Career

What I Wish I Knew When I Was Younger: 2 Women CEOs Reflect

Phyllis Campbell, Chairman of the Pacific Northwest region of JP Morgan Chase & Co., talks with The Riveter's Amy Nelson.

It was a true meeting of the minds. On August 15, 2019, Amy Nelson, founder and CEO of The Riveter, spoke with Phyllis Campbell, Chairman of the Pacific Northwest region of JP Morgan Chase & Co., about money, careers, and how to ensure that more women have a voice in the corporate world. 

Here are some takeaway tips from their conversation:

Learn from the bottom up

Campbell, who grew up working in her father’s dry cleaning business, spoke about the lessons she learned watching her father start and run a small business in Spokane, Washington: “Don’t be too proud to do everything and anything,” said Campbell. “You do it all. If the garbage needs taking out, you do it.”

Her father’s attitude also helped shape her understanding of customer service. When she was working at the front counter of that business, her father told her: “‘You need to remember everybody’s name, you need to remember their order. If they bring their shirts in, remember whether they want light or medium starch.’ I mean it really got down to that. It was a great platform to just kind of understand the customer service side of things. So I really got engaged and I would say that kind of led me to love business.”

The “aloha” spirit: Giving back to your community

Early on, Campbell said it was “my mother who taught me that you never make money just to make money.” Campbell refers to it as the “aloha” spirit, a reference to her mother’s Hawaiian background, which emphasizes giving back to the community. 

She also discussed how her family’s values formed her financial mindset: “I really learned that money wasn’t an end of itself. Money was there to, yes, feed our family, because we had a large family, but money was really there to turn around and do something else for somebody, which was a really wonderful gift.”

Develop resilience, persistence and discipline

Campbell spoke of resilience, persistence and discipline as the three keys to financial success. 

Resilience

“The one thing I learned in the dry cleaning business, as well as through my career, is that there are going to be setbacks,” Campbell said. “There are going to be those tough times, when you ask, ‘What are we doing? And why are we doing this?’ And people telling you, ‘You can’t do it.’ There are all kinds of setbacks and roadblocks, but I think the most important thing I learned is you’re going to make mistakes. Pick yourself up. Don’t beat yourself up. And say, ‘What did I learn?’”

Persistence

Campbell also spoke about how she got her first job in banking, due to her persistence. After being told that the bank was no longer hiring women, “I just called them, literally, every day for two and a half months. And the guy would answer the phone, he would go, ‘Oh it’s you again. Oh, okay.’ I really did become annoying, and I knew I was purposely annoying. And he finally told me, ‘I’m going to hire you because I’m so sick of you calling me. I just want to get you off my back.’”

Discipline

She also highlighted the importance of saving and learning financial restraint at an early age, saying, “Don’t spend what you don’t have, and if you have extra, start putting it away.”

Be willing to take risks

Saving is important, true, but it also is necessary to take considered financial risks. As Nelson said, “Although we need to practice discipline, sometimes we also need to take some risks, particularly as women, because the barriers to entry are harder.”

Nelson spoke about raising money for The Riveter and the homework that she did before her meetings with venture capitalists, saying, “I’m going to learn the numbers for my business inside and out so it’s unassailable, be able answer any question they ask, and prove to them that I know this and I can be deft with the numbers to grow this business.”

Campbell, in turn, discussed how one of her first major financial decisions as an adult was whether she could afford college, asking, “Is this a risk that has some return? That was a hard decision to really make. So we [my family] decided to move ahead with a combination of both scholarships and work study and loans. We were able to finance. But that was a critical moment in our life.” Campbell pointed to the enormous burden of student loans on families and how the size of the student loan can affect career choices and other financial decisions long after graduation.

Develop confidence

Campbell says, “We all face barriers no matter what. So I think part of it is instilling a sense of having a place at the table. We have a place at the table, we need to be assertive, we need to pitch our elevator pitch, whether it’s for our careers or for our business or for whatever we’re advocating for. I mean it could be anything, quite honestly.”

And as Nelson points out, the work being done is not just for the current generation of women, but for future generations, too. “I think about it a lot and I think about taking my seat at the table all the time, because we’re the ones who are facing these barriers, and so yes, you’re facing these barriers and you have to fight the fight, but if we take the seat at the table now, that means our daughters can take the room.”

Make sure women have a seat at the table

Nelson and Campbell also talked about the benefits of incorporating diversity into standard business practices. Both women spoke about not treating diversity as a token gesture, but instead, committing to fundamentally changing the composition of companies, corporate boards, and venture capital recipients, which, like most of corporate America, remain overwhelmingly white and male.

Campbell said, “With one woman on a board, for example, your voice gets drowned out consistently. If you have two, you know it’s still the women who tend to get spoken over, especially if you’re talking about a ten to two ratio on corporate boards. But if you get three or more women, there is a real correlation between diversity of thought, and therefore, success.” She added that it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also a profitable choice, saying, “Companies and boards with many women, not just token females, outperform peers.”

