development at Valpak/Cox Target Media, where she specializes in talent management and leadership development. "We have to realize that outside our comfort zone, dreams come true and opportunities exist where we learn to grow and discover."
But how do women get the courage to do it, to speak out for what they want?
"Move forward despite feeling afraid," Chickos said. "Do it in degrees and make a commitment to yourself to do it on a regular basis because that's how you do it. Replace fear with courage, keep calm and lean in."
'Ask for it up front'
Kari Saddler, Tampa General Hospital's senior leadership development coach, switched from encouraging female workers to lean out and do what's right for their family and their personal lives rather than what they really want to accomplish at work.
"Know what you want and need and ask for it up front," Saddler says. "Don't feel like a fraud and doubt yourself and your abilities. We're so self-critical when we describe ourselves. See beyond your flaws and never ask whether you have the skills and will you be able to do it."
In Lean In, Sandberg refers to an experiment led by Columbia Business School and New York University. Students were given a case study from the Harvard Business School about a successful entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen. Half the students got the Heidi case study; the rest got the same study but the name was changed to Howard. As Sandberg notes, Howard came across to the students as a much more appealing and likable colleague than Heidi.
Saddler says this negative correlation is huge and perpetuated in the workplace to the point where many women stop wanting or striving for the corner office.
"Don't worry about whether people will like you if you are successful and get a corner office," Saddler said. "What is it that you really want to come away with? That's what it's all about, where the rubber meets the road."
Eyes on the prize
Former Hillsborough County Judge Susan Sexton knows all too well the trials and tribulations of climbing the career ladder. She began her legal profession as a prosecutor.
Sexton strongly advises women to start at the end, by deciding what you ultimately want and what you need to do to get there.
She says you can always re-evaluate and change your game plan as you go along. She also doesn't believe in apologies.
"We have to learn to own our own success," Sexton said. "Don't ever run from it. As women, we tend to say 'I'm sorry' a lot. Don't apologize and don't give too many explanations."
Sexton is now involved in several entrepreneurial ventures that she says are enriching because there's no ambition gap and no one to hold down success.
Flee the comfort zone
Liz Calver is following in the footsteps of her grandmother, Betty C., who was a wife, mother and owner of a boutique that specializes in Florida lifestyle clothing and accessories. Calver, of Tampa, is carrying on her grandmother's entrepreneurial legacy.
"I need to come out of my comfort zone and seize the opportunities to represent my company," Calver said. "It's imperative. Sometimes the opportunities are there, but I can't see them because I'm so directed by my to-do list. I really need to go out there and get them."
Lorraine Chulla has worked in the construction industry since 1978, so she understands how women can be taken advantage of in a man's world.
That's why, Chulla says, she plans to mentor young women, particularly those who come from impoverished backgrounds and want to rise to the top of their fields.
"I want to empower young women," Chulla said. "Women don't give themselves enough credit. We should be recognized and appreciated for our nurturing and strength and respected for what we know can impact society."
The next push
Sandberg's book has been so well received that a global Lean In organization has been formed (leanin.org) to help women achieve their goals through community support.
The organization also encourages Lean In Circles, small groups that meet monthly for encouragement and support in an atmosphere of confidentiality and trust.
In Tampa, Lori Taplow, associate director at Talking Talent, and Hilary High, a lawyer and mediator, co-host a Lean in Circle approved by the organization.
Working Women of Tampa Bay has also been accepted as an official partner of the Lean In organization with the goal of being a facilitator and making the elements of Sandberg's book its next "push."
Those interested in joining Taplow and High's Lean In Circle or possibly starting your own Lean In Circle can call Jessica Rivelli at Working Women of Tampa Bay, 1-888-998-6483. For information, visit workingwomenoftampabay.com.
Kathryn Moschella can be reached at email@example.com.