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The ‘Only’ in the Room

A conversation about leadership, collaboration and support

By Abigail Thorpe

After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in the 1990s, Nancy Harris, president and financial planner at New Foundation Wealth Group in Gig Harbor, went directly into working in finance for a Japanese firm. The financial industry has long been male dominated, but during this time it wasn’t unusual to be one of the only women in the room, particularly if you were in leadership. At a Japanese firm, this was even more pronounced. But she never questioned whether she should be there, she knew she could do just as well as the man sitting across the office from her, she worked harder, and the rest came in time.


This story is not unusual for many women in the workplace, particularly for women in financial, tech and banking industries, among others. When it comes to leadership and the C-suite, it’s even more of an “only” situation. You’re often the only—or one of the only—women in the room.


But the tale of women in the workplace is not without its successes. If you look around the world there are several women leading countries, more heading up companies, and millions inspiring change. We’ve come a long way since women gained the right to vote a hundred years ago, but there’s still work to be done.


From January 2015 to 2020, women in senior vice president positions grew from 23 to 28 percent, and those represented in the C-suite grew from 17 to 21 percent, according to a Women in the Workplace study conducted by McKinsey and Company and LeanIn.org. But women, and particularly women of color, are still significantly underrepresented in management and leadership positions.


Despite the stats working against them, women continue to climb the ladder and challenge the status quo. But perhaps the greatest success is found in working together.


“Success looks like having women at all levels of leadership who are working together to enable others,” says Kathy Keele. “Success looks like a world where there aren’t two sets of standards. Success looks like an appreciation how women can bring great skills and leadership to the table in their own right.”


Keele is the current chair of the advisory board at the Milgard Women’s Initiative but worked for many years in business development, as a head of marketing, and finally as the CEO of the Australia Council for the Arts.


Like Harris, she’s experienced her fair share of being an “only,” but she’s also found inspiration and encouragement from other women and men who have opened up conversation and served as mentors for her and other women in the workplace.

“For me, seeing women leaders throughout the world, those women are inspirational,” she reflects. “It isn’t so much about gender, it’s about them being skilled doing their jobs, and being tough in a way that’s just about confidence.”


For Harris, she felt pressure to follow the status quo while working in large brokerage firms, and so she took a leap of faith and started her own financial planning group. It allowed her to do what she loves and build a culture of inclusivity.


“I work with people who want advice and counsel as they manage and grow wealth,” she explains. “I define wealth much broader than just money. I think wealth is security, freedom, fun, travel, generosity, building a legacy. It’s about what money can do for us.”

And many women feel the same. More than 50 percent of entrepreneurs are women. Why? They want to make their own rules and define their own success.


Jennifer Vazquez spent 25 years in the military, retiring at the rank of Colonel. She achieved much success in her career and has always been good at whatever she puts her hand to, but always struggled with a need to prove herself, a sense of not trusting or believing in herself. After a year and a half as the membership director of a local YMCA, she took some time to discover her passion and started a life-coaching business.


Part of that journey was the process of discovering the support out there for women, something she had never experienced. “I look back now and say, ‘Wow!’ The things that are in place for women in the workplace are pretty phenomenal now,” she shares.


She discovered the incredible power of women coming together to support, celebrate and help one another. Success came from working together; “finding those that can help you tap into that creative, innovative side to then brainstorm or find solutions to issues, whether it’s issues in the workforce, how to broach gender differences, etc.”


Vazquez, Harris and Keele all share varied roles in leadership, but they also define success as the success of others. Yes, women still have a way to go, but the process starts with each individual working together.


“Knowing your rights, feeling confident enough to know how to challenge those rights, supporting each other in those rights. Every person's win is your win too,” encourages Keele.


That process of finding success starts with discovering your passion. From there, success means something different for every individual. “I think we need to define what having it all means for us individually,” explains Harris. “I try to always remember that I’m being of service, that what I do matters, I’m there for my clients, I’m paying the mortgage, I’m paying it forward.”


As Vazquez, Harris and Keele have pivoted in their own professions, each has discovered a passion to give back. Their one common piece of advice is the same: Find a group of women who will support you, and be open to mentorship.


“Be open. Be collaborative. Be supportive,” says Keele. “Women who want to be relevant can pay it forward in meaningful ways. Learn from each other in ways that aren’t agist and aren’t sexist.”


Women need to be there for others, adds Harris. “We don’t need to compete with the other women, there’s plenty to go around. If we really want change, let’s support each other.”


And there are growing opportunities to do so in Gig Harbor. Vazquez was introduced to a national organization called Women Belong by a newcomer to Gig Harbor: Claire Haasl. They soon started their own Gig Harbor Circle, and while the organization is membership based, it is truly about connecting with other women and finding professional, educational and mentorship opportunities.


The Milgard Women’s Initiative that Keele serves as the chair of the advisory board for shares a similar mission of connecting, inspiring and supporting women. As part of the Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility in the Milgard School of Business at the University of Washington, Tacoma, the initiative advocates for all women and helps educate and connect graduate students with women leaders in the community.


“We hope to contribute to the creation of a world where women are in a position of equality in the workplace and in their communities,” shares Keele. “There’s a lot of places that women participate and in different ways, and we’re trying to acknowledge that one way is not better than another.”


Harris is the founder of the Women’s Influence Network, which aims to help unite and connect women who can strengthen, challenge and mentor other women, regardless of age and profession.


Success is not about competition; it’s about working together to identify and fix the “speed bumps” as Harris refers to challenges women face in the workplace. “The truth is there’s more than enough, therefore we can collaborate, and if it’s broken, we can fix it. I think it’s important to let people feel supported,” she adds.


In order to come to the table filled, and able to support others and achieve personal successes, however, it’s vital to practice self-care, whatever that looks like for each individual, encourages Harris.


“Be curious, be open to learning new things,” adds Vazquez. “Be part of an organization, but not at your expense. Your health, and your mindset, and your love of life is not worth giving that up.”


Success for women may mean many different things, but ultimately you have to believe in yourself, take risks and have gratitude. The future is bright for women, so long as we support, believe in and inspire one another to create a workplace that is different than today’s.



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