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Celebrating The Female Leaders of Washington DC

June 19, 2010

What women should NOT have to do to be taken seriously. Statue by Gupta in Vienna.

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.

Part of a painting in the lobby of Hotel Marrol's in Bratislava

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.

Building plaque in Bratislava

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).

Statue in Prague

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.

Dancing girls in the Hotel Marrol's Lobby

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.

The next generation of Slovak women

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Stan permalink
    June 20, 2010 12:22 am

    For many men the “Old boys network” fits the model you are describing and yet I don’t believe the personal support network follows in the same way as it does for women. I may be making gross generalisation here but many old boys networks are formed in schools from an early age. Furthermore in my own experience from private schools in England this is multi-generational and unfortunately was a result of the class system. Boys who went to private schools followed by Oxford or Cambridge were far more likely to succeed in most influential professions including politics. “Succeed” may not be entirely correct but it certainly opened the doors whether competence was a criteria or not. (Wealth of course is also a huge factor.)
    Your description is a very different path and model and sounds far more sincere in reality. Whereas the men described above may well support each other in times of personal crisis it is far too often as result of being an “Old” or “Ex” , fill in the school, as opposed to real friendship. And furthermore there are many, many examples of political career wrecking/assassinations of such friends as any study of politics and history will show.
    My last comment is on your description of the juggling of work, home and now social media. I believe that women are far better at multi-tasking and probably have been since time began and thus are more able to do what you describe building up their business or career whilst juggling family, home demands and blogging or using other social media.

    • June 20, 2010 7:57 am

      It is very much a “girls network” – not old simply because our relationships do not go back that far. We come from various countries and backgrounds, and really the main criteria for belonging are running your own business for a long time, having a family and being sincere. I have seen absolutely no competitiveness or any interest in sabotaging another person, career or business amongst these women; they are truly happy for each other’s success. And these women have succeeded purely from their own efforts; no one has been handed anything or gained entry because of wealth or status.

  2. aunt Kay permalink
    July 23, 2010 4:47 pm

    What a revalation! WE ARE ALL SO PROUD OF YOU TONYA1!!!!!!!!!

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