The 25 years I spent building my business from the ground up—transforming a dream first into a dorm-room startup and then into a billion-dollar global powerhouse—was a crash course in critical career and life lessons. I wrote my book Dream Big and Win to pass on those lessons so that others can harness the power of passion to ignite their own life-changing career transformations.
One of the lessons that kick-started my journey was the importance of owning your value and accepting nothing less. I think people often say some version of, “no one will value you if you don’t value yourself,” meaning something along the lines of that you have to cultivate an unwavering belief in yourself before you’re deserving of opportunity and recognition. Let me tell you, that interpretation is flawed. No matter how confident you are or aren’t, or how you feel about yourself, you are valuable and deserving of respect. Full stop. No, what I learned was the unjust truth that so many women in traditionally male-dominated spaces come up against: even if you’re Wonder Woman, your value won’t always be recognized and you won’t always get a fair shot, which means you may have to carve out your own space in order to succeed.
I learned this lesson relatively late in life. In my formative years, by some incredible good fortune of my upbringing and the brilliant mentors I’d had, I’d never been made to feel like I couldn’t achieve something because of my gender. Both of my parents set that example—my mother is a force of nature who only stopped working a few years ago at age 78 and showed me that there was nothing I couldn’t achieve. And the advertising agency where my dad was president was stacked with powerful women, including a leadership team that was 50% women. Even grad school felt like a level playing field, and I was never made to feel less than. I didn’t even join Stern’s Women in Business group when I was at NYU. I remember thinking, “Why would I need that?”
Ignorance really was bliss. It wasn’t until my first post-MBA job that my eyes were opened, and the realities of workplace sexism changed everything for me. I was fresh out of grad school, I already had quite a few years of work experience (including internationally), and I was overflowing with confidence. I felt unstoppable as I walked into my first day of work as a junior trader in international finance. Boy was I in for a rude awakening.
The sexism was so rampant and so on the nose, you’d think it came out of an episode of Mad Men. It was like trying to work in a frat house. Not only was I the first woman these guys had ever worked with, judging from their behavior, it’s possible I was the first woman they’d ever met. And despite having the same job and title as my coworkers, they treated me like I was their personal assistant and receptionist. Everytime the phone rang, they would shout out, “Liz! Phone!” Somehow it was my innate duty to fetch the phone because I wore a skirt to work. It was all day, every day—I swear I started to hear, “Liz! Phone!” in my dreams.
The worst part and what really made it absolutely awful is that, wanting to fit in and be a team player, I’d find myself going along with it and just answering the damn phone. On the outside, I smiled through my gritted teeth. On the inside, I fumed.
Despite having to answer phones and fetch coffee on top of my actual job as a junior trader, I was crushing it and was finishing my work early every day. So I went to my boss to ask for more responsibility, hoping for a high-level task or at least a real challenge—something, anything that would put me on the path to no longer playing receptionist for these jerks. The defeating reality? “I guess you could scan the storage closet and see what we need. Then go around to all the guys and ask them if there are any office supplies they could use.” Not exactly what I expected to use my MBA for and certainly not what I was hired to do.
Not only did I have my MBA, unlike many of the guys I was fetching coffee for, but I also had several more years of professional experience over my coworkers as well. And yet, my boss felt the best use of my time was ordering printer toner and counting rolls of toilet paper? I should have had a Norma Rae moment right then and there. I should have jumped up on his desk and demanded equality. But that isn’t what happened. I was so shaken and utterly defeated that I smiled and agreed to do it, I may have even said, “Thank you.”
I took a long look at myself. I was better than this. I deserved better than this. And I needed to demand better than this. I’d never quit anything before, and the idea of walking away from a secure job and staking out on my own was nerve-racking. But I couldn’t shake that realization that if I didn’t bet on myself, no one else would.
I knew I was smart, capable, and I had the skills and tools I needed to start my own company. Holding onto that belief like a life preserver, I took a leap and never looked back. Believing in my own value, even and especially in the face of those trying to tear it down, is what gave me the final push I needed to start my own company. I knew that I wasn’t going to thrive in that environment, so I would have to create one in which I could. And I built my entire career on what I learned through this experience.
The lesson: Regardless of where you are in your career journey, you determine your value, no one else. If you aren’t given the space to fulfill your potential, to grow, and to lead, then go find one in which you will. Or better yet, go create your own.