“So many women, we are afraid of our power, not just the fight for it but what to do with it once we get it.”
Political leader Stacey Abrams brought down the house last week with those words. They came on day two of The Riveter Summit: Women Building the Future, in New York City Nov. 6 – 7, an event imagined to inspire business leaders to power the change needed to create equity in the workplace. But it also aimed to foster a community where women prioritize their own confidence and ambitions, and then help others do the same.
In a speech that reflected upon her campaign for governor of Georgia, growing up a poor black woman in America, the power of allyship and anger, and the urgency of workplace equity and voting rights, Abrams bestowed three guiding principles: “Don’t edit your ambitions. Don’t go it alone. Don’t forget the pain.”
“If we don’t edit our ambitions, if we don’t go it alone, and if we feel the pain,” she said, “we are prepared to take our power, and we are prepared to change the world.”
Change is as hard as it is necessary. The Summit set forth a roadmap for the hard work still ahead. Speakers like U.S. gold medalist Abby Wambach and former Salesforce president Cindy Robbins talked about the importance of knowing your own worth, then demanding it. “You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable,” said Robbins.
Wambach spoke at length about the challenge of demanding more, even and perhaps especially when you’re already at the top of your game. “We women have been taught to believe there’s a certain way we should operate in the world. This idea that everything you have been given as a woman has been given to you, rather than you have earned it,” she said. “That is a very big mental shift that we need to make. No, I earned that shit. You didn’t give me anything. When will we start thinking in those terms and start believing that the shit we have is ours, and that we deserve it?”
A conversation between Arlan Hamilton, the first queer woman of color to run a VC fund for queer women of color, and author and TV personality Stacy London, focused on the power of failure. “You need doors to close in order to find doors that will open,” London said. Pivoting the conversation to how women can best present themselves any time they’re outnumbered in a room, Hamilton said, “Be authentically yourself. There’s absolutely no check or amount of money that’s worth losing dignity or losing sleep or losing who you are. The times I’ve strayed from that core thinking, they haunt me to this day.”
Reading from her new book, The Witches are Coming, Lindy West talked about the double standard that befalls women, particularly presidential candidates. “Men don’t need charisma to succeed. It doesn’t matter if men are likable, because men are people who do things, who don’t have to ask first, whose potential is valuable even after it is squandered,” she said. “Likability is a con and we’re all falling for it.
Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts exuded almost impossible optimism as she laid bare her excruciating journey through two cancer diagnoses and a career-long struggle to find a place where she fit in. Her takeaway: “It may not be easy, but I wake up every day ready to conquer the world,” she said. “People need to know that when you’re thriving you’re not happy every day. I’m grateful that I’ve learned that optimism is a muscle that gets stronger with use.”
In a provocative conversation about women and leadership, The Riveter CEO Amy Nelson asked WW President and CEO Mindy Grossman about the challenges of reinventing a world-renown brand while at the same time completely transforming it. “It’s kind of like changing the tires while you’re driving the car,” she said, eliciting nods and laughter from the room, perhaps especially from the working mothers who understand a thing or two about parallel priorities. “You have to run the day-to-day business of today while you’re building for the future.”
The serial CEO—running companies before the media started keeping track of the gender disparity of women in executive roles—emphasized that career ambition should never trump purpose. “Every human being should have a purpose filter,” Grossman said. “I have never taken a role because it’s bigger. I’ve never taken a role because it’s the next vertical climb. I’ve taken every role because of the impact I think I can make.”
Nine panels over two days gave women in attendance — and, it’s important to note, some men — the tools on how to negotiate a higher salary and pivot into a new career with success, plus ways to be an effective and empathetic leader and create the most social impact with investments. Issues like abortion access, intersectionality, and normalizing working parenthood were at the forefront, and the panelists and speakers represented the audience that learned from them: CEOs and entrepreneurs, industry veterans and young adults, new mothers and grandmothers, women leading their industries, and those on the cusp of inventing entirely new ones.
