Celebrating The Female Leaders of Washington DC
My futile search for well known professional Slovak females has me thinking about the females I know and associate with in the Washington DC area, and how we band together and collaborate, celebrate and support one another. I’m part of an amazing group of smart, hard working women who manage to run their own successful businesses and raise families at the same time. I think it will be women like this who will finally change the workplace for the better, making it normal and acceptable for women to be leaders on par with men at work and in the community.
It wasn’t always this way for me. My husband and I moved to the DC area in 1995 when he was stationed at the Coast Guard Head Quarters as the Intel Liaison with the Navy. We knew no one here, and as most working military wives had to do at the time, I searched for a job in the newspaper listings (old fashioned way, remember that?). I applied for 11 jobs, and was offered 7 of them. That was easy, I thought.
But it wasn’t. After a couple of unhappy experiences with boring jobs and ugly commutes, I settled on providing independent IT consulting to local nonprofit agencies and county human services agencies. The opportunities trickled in one at a time, all word of mouth.
After a couple of years, an idea that had been knocking around in my head for a long time finally forced itself out, and I began to develop a software system on my own to help agencies that worked with foster kids and other social services programs manage their caseloads and financial transactions. I had no customers, no business plan, and no idea about how I was going to sell the product, but the idea consumed me, and I worked night and day like a maniacal person on the software for nearly two years. I was possessed.
It was tough: I had a baby, a preschooler and a full time job, and every night after the kids were in bed, I sat in our tiny unheated sun porch and worked until 2 in the morning, my fingers numb with fatigue and cold as I pounded the computer keyboard. I announced myself in business in 1998 as Harmony Information Systems, Inc., and the software quickly sold, again through word of mouth. Within a year I had sold the software to Fairfax County for $2M.
The years flew by, and the company steadily grew into a multi-million dollar business, bootstrapped and later with help from a Wachovia loan approved by an incredibly supportive bank manager. By 2006, I was on the road 3-4 days a week travelling across the country, working 80 hour weeks, exhausted and missing my kids. My husband worked with (for) me, and tension grew between us as we tried to juggle the business and family life. I tended to be the boss in both, which did not always go over well with him (not sure why that would be).
My life was consumed by the business, and when I wasn’t at work, I was at home trying to be a good parent in the few remaining waking hours I had left over. I had zero time for networking, no mentors and no peers, and no appreciation for what a big mistake that was. When I decided to bring in investors to help fund the growth of the company, I had no one to turn to for trusted advice.
By the end of 2006, I had brought in venture capital, and finally started to meet other CEOs, and most importantly to me, other women CEOs. I soon realized that the pain and suffering I had endured alone all those years prior was shared by every other female CEO. Each of them at one time or another has struggled with issues concerning growing a business, hiring, leading, selling, marketing, finances, trying to raise kids and stay healthy and married. We all suffer from the same maladies – guilt, exhaustion, fear – and all share the same survival traits – perseverance, a passion for what we do, a strong desire to succeed and to do good, and an amazing work ethic.
I first met one or two women who in turn introduced me to other female CEOs and I was invited to join a few local women’s leadership groups. We seemed to instantly know one another at some core level I had never experienced before, as if we had been friends for years. When I exited Harmony last year, they stood by my side. Unlike some others I had known for years, each of these women reached out to me unconditionally, providing emotional support, encouragement, and lots of laughs. They asked nothing in return.
These women helped me through the fog of depression that descended upon me last year as I struggled with the sense of loss, and embarked on re-defining myself now that I was no longer the CEO of anything. As the rest of the world suffered through the crisis in the economy, I dealt with a double whammy – both economic and identity crises.
I feel I owe a debt to these women for giving me a new lease on life. I watch in admiration as they continue to grow their businesses despite the economic conditions, navigate the new world of social media like pros, write books, blogs and columns in papers, start new enterprises, volunteer their time for social causes, raise their kids and manage to stay married. They support each other’s ventures, provide endless encouragement to one another, and dive in to help, no questions asked, whenever there is a crisis.
These women run some of the most successful businesses in the area today. Together, these female leaders are changing society’s image of women to where it will be the norm for women to run the show. And they’re doing it the female way – with open hearts, camaraderie, lots of laughter and tears – and negotiating deals over great food and fabulous door prizes (spa days in our gift bags!), building profitable companies and strong communities, and helping the next woman leader (and man) along just because it’s the right thing to do. Slovak women need the same: a network of strong women who recognize and celebrate one another’s successes, and through this they will leave an indelible mark on society.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you. You know who you are.