What career changes are worth it? What does it mean to stand up for something we believe in? How do we negotiate with our partner, colleagues, family and friends to live our lives aligned with our values?
On May 18, 2017, NYWICI hosted a panel Courage v. Fear: Navigating the Big Risks to Go Big at New York Institute of Technology, as a part of New York Festivals, which recognizes the world’s best work in advertising.
The panelists were Levo League, Chief Leadership Officer and advocate for women and girls Tiffany Dufu; LMHQ director and Lady Boss founder Tracy Candido; and McCann Creative Director Susan Young, who led the Microsoft Girls Who Code campaign and has been recognized by Cannes Lions, Clios, Webby’s and more. Moderator Carol Evans helped launch Working Mother magazine in 1978 and founded Working Mother 100 Best Companies, still the most important workplace benchmark in the country. Carol asked these extraordinary women how they took risks to lead the lives they wanted.
On where their courage comes from…
Susan: When I was young, I wanted to come to New York. My fiancé at the time told me I wouldn’t like the city at all, but I knew that’s where I wanted to be. He eventually moved here too. Now, I have a two year old and to me, that was a risk to take also. I was afraid that after having a child, I wouldn’t be able to produce work of the same caliber. That’s the issue when work is the center of your life and you start out on the fast track. Know what you want and what your values are. That’s very important.
Tracy: I’ve always been a natural risk taker. I want to jump into things head first and my parents taught me the value of commitment. When I joined something at school and I no longer wanted to participate, my parents told me that I needed to stick with it. My optimism served as a coping mechanism, forcing me to find what I loved about the activity. That optimism has been a good thing and has served me well in my career.
Tiffany: It all started when my Dad pushed me to run for student government in middle school. He was a preacher and felt that I should experience the power of public speaking. I was 12, in the 6th grade, and had to figure out why people had to invest in me. I lost that race, but people have remarkable empathy for those who take risks. You realize that you can fail publicly and the world doesn't fall apart. Because I took that chance, I identified myself as a leader, which gave me agency and power that I still carry with me in my professional life.
On challenges in the workplace…
Tiffany: Marie Wilson, who was former President of the Ms. Foundation and created Take Our Daughters to Work Day, was my mentor and sponsor. I’ve had powerful women supporting me, so sexism in the workplace isn’t necessarily my story. My perception of my experiences, however, reflects who I am as a person and a leader.
Susan: Exactly. Focus on female mentors. Don’t put too much energy where it’s not worth your time. I’m glad that nearly half of our creative leadership consists of women, but it’s still taking a long time to reflect that female perspective in advertising work.
Tracy: I’ve always been open about being queer and to me, it’s not a risk to be out. Are our rights at risk right now? Yes. Is it difficult for my wife and me to have this child? Yes. But every person’s story is different. I do feel that there is a lack of visible role models for homes with two working moms. Do I have to write that book?
Tiffany: You should!
On taking risks to pursue meaningful work…
Tracy: In a prior position, I had no work-life balance, and I knew that I couldn’t search for a job in the right way until I had resigned. My wife is a little more risk-averse, so she asked me to save three months of my salary first. I was willing to walk away and take some time to feel like myself again before starting over. With my network and years of hard work in freelance to build my reputation, I was able to land a creative producer role for a big brand. None of this would have happened unless I took that risk.
Tiffany: Taking over the White House Project from Marie Wilson was a huge risk, but I don’t think I realized that at the time because I was younger and more naïve. The White House Project was a powerhouse for advocacy and it was such an honor to work in that role, but I didn’t realize what I was taking on. It’s not enough to have a vision. You need a strategy and a plan that engages — little steps to get to the big picture. Recently, I had to negotiate with my company to scale back my hours, so that I could write my book. I had to negotiate this before I even secured the book deal. It was a big risk, but it was something I needed to do.
Susan: To step forward, I took the risk to pursue more provocative work. We don’t always have the luxury of doing what we want, but with some clients, we can find the right time to be bold and tell the client that this is the work they should be doing. The Girls Who Code satiric video and campaign, which aims to get more girls in STEM, came out of this outrageous statistic that I saw. Only 7 percent of patents in the world are held by women. Microsoft is so huge, so we can actually create an impact through their organization. The result has been us navigating the complexities of patent law in Uganda, India, Greece, and figuring out how to empower women to become patent holders. This was a risk worth taking. It’s an award-winning campaign, and it’s enacting real change. Same thing applies to the “Toddlers Kill” campaign, which we made for the Brady Organization to end gun violence. We needed to get gun safety into the debates. Hillary Clinton referenced ToddlersKill.org in the final debate, even though it was released only days before. That’s the reward of brave work.
On negotiation tools to secure courageous work…
Tiffany: I asked the people close to me to describe a moment when I was my best self, people from different stages of my life. I recorded them and analyzed similar words and phrases — that’s the consistent experience people have with us. Leverage that experience to build your brand and achieve your goals. We don’t want to be remembered as people who “got a lot of stuff done.” We want to be remembered for meaningful work. For me, that’s advancing women and girls. Be authentic and listen to your own voice. People will trust you and your intentions.
Susan: Always put things out there. In my business especially, we self-edit constantly. We come up with reasons as to why something won’t work. Women, sometimes, are too responsible. If you’re a young creative, it’s not your responsibility to make the meeting. Someone else is running that meeting. It’s your job to throw the ideas out there and to go for it. Also, be tenacious. Just because a client won’t buy in immediately doesn’t mean you shouldn’t return to the idea. Have the creative tenacity to keep going.
Tracy: Trust your gut. If you believe in something, there’s a reason for that. Speak clearly about what you want and communicate your values in an empathetic way. Sometimes, you just have to take a big leap of faith and your colleagues, your partner — everyone — has to take the journey with you. Think about it as a consent process, not a power struggle.
On letting go…
Tracy: When I was a kid, my parents took us on a Big Red Boat Disney cruise. I was 7. There was a contest for the kids to get as many signatures as possible from the crew. I stressed thinking the other kids might have gotten more signatures. At the end of the day, no other kid even made an attempt. I was the only weird kid that did it! Oftentimes, you’re stressing and no one even cares. You don’t have to be excellent in everything and you don’t have to get all the signatures. If you want to work that hard, do it for yourself.
Tiffany: My book Drop the Ball talks about what we need to do in order to prioritize. What is our purpose? What can we let go of? Growing up, Claire Huxtable on the Cosby Show was someone I looked up to. Today, I can delineate between the social messages I was taught and what I want. With my first child, I was overwhelmed trying to keep all the balls up in the air. There are so many invisible job descriptions we’re trying to fulfill — and well. We want to be a good daughter, sister, friend, student, mother, wife. Today, I know that my foremost priorities are advancing women and girls, nurturing my relationships and being a conscious global citizen. Nothing else matters, and I’m not a bad person if I can’t keep everything going. It’s very freeing.
Photos: Jan Goldstoff