Just shy of 29, I took a huge career leap and launched an international strategic communications firm. At the time, I was working for an emerging market, media startup in China – three of the sexiest things that you can imagine when you think about the financial markets in 2009.
I was traveling the world a lot, marketing, and finding investors for our company and during my many business trips, I began establishing relationships that led to potential new clients for me. These were CEOs looking to come to the U.S. capital markets that needed to find the right person to take them to the “next level.” My job was to facilitate their entry into the United States by explaining why their business was a compelling investment and deserving of investor money.
I decided to quit my job to start my own company and advise this new clientele. In a short period of time, I incorporated my business, began hiring internally, opened an office on Wall Street, and began a brand new hustle of wheeling and dealing.
As I became more “successful” which to my standards meant landing larger clients and getting meetings with people who used to never call me back, the more I became insecure, almost frightful. The fear of being judged, by my age or inexperience (in comparison to my competitors who were in the space for 20+ years), became overwhelming and those doubts started hijacking my inner dialogue especially during pitch meetings. So I did something drastic.
I created a fake boss. I created a Remington Steele.
Known as a popular TV series back in the 80’s, Remington Steele was based around the premise of a female private detective who opened a detective agency under her own name but found that potential clients refused to hire a woman. To solve the problem, she invented a fictitious male superior whom she named Remington Steele.
I hadn’t seen the show however, while confessing to a close friend that I had concocted a male boss figure, to help negotiate deals and also be taken more seriously by potentially larger clients, she stopped me midway, erupted in hysterical laughter and said, “Wait a minute, you created a Remington Steele?”
To my defense, I felt I needed to do this because I was coming up against so many hurdles. Believe me, many people were all too fervently vocal with their critical inquisition- “Aren’t you a bit too young to be advising me?” to “Don’t you want to get married and have children?” I once made a huge pitch to an Israeli executive. I was up against several competitors and worked extremely hard to cover all grounds- providing in-depth analysis that I knew my competitors did not. I even woke up at 5am and drove 3 hours to catch their morning presentation at an investor conference. Not one of my competitors showed up. When the executive made his final decision, he personally called me and said, “Look, out of everyone, I was most impressed with you and thought you did the best job. But Israeli men are hard to work with and they will eat you alive.” When we hung up, I cried.
I experienced the same treatment in South Korea, when conducting business in shady karaoke bars and being the only female in the room that wasn’t giving shoulder massages to the very men I wanted to take me seriously. As many “old-school” South Korean male executives couldn’t possibly come to terms with the fact they were negotiating or receiving counsel from a woman, my de facto line after any major decision became, “I’ll check with our Chairman and get back to you.”
What I took notice of was that the executives I worked for, were much more relaxed taking directives from a female when knowing that the firm was owned by a man. They weren’t so much consumed with interacting with this male figure or even interested in meeting him. It was more of a comfort, like an insurance policy for them. And for me, I felt it was a necessity to establishing my business and simply being effective in my job.
As I reflect now I find it all humorous, but in retrospect, 9 years ago, I was a different person and so was my industry. Since then, I have made tremendous progress in my professional and personal life to where I could never imagine doing now what I did back then.
But this also led me to wonder, was it just me? How did I partake in the very own stereotype that left me powerless? What were my contributions and could I have done more to go against the grain? Were these male executives that powerful or was it my upbringing that didn’t allow me to feel confident enough, as a woman to be strong enough and stand up to these judgments?
It also makes me question the limitations that we put on ourselves based on our own upbringing- whether we are women, men, sons, daughters, and of different ethnic backgrounds. Only now as a mother, have I learned that I want to do more for my children that I’ve actually begun this new journey and pathway of cognizing how much our attitudes and perception play into our reality.
Remington Steele was a bit before my time, however I can relate to another story, one that I am much more familiar with- the one where Dorothy, along with Toto and a few friends make their trek to see the mighty Wizard. The journey they take is one that leads them right back to themselves – because in the end they received nothing except the knowledge that everything they assumed to have lacked was inside of them all along. And that was true power.
Now if only I can get my hands on a pair of those red heels…