ThirdLove’s Co-Founder Has This Brilliant Advice for Women Leaders

Contributing to change for the next generation means working on your network now.

What is the best advice you can give to women CEOs about leadership and startups? originally appeared on Quora – the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Heidi Zak, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of ThirdLove, on Quora:

Everyone needs a role model. We all need someone we can point to and aspire to be like.

But when you look at Fortune 500 companies, venture capital firms, or most startups, the vast majority of the leadership is men. Today, less than 6% of Fortune 500 CEOsare women.

That’s a problem because it makes it really difficult for more women to see themselves in these roles.

We can all agree we need more female entrepreneurs. But what we really need is for more women to look at themselves in the mirror and say, “I can start a company.” And that starts with us, the current generation of female entrepreneurs.

One of the best ways to facilitate this change is simply to be present.

If there’s an event I can speak at that will empower other women to start their own businesses, I’m going to do it. If I’m invited to sit on a panel about women leaders in the business world, I want to be there.

It’s all about committing time and showing up. Formal or informal mentoring, speaking at events, engaging and networking with the people at those events–it all goes back to just being present. Position yourself as a role model so that women see what’s being done by other women, that their goals are within reach.

This is the mentality all women entrepreneurs need to have. Show up. Be present. Be a role model that young women can look up to. Take ownership of your position so that you can be a force for progress and inspire younger generations.

Contributing to change for the next generation means working on your network now.

Honestly, most women entrepreneurs often don’t have the same network that men do when they start a business.

If I asked female founders for a list of people they could call about issues related to their company or to help make the right introductions, they could collectively create a solid list. If I asked one male founder the same thing, there’s a good chance his list would be longer.

Part of that is because the VC and startup worlds are so male-dominated at the moment. But networking within that industry is a barrier we can break through.

Networking is not a skill most people are born with. Which means you have to put time and effort into doing it, just like you would with exercising. If you don’t make time in your schedule each day to go running, it won’t happen. Nobody will force you to network, just like nobody will force you to run. You have to build those muscles on your own.

I’ve noticed over and over again that compared to men, women tend to be less willing to ask things of other people. And I understand it’s tough. A few years ago, if I met someone interesting who I wanted to get to know better, I wouldn’t always reach out. I’d hold back.

Now? I always follow up, even if I only talked with the person for a few minutes. If there’s something I want to hear more about, something I think is interesting that I could learn from them, then I’m going to reach out. Sometimes, it’s as simple as, “Hey, wanna grab a coffee?” or “Let’s catch up.” But you have to get comfortable making the first move.

Asking for a favor is not the same thing as being selfish.

In the business world, if someone hands you their card, and two months later you want to send them a message, that’s no big deal, right? It might be for some women.

We tend to be more reticent about reaching out and saying, “Hey, I met you at that happy hour. You said if I ever had any questions about digital marketing I should get in touch. So, I’m wondering if you can help me with this question?”

Or even, “Can you make this introduction for me?”

I find that men do this really well because they don’t feel like they owe anybody anything. They just type out the email and hit send.

A lot of women hold back, rather than asking for advice or a favor.

The problem is, you won’t get anything unless you ask for it. People don’t just walk around offering favors to everyone they meet on the street. You have to make the decision to take ownership of that process. Ask for what you need. Don’t worry or analyze it too much.

Just send the email and move on.

As you continue to reach out, ask for help, and build your network, you’re creating something that can be passed on to the next generation.

The networks and connections you build now aren’t just valuable to you. When another entrepreneur asks you for an introduction a few years from now, you’ll be able to help them meet the right investor. When they need someone to answer a question, you’ll be able to draw from your network to answer it.

The most important part of being a female entrepreneur is helping the next generation of women leaders.

I feel my job is to inspire people, so they in turn can inspire others. It’s a domino effect. You are someone’s role model right now. It’s up to you to contribute in your own way and be the inspiration for the next generation.

This question originally appeared on Quora – the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. 

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