Female gladiators rarely appear in Roman historical narratives. Fast-forward 2,000 years or so and we are reminded that the same gladiatorial spirit of overcoming formidable challenges is very much alive. This was most evident on September 12 as we watched each of the eight winners of the GenNext 2019 Awards eloquently tell their story.
Organized by She Runs It, the GenNext awards celebrated four years of honoring these modern-day gladiators. Each honoree has had to enter the “arena of high expectations” — not only within their organizations, but also within themselves — as they faced their innumerable career challenges. These expectations ranged from driving rapid growth in community building ahead of a $8 billion IPO (initial public offering) listing ( Jayvee Nava, vice president, community, Peloton), to sidelining A-list celebrities on the red carpet to give real cancer heroes a voice ( Whitney Segel, account director, Y&R PR), to building a lacrosse equipment business while you’re a sophomore in college ( Rachel Zietz, CEO and founder, Gladiator Lacrosse).
Despite the vast differences in their stories, the winners shared a common refrain: Overcoming big hurdles requires relentless conviction and grit.
Jenny Rooney, editor of the CMO Network at Forbes, expertly moderated a high-energy discussion, encouraging each of the winners to unveil their super-power and those invaluable pearls of wisdom on what drives them to excel.
The stories were diverse, heartfelt, and purposeful. Colleen Sands, senior vice president at Orion, reminded us that a career assignment that might appear daunting at first could be the very spark to fuel your leadership growth. Colleen was given the challenge to set up the Orion office in California in her early 20s after graduating from college and has never looked back.
Leah Hendrickson, who leads social media for the Chicago Blackhawks and is entering her 9th season with the NHL team, told a tale of leading fan engagement while thriving in a male-dominated sport.
We also heard about innovation — evident in Amanda Hellman’s story as managing director at FF NY and in her work with Spotify, MetLife, and HP Global. Amie Owen also showcased those stories of pushing boundaries as a vocal pioneer in the shopper media space and vice president and partner, UM Shopper, at UM Worldwide.
The entrepreneurial and competitive drive was palpable during the evening, especially as we heard Abby Taylor’s story of following her passion for surfing and a healthy lifestyle. Starting with a bold idea on Belmar Beach, N.J. five years ago, Taylor has gone on to build the successful acai-based Playa Bowls business, which has now grown to more than 65 stores. Her advice to budding entrepreneurs: “Believe in your idea; be passionate and people will take a chance on you.”
Taking a chance on new ideas and ensuring representation is something presenting-sponsor Facebook takes very seriously. Eva Press, vice president, global marketing solutions, at Facebook, highlighted to the GenNext Class of 2019 — that the company is committed to doubling its female global workforce by 2024; in the U.S., the plan is for under-represented minorities to make up half of Facebook’s employees within that time frame.
The iconic Forbes Media space on Fifth Avenue was a perfect venue to celebrate the contributions of these eight bold leaders; it also served as a reminder that no organization is perfect. Forbes eloquently took responsibility for its oversight in recognizing only one woman in its Top 100 Most Innovative Leaders list. I was reminded about Forbes’ commitment to diversity by Laura Brusca, vice president, corporate communications at Forbes, who walked me over to a copy of the very first Forbes magazine (dated September 15, 1917), that specifically called out Women in Business on the cover.
It has been over a century since that first issue and our work to ensure true diversity continues. These eight women, representing GenNext, are among those leading the warriors who will continue to blaze trails and drive change with the same fearlessness and fervor of the bravest female gladiators — but instead battling wild animals or enemy gladiators as in ancient Rome, our biggest foe today is inaction. Leadership by organizations, such as She Runs It, propels us to take the lead in ensuring diverse female voices are heard amid the cacophony of stakeholders in the arena of good intentions in our industry. It’s time to open the gates and let the young blood in to take real action.
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