TAMPA — The next class of female CEOs donned crisp suits and gathered in the atrium of the University of South Florida's business school, their peers flip-flopping behind them on the way to class.
The business students were there to hear advice from the founder of a $40 million chain of lingerie stores called Intimacy. Susan Nethero, known as the "bra whisperer," had been on Oprah five times. She'd traveled, spent years making pressing business decisions and giving interviews. And she'd raised children.
Nethero's story sounded appealing to Samantha Broxton, a 28-year-old banker who is going for her master's of business administration with two kids and a husband at home. How, she asked, do you still satisfy the yen for a fulfilling family life? Where's the balance?
About 20 female executives spent Tuesday afternoon trying to answer complicated questions about life and work for 150 USF business students. Members of the Committee of 200, an advocacy group made up of women in business, talked about careers, bedtimes and boardrooms, choices and sacrifices.
They were presidents, managers, contract negotiators. They came from pharmaceutical companies, banks, food providers, media marketers. Some managed billions of dollars and were the only females in male hierarchies.
Nethero had worked first with Dow Chemical Co., Xerox Learning Systems and Time Life Video. Her daughters were young when she started her own business. She had help at every turn, she said, and simply weathered people's opinions.
"You can't be at peace in your mind if your children aren't taken care of in a way you feel comfortable with," said Nethero, 60. "In the end, a lot of people really thought that I was a terrible mom … I've got two strong young ladies and they don't think I did anything wrong."
Female executives are a minority. Catalyst, a nonprofit group that researches women in business, found females lead less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies and hold only 8 percent of the top-earning jobs. The number of women with executive officer positions has remained flat for three years.
USF president Judy Genshaft described her own rise. She set her sights on leading a research university from the start, she said. She asked powerful women for advice. They told her not to get bogged down in too many committees, not to skip important steps in academia.
"Persistence is so important," Genshaft said. "Don't get distracted … Don't forget when you are successful to reach down and help someone else."
The students branched into different rooms and seminars, listening to panel discussions from high-back executive chairs gathered around boardroom tables.
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They took notes and tweeted. They tossed around theories as to why women executives lagged behind men. In her experience, private investor Antonia Shusta said, men were willing to take risks even if it meant falling down. Women were more aware of perfection, which might be unattainable in the end.
"There is no such thing as work-life balance if you want to go right to the top," she said. "It does not exist."
Women need to build on their strengths, the executives said, not know all the answers.
"We will continue to see it change," said Laurie Brlas, an executive with Cliffs Natural Resources. "Men also want to be home with their children more than they did 30 years ago … These are difficult and unique challenges. Some of it is time."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3394.