6 months ago I sat across from someone in whom I saw a lot of potential. I had only heard stories from her project leader that she was smart, fast, and unafraid of dangerous situations.
So I invited her to coffee. She came 7 minutes late and asked me questions about leadership, vision, and my “story”. I asked her what she liked about college entrepreneurship, her major (she was undeclared), and what strengths she was starting to identify in herself after working on her project.
“I’m really good at planning things.”
I believed it. She was probably phenomenal at logistics and organization, and would eventually write it that way on her Linkedin.
I told her, “No, you’re not.”
She looked a little scared. She was only a freshman. But let me explain.
I‘ve headed operations for the world’s largest hackathon, MHacks, twice. I followed that by taking over operations for one of the most powerful student organizations in the country, MPowered Entrepreneurship. In my team’s tenure, we successfully franchised our world’s largest pitch competition to another university, held the country’s largest collegiate Makeathon, and spread our learnings to student organizations across the country. Time went in. My grades blow.
One freezing night in January, my friend Dave Fontenot stopped by my house to ask me if I wanted to run the “2 million dollars in prizes” Launch Hackathon in February. It was then when I decided that I was very good at event planning, and that other people thought that I was even brilliant at it. That night I also decided I did not want to grow up to be an event planner. I said no.
I told the MPowered freshman that she wasn’t good at planning things because I knew from the depths of my gut that she could be better at harder things.
“I think you’ve got vision. And you’re so, SO creative. You’re unafraid.”
She didn’t know it yet. That’s a problem.
Event planning is hard. It’s people-manufacturing. It’s curating experiences that participants- customers- call their moms about. It’s putting out fires, juicing value from low resources, motivating a motley crew to achieve a vision.
It pigeonholes you, though.
I told her that I believed she was good at planning things, but that if she believed that was her primary strength, no one would ever expect or respect more of her. It’s really easy for people to believe that women are organized and good at planning stuff. It’s not easy for people to believe that women known for their planning skills can fuck with an entire industry, do impossible things, and execute on a vision that no one else can see yet.
When I sit down with any of the male members under my wing — whether they’re pimply freshmen or juniors in mechanical engineering—their answer to the same question is always something like
“I’m creative. I think I’m really good at leading people. I’m pretty entrepreneurial.”
They’ve recognized their own potential before they’ve even reached it. That’s good.
In contrast, the females in my organization tend to identify themselves as “organized” and “good at event planning”. People they work with also genuinely praise them with the same words, unintentionally unifying them with a set of skills that don’t change the world. (Skills in event planning and logistics make the world run, but they don’t change it.)
I wanted the woman sitting across from me to look me in the eye and drop me words like “creative”, “executor”, “intuitive about users”, because seeing herself as such would make her that much more likely to be fearless in the face of naysayers and imaginative in defiance of the status quo. That’s what I told her.
And after that coffee chat, I made a point to sit down with every girl in my organization who I saw potential in and scare the shit out of them when they told me they were really good at “planning”. It’s a practice that I believe in confidently. If you’re in a leadership position, or own any power to mentor someone, in particular a female, ask them what they think their strengths are. Take it from there.
I adore leading an event from zero to perspective-changing experience. But tonight, I know that I’m good at event planning not because it’s my calling, but because when I grow up, I’m gonna be figuring out how to create profitable, end-to-end operations for impossible robot delivery services when the whole world is saying no. And time travel. I’ll be the best person to do it.