Learn from your mistakes and listen to others

Campbell learned the valuable lesson of how to grow from setbacks early on in her career: “I made a lot of mistakes when I was young. I was somewhat intimidated and everybody that was reporting to me was older and had been there a long time.” She says, “I had to learn a lot. I had some people tell me, ‘Look you’re not the best leader we’ve ever had. You’ve got to listen more, you’ve got to ask us more what we want, and ask us how we should get from here to there instead of just telling.’ So, I made mistakes, but I lived to see another day.”

Remain authentic 

Turn liabilities into assets

Nelson and Campbell both ruminated on how to remain true to yourself in work and throughout your life. Nelson, who is the mother of four young daughters, said, “I still think that motherhood is seen as a distressed asset in corporate America or anywhere. And I made a decision in that the rooms that I’m in, or the position I’m in, or whatever platform I have, to talk very vocally about being a mother because I think it’s a strength for me in my work, being a mother. It’s taught me a lot, I can multitask like no other.” 

Nelson spoke about her philosophy of embracing what others might consider a liability and instead, embracing it as an asset. She gave an example about when an investor asked her if she was “physically up for building a national company,” and her response, which was saying, “I built the company while I was pregnant, and I think that physically I can do anything.”

Her lesson from the experience was that “when someone presents you with a very biased or incorrect view of the world, lean into whatever that is as a strength. Because that is part of you and the whole of you is why you’re there, and you’re good at it, and you’re good enough, and you should be at the table.”

Remain authentic in different situations

“Part of the trick is sometimes you have to situationally adjust,” Campbell said. “For example, what we’re just saying is you may feel emotion and you may feel like how you’re going to react is who you are, but then you have to say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not useful.’” But, she adds, “I always need to feel at the end of the day that I’ve represented my best self, my true self, and my values.”

The value of mentors, sponsors and networks

Develop your networks

Both women emphasized the need to develop and maintain both formal and informal networks. Nelson said that one lesson she would tell her younger self was: “There were tons of people I didn’t keep in touch with, and I wish I had. My advice would be to keep in touch with everybody. Because you never who will be the transformational or pivotal person in your life.”

She also acknowledged that the difficulty of keeping up with your network: “It seems so simple, but it is so hard. It’s a skill and it’s time-consuming. But it’s so worth it, every step of the way. And that’s the main thing I wish I could talk with myself at the age of 22.”

Campbell agreed, saying that “I’ve found people when I was in my early 20s that come back and we’ve built a built a business relationship or a relationship on other things or they’ve opened a door to a corporate board. And it’s just interesting, not that you do it because of that, but it always does come back to you when you just invest in your network and relationships. You just don’t know how that will pay off.”

Mentors

Nelson’s first office job was at The Carter Center and she spoke about the help she received from her first professional mentor: “It was clear that she was someone who was willing to give me feedback. And so I latched onto that, because there are a lot of people you work for that don’t have time, interest, energy to be giving you feedback. And I found that she was very willing to give feedback and so I sought it out from her. I asked her for very direct feedback and I could take it away just to process it and say, ‘I can use it to get better.’”

Accountability buddies

Campbell pointed to the value of friends who are sounding boards, who are going to tell you the truth and who can give you honest feedback, who she called “critical friends,” or what a Riveter attending the talk called “accountability buddies.” Campbell described these relationships by saying, “Get a couple of folks that you can bounce things off and say, ‘You know, am I thinking right about this? Or can you give me a different perspective, can you help me kind of get back? And you know, if you’re doing something wrong, or if I’m doing something wrong, I want to know.’”

Sponsors

Campbell defines sponsors as “people that kind of pick you. And I don’t know how that happens, it’s a chemistry thing, but I would say that almost all of my promotions and my jobs have come from people that kind of watched me or picked me or they saw me at a nonprofit board and said, ‘You know I’d like to talk to you a little bit more about this opportunity.’ And I didn’t even know they were observing or watching, but they somehow opened a door that wouldn’t have been open to me otherwise.”

Stand up for others

The conversation also focused on how it’s important to stand up for others, especially when you’ve gotten that seat at the table. Campbell said, “Speak up when it’s appropriate. And sometimes that’s not easy. And so the hard part for me to learn over time has been when my authentic and true self says, ‘This isn’t the right thing to do.’ Then I may be the only one in the room that thinks that, because I’m maybe the only diverse person. But that’s who I am, and that’s my life experience. So to be able to represent that, not in a defensive way, not in an emotional way, but in an authentic-self way. And say, ‘I see things differently, I’ve had some very different life experiences, so I need you to hear me out.’”

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Claire Lui is a design, business and culture writer.