The Riveter itself was built on a wild ambition: to change the culture of work, including reaching gender and pay equity. It’s a lofty goal, but not one that’s insurmountable. It will take all of us working together — and truly seeing each other. It’s time to roll up our sleeves.
Here are our top 15 moments from an incredible two days:
Author Lindy West on the power of women’s anger: “I feel anger to be very helpful. It’s very galvanizing, it’s a very active emotion, as opposed to despair. There’s a reason why women’s anger is actively suppressed in our culture. It’s because it does have power.”
Soccer legend Abby Wambach on collaboration over competition: “We need to actually start championing each other rather than competing with each other. You have to learn when somebody else achieves success, that’s a moment for you where you either get to get jealous or you get to turn up your own volume. Why are we afraid to turn up our own volume?”
Former Salesforce president and Chief People Officer Cindy Robbins on the best advice she’s ever been given: “It’s how you deal with criticism and failure that will define you as a leader and as an executive.”
TV personality and author Stacy London on the need for younger generations mentoring older ones: “We’re starting to feel irrelevant in a world of technology that we don’t understand. I’m starting to feel like I don’t know what my future is. There needs to be intergenerational mentorship.”
Backstage Capital CEO Arlan Hamilton on taking ownership and responsibility of your own privilege: “It’s up to us to take advantage of where we land on the privilege scale. Take advantage of it and use it altruistically.”
Rachel Sklar, founder of TheLi.st, in a panel on negotiating to lead: “Just do the thing you want to do. Ask forgiveness, not permission.”
Nina Vaca, Chairman and CEO of Pinnacle Group, on being an optimist when everyone underestimates you: “When you are underestimated, people make mistakes. They’re not as prepared, they say the wrong thing, and it’s just to your advantage. There is nothing better in life than being underestimated, and then using that to get information and follow up and get your goal.”
The Helm founder and CEO Lindsey Taylor Wood on how to ask for more money: “Be unapologetic about the ask. I can say as a founder and as a boss, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. I think women should really step into that more.”
Tiffany Dufu, CEO & Founder of The Cru, on the advice she would give her younger self: “If you want something you’ve never had before you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done before to get it.”
Chelsea Hirschhorn, Founder and CEO of Frida, on how she hopes society can re-brand motherhood: “The problem I would love to solve would be the problem of guilt. I think guilt is crippling for women.”
Mindy Grossman, President and CEO, Director, WW International, Inc. on forging your own path for success: “I took myself intentionally out of situations, and did leave a couple of companies because I wasn’t set up for success. The incredible qualities of leadership are actually genderless.”
Katherine Grainger, Co-founder of Supermajority, on the urgency of intersectionality when it comes to voting rights: “White women have made a calculation that voting according to their race benefits them because white supremacy trumps all. We need to figure out how to get 20% of white women to work with their sisters, women of color, to shift things.”
Gloria Feldt, Co-founder and President, Take The Lead, on persevering no matter what: “I became obsessed with why women had opened doors and changed laws and were only half of the workforce. We’re earning 50% of the college degrees, we’re making the financial decisions for families, and yet we’re under 20% in top leadership in every single sector. The challenge of the 21st century is to keep walking through those doors in spite of the feeling that we are walking backward.”
Amber Czonstka, Principal, Head of Institutional Direct Sales at Vanguard, on the need for corporate America to take a stand on social justice issues: “I would argue this is a Darwin issue. If you do not take a stand on social issues and prove you are here for a broader purpose, you are going to die. The next wave of folks who are working and investing in the companies are going to demand it. It’s going to be a requirement in order to thrive.”
Good Morning America co-host and sports broadcasting legend Robin Roberts quoting Oprah Winfrey on the best advice she’s ever received on managing the expectations of others: “No is a complete sentence.”
Heather Wood Rudúlph is an author, editor, and creative content consultant who specializes in the intersection of gender, work, and culture. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Elle, The Guardian, Huffington Post, and Time, among other publications, and she has worked with brands such as L’Oreal, Chevy, Airtable, and SAKU Cannabis. Follow her on Twitter @hwrudulph and Instagram @HeatherWRudulph