Women’s History Month is a global celebration of the achievements of women who’ve triumphed in the face of adversity. As part of this monumental conversation, EvolveMKD hosted a rockstar panel of successful women entrepreneurs to discuss their professional journeys and highlight insights on how they navigate business as women. We explored their greatest challenges with sexism, conquering fear, finding confidence, taking risks, as well as tips on finding a mentor. We learned what traits secured them a seat at the table and what motivations and attributes elevated them to the head of the table!
The Panel Moderator was Rhonda Abrams who is an entrepreneur, author, and USA Today columnist.
Our panel–Who They Are and How They Got Started:
Megan Driscoll, CEO and founder of EvolveMKD, a PR and digital marketing agency in NYC that works primarily with innovators. After leaving a partnership to build an agency on her own terms, she built a successful people-first business from the ground up.
Brittany Stovall, CEO and co-founder of Assured Quality Systems, a Risk Management firm providing quality assurance and technology solutions primarily to the automotive manufacturing industry. Brittany took a break from culinary school to pursue a summer communications internship in manufacturing where she “killed it” and was offered a job. She then set out to build her own company which made a million dollars in its first year and now has 300 employees in 12 states and two countries.
Joelle Faulkner is President & CEO of Area One Farms, which partners with Canadian farmers by investing in their land base so they can grow their farms and bring on the next generation. Joelle attended Oxford and Stanford and is educated in business, engineering, and law. She launched her business after securing a $20M investment and then continued to expand.
Rhonda: What business and personal attributes were critical for your success in both building a business and building a career?
Megan: “I think that one of the most important things has been being self-aware. When you’re self-aware that means that you’re not only open to feedback and open to different perspectives but also you’re aware of what you’re not good at. So especially when you’re building a team, you can honestly look at yourself and know what other skills you need to hire for, because you may not have them yourself.
And then in terms of what I found in building my business as being really important was just conquering fear. I think every phase you get through, there’s something new to be afraid of, or to be scared about. And so that’s something actively that I have to manage in my life, but I don’t let the fear prevent me from taking risks or trying to do things or making decisions that may not make sense to other people that I know are the right things to do.”
Rhonda: Do you think it’s any different being a woman, and the self awareness or the issue with fear?
Megan: “I think it’s very, very different being a woman. There’s a lot more that people project onto you, in terms of what you should act like, what you should be doing, what your life should look like. I think that’s an extra burden that we have to bear as women and I see that all the time when I’m asking for money or loans. As women we have to be much more aware of everything––what we look like, how we act, what we put on social media. I think sometimes men don’t have to worry about all those things.”
Rhonda: What kind of sexism have you encountered and how do you think it’s affected you in a male dominated industry?
Brittany: “At the very beginning of my career my partner and I were doing some strategic planning so we took some courses with some male counterparts. We were at the table and I don’t think they thought we could hear them and I won’t use the explicit language they used, but basically, they said, ‘women aren’t successful in this industry, nobody will respect them and they’re going to sleep their way up.’ It made me twice as ambitious, and it fueled me in a way that I think that if I hadn’t heard that conversation, I don’t know if I would have gone as hard that first year.
And so from then on I took advice from mentors and I grew. I really wanted to display my value and what differentiated me from my peers. What my company and my service could bring from a woman’s perspective is going to be a little bit different than what a male can bring to the table. It’s not necessarily better, but it’s different and sometimes different can be better, and so from there I think I earned the respect from my peers. I earned my seat at the table and I’m happy to say that I run that table.”
Rhonda: Did you ever find yourself holding yourself back or ever asking yourself what do I know about this stuff, or did you plow ahead saying, ‘I can learn’?
Brittany: “My mentor used to tell me ‘fake it until you can make it.’ I’ve learned to understand that there’s value in sometimes not knowing, and asking questions. The guys don’t know a lot either. They fake it as much as we do.
In situations where I would ask the question feeling a little less smart than everyone else as the woman in the building, the guys were like ‘yeah but what is the answer to this question because we don’t know either.’ So I think you just plow through it and you learn as you go and you ask questions. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know.”
“Studies have shown that women in business tend to be less confident than men––whether it’s as an entrepreneur, or in their own careers professionally. I had a friend tell me years ago, if I post a job that has 10 requirements, a man will apply if he has one and a woman won’t apply if she’s missing one. And I have told that story to hundreds of audiences of males and females, and both men and women agree with me. Harvard Business School did a very similar study showing that women think that they have to be so over prepared and so overqualified to get a job.”
Rhonda: How have you dealt with confidence in your career, and what kind of advice do you have for young women and older women and men to have that confidence in business?
Joelle: “The confidence thing is actually just a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ answer. There’s no reason somebody else is going to do better, so you have every right to be there. I help friends negotiate for salaries and I always just tell my women friends, you might as well just ask for 30% more than you think the numbers should be because that’s what men get.
