Learning from role models great and small that you can
You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t take the test.”
I listened, shocked, as my math teacher counseled me not to take the AP Math Exam. What was worse was that he was saying it kindly, so he meant well, he was saving me from the potential disappointment, defeat, depressing the overall class curve. Later, I cried into my locker, wondering what I was going to do.
It would have been easier to listen – an authority figure, advising me on what was best. But I have always had a little trouble listening. I took the AP Math Exam anyway. I didn’t get the top score. But I did pass.
And I went on to work out a truce with math and science. I learned to appreciate what I loved — the language of a program; the shapes in geometry — and what I had to work to decrypt — addition, subtraction, formulas really. Because like any other love, even writing, there is a lot of work that goes into opening the secrets of that art, a lot of slogging through things you don’t like to get to the pearl.
“I’m a Girl.”
So it was with great pride that I saw my own girls participate in a wonderful campaign this month, highlighting beauty in yourself from what you do. In the NYC Girls Project, beauty comes wrapped in athleticism; bookishness; gymnastics; chess prowess. “I feel beautiful when I help other people,” my oldest said in the commercial. Beauty comes with confidence in who you are and what you can do.
To tell you the truth, “I’m A Girl” came out at just the right time. I was having one of those days. Work can be tough. Our industry can be tough. This city can be tough. Waiting for our house to be whole again and hand-washing clothes late at night because we have no washer and dryer and those outfits need to be clean tomorrow…can be tough. So when you go through a week of dings like that, then when you are undervalued or judged as too nice or too bitchy or too bedraggled, maybe because you are a girl, that is one more thing that can be tough. I typed glumly at my computer one night while I watched my youngest making cake, hoisting an electric mixer onto the counter to put it together. “Maybe you shouldn’t do that,” I said, well meaning. “I know what I’m doing,” she replied calmly. And she did. I just had to watch her.
And as the week progressed, I would see that beauty of confidence time and time again.
The Amazing Vanessa
Vanessa Vallely is one such woman of confidence and accomplishment. She came to speak at our firm the other week, and was a big hit. I met her through the sisters I’ve grown close to in our women’s network, and she and I bonded immediately. Her book, Heels of Steel, is a remarkable autobiographical journey of how she worked her way up from a working class background to being COO of a major financial firm and then leaving to start her own company, her own brand, and a new life of inspiration for other women to succeed on their own terms. She wrote a funny/inspiring passage where she first shared her idea of creating a centralized women’s networking website with her best friend.
"Ness," she said. "I don't get it." Best friends are supposed to get everything, no matter how wacky the idea is. I can't say it didn't make me feel a little bit deflated but I didn't take it personally. I just knew that one day I would be able to go back to her and say: "Now do you get it?"
What a great optimist Vanessa is. Do it because you know you can. Which leads me to my last affirming experience this past week.
I’m A Geek Girl
Earlier this year, I was asked to submit ideas for a panel at The Grace Hopper Celebration in Computing, the world largest technology conference for women in computing. I immediately pounced on mobile technology – it was a pet focus of mine with The Crowded Kingdom coming out as an e-book, and I was intrigued by its integration into some of my own systems. But when I was asked to submit a proposal, I thought at first: “What, me?” And then, instead of doubting myself, as I would have when I was younger, the next thought was: “Cool, me!”
It wasn’t a daunting mountain; it was an adventure. And suddenly, months later, there we were, myself and five other women from major investment banks, laughing and chatting over the chance to share what we knew about one of the fastest growing technical topics, at a technical conference…for women. We slowly walked up to our conference room, expecting perhaps 50 or 60 curious onlookers, laughing and glad to have gotten to know and learn from each other the night before.
“Oh sheesh!” one of us whispered when we walked into a packed room of 300. We walked silently up to the stage; were they thinking what I was thinking – what will I say? what do I know? how will this go???
I proudly introduced each of them with their jobs, and something about themselves: Allison Alviggi, from Deutsche Bank, an avid baseball fan proudly wearing her Twins hoodie; Tina Naser, from Credit Suisse, training for the NYC Marathon; Miruna Stratan, from Goldman Sachs, a former basketball player now applying her athleticism to raising twins too; Cecilia Kan, from Barclays, a trained culinary chef… “and Pam Mayer, from BlackRock, who recently opened her own art show.”
Murmurs of surprise.
“Yes…” I affirmed. “You should Google her.” Laughter.
“And I am Louella San Juan –” I continued, explaining how I had been an English major, how I went from being right-brained to training my left brain, “– and so now full circle, I just wrote a children’s novel, called The Crowded Kingdom.”
More murmurs of surprise.
“Yes,” I nodded. “You should Google it.” More laughter.
The panel ran overtime.