You may have heard the phrase before, “It all boils down to the people''. It doesn’t matter where you are - in a workplace, in a club, at school, in a friend group – it will be the people rather than the place that will affect your happiness and effectiveness in a role, and your career more broadly. That is just one of the thoughtful lessons that Malinda Coler drives home when she answered some of my questions regarding women in the business world.
Malinda Coler is currently the CEO and Co-Founder of LessonsUp, which is a career-oriented company that offers resources to learn lucrative skills and access to powerful networks of professionals, so that individuals can be better positioned to excel in the workplace. You can learn anything from email marketing and project management to web design, SEO, and product development.
Malinda is an inspirational woman leader who has much to say about how to be inclusive in the workplace. In the following Q&A, she gives sound advice on how to start your own company, how to prioritize working relationships, how to bring women into the conversation, and much more.
What would you say to other women wanting to start their own business?
Getting started often feels daunting because people think in terms of the big scary picture, “start a business.” In reality, the best way to start is to start small. Consider:
What are you offering?
Who are you offering it to (hint: you’re not offering it to everyone, think about a very specific group of people who would benefit from your offer)?
Why people want what you’re offering?
Once you have answers to these questions start thinking about how you can validate your idea. What small test can you run to see how people will react? Will people pay for this? There is a whole world of free resources available to you to do this. Sometimes a simple post on social media will tell you what you need to know to get started.
What do you feel the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a woman in business?
Recognizing bias is one of the biggest, ongoing struggles women face. It’s one that I learned about early on in my career. In college, I worked on a project for a major construction company where I managed 30 subcontractors. One of the subcontractors ignored my calls and requests for status updates. I discussed it with my manager as we were getting closer to project deadlines and he sighed heavily, then picked up the phone and called the subcontractor.
He had the exact same conversation I had had with every other subcontractor, and successfully got exactly what we needed. I looked at him puzzled, tried to explain that I had attempted this same conversation, had been successful with every other subcontractor, “I don’t understand what I did wrong!” He cringed, and let me know that it wasn’t anything I was doing, but that this particular person was not going to take a woman seriously.
I was shocked, frustrated, angry: all the things! The most frustrating part was realizing that I had spent weeks spinning the wheels, trying to figure out how I had damaged the relationship and how I could fix it.
This is one of the biggest problems we face as women in business. There are so many hidden biases, behaviors and actions that may be hurting our career that we don’t know about. If we don’t know about them, it’s hard to address them, and even worse, we may lose a lot of time and energy trying to fix something that isn’t broken. This is partly why women only apply to jobs where they meet 100% of the criteria on the Job Description, whereas men will apply if they meet a few of the bullet points.
What advice would you give a young woman professional looking to advance her career, who feels like her ideas & contributions aren’t taken seriously because she is a woman?
Put more energy into the relationships where you are valued and taken seriously. Access to lucrative opportunities comes down to relationships. If things aren’t working with certain people, find the people that it is working out with and focus on how you can add more value to their work life. If you strive to build relationships with the best people around you, opportunities will follow. Do not spin the wheels trying to fix what isn’t working, or worse, trying to change people. There may be situations where you need to document behaviors or take action, but those should be few and far between, and hopefully none. They won’t get you as far as you will get by actively pursuing the positive.
What do you think male allies can do to help create equality in the workplace?
Male allies can do the same thing that you can do for other women in the room.
Ask women questions in group settings that they would want to answer. This helps them build credibility in their areas of expertise.
Refer to useful conversations with women in group settings, whether they are present or not, “Anna was just saying that our customers…” This helps them build credibility.
Ask women for their opinions during decision making conversations.
If someone talks over a woman in a meeting, or worse, takes credit for something they said, interrupt them and repeat what the woman said. I do this a lot!
Practice active listening during conversations with women: acknowledge and reflect back. This will also help mitigate man-splaining.
Look for opportunities to speak of women in a positive light.
What would you go back in time and tell your younger-self in the context of being a woman in business?
Stop trying to prove yourself to the wrong people. They aren’t worth your time, and the ones who are worth your time can help you get a lot farther much faster.
Has being a woman given you any advantages in the workplace? If so, how? If not, why don’t you think so?
At times I have certainly felt that it has. The majority of product meetings I attend are an 8:1 ratio of men to women. I use this to my advantage to build more leverage for my opinions, reminding people that I am the only person in this room who represents 50% of the population. This, however, is a double-edged sword. I should not be the only woman in the room. Ever. I am working every day to change this. At LessonsUp we help women and underrepresented populations get access to lucrative opportunities. Let’s get more women at the table!
After personally reading over Malinda’s answers myself, something really stood out to me. It made me realize again the importance of people’s roles in our lived experiences. When she said that it’s not worth our time to fix the bad relationships, but that we must pursue the positive ones, it made me see that it’s not only about networking that will bring us success and fulfillment, but how we choose to be selective with the relationships we have and the importance of nurturing the right relationships. It reminds me of a similar piece of advice I received awhile back, when one of my mentors said to me “although you should be self-aware of your weaknesses and try to improve them when you can, it can’t be one’s obsession or focus to fix them. Because when we instead put that kind of energy into our strengths, we become unstoppable.”
The same goes for our relationships. Imagine how unstoppable you will be by pursuing the positive, and supporting one another.