On the application thing, we can call a spade a spade, it’s not that a woman isn’t applying because she feels like she has to be overqualified. She reads it and says, Oh, I’m not qualified. The woman wasn’t wrong there. But, the man wasn’t qualified either and he applied anyway.”
Megan: “I feel I lack confidence some part of every single day. I’ve never owned a business before. During COVID I started journaling and it gives me the discipline to reflect on all the things that went well that day. When you’re writing them down and thinking about them, that gives me the confidence to go into the next day. But I have to Google things. I have no idea what people are saying half the time and they probably don’t know either. And, you know, never go in with the attitude that you’re the smartest person in the room, but also realize that you’re not the dumbest either. So I think there’s a balance there.”
Rhonda: Who’s given you the best advice in your career and what was it? What advice do you have for others as they navigate their careers and their entrepreneurial dreams?
Brittany: “My mom has always been one of my biggest supporters, and what she always told me as I mentioned before is ‘don’t be afraid of what you don’t know.’ That sticks with me the most because I meet a lot of smart, educated people––engineers and CFOs that manage billions and billions of dollars on a daily basis. So I constantly tell myself don’t be afraid if you don’t know, just learn it––I mean figure it out. Men do it every day and life is not going to end if you don’t know the answer.
My second best is from Beyonce, ‘keep your eye on your intention.” That stuck with me, because I feel as women, we tend to drift. It’s because we’re natural caregivers. We care a lot about other people, other things and we tend to nurture things a little bit more. Men are really good at being self-involved, and it’s been about them. The last five years I’ve been very intentional about my emotions and caring about what’s important to me and being intentional in that. And so I’m very unapologetic about it. Men don’t apologize when they want themselves to succeed and I’m not either.”
Megan: “The best piece of advice I’ve gotten is ‘you meet the same people on the way up that you meet on the way down.’ So you should treat everyone with respect and kindness and directness and transparency. When you work for me, I give you two chances to hear no. So you can only ask me the same question twice. And if I say no a second time, the topic is dead.”
Joelle: “The best advice I was given was when I was trying to decide between engineering and law. And my mentor said, well, just flip a coin, because the second before you flip you usually know. I think about that a lot, because I think there’s a lot of times that you make decisions that you actually had a pretty strong preference that took a long time to get to.”
Rhonda: As a female leader what has been the most significant barrier in your career and how did you overcome it?
Brittany: “I would say the biggest barrier has been financing. And I think that’s typical for most women. When you go to a bank and you’re talking through your business plan, they tend to have more questions for a woman than they do a man. Naturally, you have to have all your ducks in a row and a business plan. But, you can see the same guy behind you has no business plan and he talks to the bank and convinces them to give them $200K or $2M. And so what I really did was start building relationships and networking early. I think that has helped me so much through my career.
Megan: “I agree with Brittany on financing. I think that has been the singularly most frustrating thing about being a female business owner. I had an underwriter ask me, ‘Why are you so good at your job.’ I was like, what does that have to do with you giving me access to credit?
The other thing I would say is all three of us are in a service industry. I give clients very direct advice, but there is a part of our industry that involves entertaining. And sometimes when you are open and warm and friendly, certain people sitting across the table from you can think that means something else. So for me, one of the skills that I’ve had to hone is how to delicately get out of those situations where I feel good, but no one else feels rejected. I am shocked at how often that continues to happen. Even after #MeToo and even frankly as I age. I really have to make sure when I go out that I’ve really thought through––where we’re going, who’s gonna be there, what my exit strategy is. And I always think about how sad that is because I’m sure men don’t need to do that.”
Rhonda: Do you mentor others––men or women––and how do you think people can find mentors?
Megan: “Well, first of all, you can’t talk to someone and be like ‘will you be my mentor’? I think that’s something that people don’t really realize. My mentor and I developed a professional and personal relationship over a number of years. And it sort of happened naturally, as well with the people that I mentor. I reached out for networking, and then it developed into a genuine relationship. It has to be mutual. I think one of the nicest compliments I got from my mentor who’s like a bajillionaire was ‘every time we talk, I learn something from you too.’ It’s something that I never would have thought about and I feel that way about the people that ask for my advice. It gives me new perspective and fresh thinking so I look at mentorship as a two-way street.”
Brittany: “My personal mentors have been just networking relationships that have evolved. And, mentorship isn’t necessarily about someone telling you how great you are all the time. I’m very passionate about mentoring, not only women, but people of color, because I think it gives value to them to understand entrepreneurship, being in leadership and what entrepreneurship really looks like so it’s probably what I try to teach my mentees the most.”
Joelle: “I think it’s a little bit like the self sorting hat in Harry Potter. You ask a lot of people for advice, and then you ask some of them for more advice and maybe they want to give more advice. And, eventually, you get a lot of advice from that person and when people say who’s your mentor you say oh it’s that guy.”
EvolveMKD would like to thank our moderator and panel participants for sharing their wisdom and advice. Would you like to know more about EvolveMKD or our CEO Megan Driscoll? Follow Megan on LinkedIn.