Intentionally Unapologetic — A Conversation with Catherine L. Wheeler & Zoë Bassey-Rowell

Organizational Fixer, Catherine L. Wheeler, sat down with The Riveter COO, Zoë Bassey-Rowell, to honor the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her legacy of being ruthlessly unapologetic.


When I think of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I think of two words and that’s intentionally unapologetic. And when wanting to have a discussion about that, you immediately came to mind. We’ve had regular programming with you, and you do such amazing work, not just with our audience, but also with companies about elevating the culture and elevating and amplifying the voice of employees. I knew that in having this conversation, your perspective would be invaluable. So, thank you for the time.


Awesome. I am super excited to be here, and I think like most women across the country, I feel a weight and the responsibility to really carry the torch of being intentionally unapologetic.

So much of the freedoms and things that we enjoy are because of RBG. I think we’re here as the daughters of RBG. And so, it’s really a blessing and an honor. I thought about something simple, we literally wouldn’t be able to have this conversation if it wasn’t for her.

When was your aha moment for becoming intentionally unapologetic as a woman?


I’ve had two really amazing moments that stick out in my mind. The first was trying to figure out who I was and [how to] fit in and not rock the boat. One of my classmates from grad school said, “you know, Zoe, I always feel as if you are trying to walk away from the fact that you have teeth. You have teeth and there’s nothing wrong with having teeth. Don’t try to assimilate to make people feel comfortable.” 

I was taken back because I didn’t know that the struggle I had within myself of [trying to be] authentically myself and fit in was so apparent, and to have somebody say that to me, that was the first moment that I thought: Okay, I need to figure out how to lean into my power. 

[The second moment was with my mentor]. I was blessed to have such an amazing strong mentor. When I was having a situation with a manager, and I came into [the mentor’s room], I was so flustered. I was sure I did something wrong. And you know, I was in her office and I just kind of broke down and stated: “no, look at this paper, I did my best. I just don’t understand this person’s response.” I remember she said to me, “I don’t care if it’s a blank sheet of paper you gave this person. Was that response appropriate? And if it’s not appropriate, you need to call that person to the carpet.”

We always go around to HR [or] go to our manager. People never call somebody else to the carpet. And it was in that moment when she gave me that playbook and walked me through that situation that I thought, okay, this is how [I] lean into [my] power.


Condoleezza Rice, I look up to her. I mean, she’s brilliant, you know. I think about something she said in her book, it was a whole chapter on how much she watched TV.

I remember reading that [when] I was in school and I was [deep in the] hustle. As a woman, you’re taught that you need to be and do so much. And when she said that she watched TV, I was like, “Oh, I can watch TV! Like, okay, so my trash TV isn’t all in vain.” And I know that’s a very different moment. But it was really this idea of owning my own story, whatever that story was at that moment, because there’s a huge difference between living a story and owning it. [I was] living the story that so many other people wanted me to live, because I thought that that is how I needed to show up.

It really gave me the freedom to be unapologetically lazy sometimes. And to really operate from a space of rest and refreshment.  Even in a moment of hustle and grind [I could take] very small moments [for myself].

Even now, as I think about what’s happening in the next few weeks – the election and how really traumatic a lot of things are. How do we really capitalize on what it looks like to be unapologetic and intentional about the space that we occupy?


I think the thing about being intentionally unapologetic is the nuance of it all.  It looks different at different times.


Absolutely. I love that you [mentioned] nuance. I think that we as women really acknowledge that at every level [and] every different stage of life, what it means to be intentionally unapologetic is perhaps different. Really not recognizing that is what I like to say imprisons someone else’s narrative.

I’ve made a personal commitment to myself that whatever I feel, whatever I sent, whatever I think that I need to do, I’m just going to do that. And I’ll deal with the fallout of that, whatever it is it looks like.  But not being true to myself in those moments, is really non-negotiable. And I feel like that’s the spirit of RBG. The fallout is always a lot worse in our heads and our hearts than it actually is in reality. And those moments imprison us for sure.


You know, another thing that’s really important is representation. Sometimes when you see somebody else who can live in their own truth and be who they need to be it’s empowering. Sometimes we need somebody to lead the charge. When we think about RBG, we know that she led the charge. 

The more I see that representation, the more it changes my mind and allows me the freedom to show up as myself every day.


Absolutely.  And I think we have to think about that on a day to day basis. What it means to be intentionally unapologetic.

I think we really need to reassess, right? Where are moments in my life where I have not shown up authentically and what are the cost of those moments? You talk about productivity, which is a very real thing. When people have to hide and mask who they are, we get less of them. And as a result, we produce less. But we have to count the cost of the moments where we are not intentionally unapologetic. I am grateful for the fact that Condoleezza Rice wrote in her book, that she liked to watch TV.  For whatever reason, she felt the need to express that. And it has changed the trajectory of even how I lean into rest. As a leader, I go hard and I fight, but no good fighter doesn’t rest. There is rest that needs to be had in this journey.


What does it cost me for not being myself? That’s powerful. 

I think at every stage, there are levels to freedom, right? For me, maybe you’ve seen this too, as you advance in your career, you get to a place where [you feel] “I’m comfortable, I’ve got this, and I can now feel open to be myself. I’ve established myself, my work ethic, people know me.”   And then you move to the next level of your career and there is this moment of, “Okay, how do I show up in this moment? Do I say this? Is that okay?”  And it almost is a recalibration, it’s almost a daily decision, right? You never arrive.  You never get to this place where you will forever be intentionally unapologetic.  It’s a constant intentional choice.


And you know, the challenge too is, and I’m always [saying] this, women have been called to lead organizations during this time, Black women, White women, Latina women, Asian women…We are, we are literally really the nucleus right now of the movement happening within organizations. What’s scary for me is that we can post about RBG and we can appreciate her legacy, but then we [also] can forget the calling that we have. If you were down for RBG, if you appreciate what she did, if you appreciate the fact that you get to vote, if you appreciate the fact that you get to put your name on a mortgage, etc., [then] what are you doing to ensure that the next generation of women have the same level of impact? What does it look like to not only sustain, but to increase the impact for the next generation?

What are some of the ways that women unknowingly diminish from the power or walk away from that responsibility of carrying the torch that RBG and so many other women started years ago?


I would say the biggest way is the language we use.

It’s very disempowering. We’ve really dismantled the ability in a lot of ways to be intentionally unapologetic by the language. Using words like “I think,” and “I hope,” and “I wish” when we are exerting an opinion or sharing a thought when we get the floor. [It’s] really almost softening [your voice]. Somewhere we learned that to soften our stance on something that we feel very strongly about, makes it feel better for other people. A huge one is “I’m sorry.” Sorry, kills me, it’s subtle but very harmful.


You definitely touched something with the “I’m sorry,” and the “I hope,” “I wish,” or let me try and soften this up so people can accept my opinion. Right? One thing that I have learned and kind of researched over the years is all the ways that we start off at a disadvantage. We tend to shrink our bodies in meetings and minimize ourselves. 

With my team, one of the key things that I do is really intentionally harp on no apologies.  When somebody does apologize, [I] ask them, “what are you apologizing for?”


I really challenge people to think about: where did you learn what you’re doing is problematic?

It sounds like this therapeutic approach, but the truth is.  [What] I’m learning all the time as a leader, as a woman, now as a mom, as a wife, is that there’s some things that I have learned, that have really been harmful because it doesn’t allow me to fully show up in the way that I want to and I need to unlearn those things.

To unlearn you’ve got to go back to where you learned it.


Yes. It’s the intention.

So how do we replace some of these moments?


The first one is really to just model it. The second thing is replacing the language that we’ve learned to use. And that takes a lot of work. I still am not perfect at it even though I’m very conscious of it. I’ve done, what I like to call, a word audit.


Yes! For me though, one of the key things that I took away from that really being intentionally unapologetic, it starts with the question, the root cause of why: why am I doing this? Why in this moment I need to do that. And then taking it to the next level of when or how was that behavior modeled. And then a word audit, looking through and asking myself, what is the intention behind it?

No matter where and what you do, these are the things that you can take root of now. And even if you are not an executive or leading a full company, don’t forget that,  the example that you set, even for your children, for other women who are watching you do something that they want to do, you’re showing up for them. And that example can shift or reframe things for the positive of the negative in [one’s] life.


If ever you needed a sign to do the thing, this is it. This is the sign. This is the time. Our fearless leader, RBG, has left us with a legacy, that is really one of [our main] responsibilities, that should we not do the thing that we have been put on this earth to do and pursue [that] purpose with full vigor and full passion, then we are failing. We should be very thoughtful about that.


Yes! Wow! Powerful.  And you know none of this makes any sense if we don’t execute against one of our most fundamental and most powerful tools in our democracy, which is voting.

Go and vote. Vote up and down your ballot. These are really important times. Every election is very important. But more than ever, in the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, if we’re thinking about honoring the legacy of RBG, then absolutely the first step is to make sure that you’re registered and that you vote.

Thank you for your time Catherine.  I have enjoyed this!