Power Women: Emma Fox Of E Powered Benefits On How To Successfully Navigate Work, Love and Life As A Powerful Woman

An Interview With Ming Zhao

Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

--

Don’t sweat the small stuff! Work will always be there, and another door will always open when one closes behind you. So far in life you have a 100% success of getting through hard times, maybe not unscathed or unchanged, but definitely better learned. There’s no reason to believe you can’t get through the next thing, too. If something is on your plate right now that feels looming and overwhelming, just ask yourself this — ‘will this matter in 6 months… or a year?’. If the answer is no, and it probably is, just take a few breaths and don’t allow it to take up more space than it really needs.

How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.

As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Emma Fox.

Emma is the Chief Operating Officer and Partner at the unique benefits consulting agency, E Powered Benefits. The firm was founded in 2018 after Emma and her co-founding partner combined their multi-decade of healthcare consulting expertise to offer the insurance purchasing industry an entirely new way to do business. E Powered Benefits health plans for large employers are routinely saving 20–40% in healthcare costs while emphasizing access to a higher quality of care.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in the southwest of England to two teenage parents who divorced before I can even remember them being married. My parents had a strained and bitter relationship with one another that was largely reflected on me. As a 17- and 19-year-old in the 80’s, they didn’t want a kid, but familial obligations forced them to persevere. That meant for most of my life I was treated as poorly as they felt about each other; after all, I was the product of each of them and that only invited more resentment in both homes — I was a constant reminder of my parents’ biggest mistake. My mother was completely self-absorbed and uninterested, and my father was traditionally abusive. While I could tell you that my childhood was a regretful period, and at times it certainly felt impossible, it also bred a fierce independence in a young girl who had little other option. As a kid I learned how to hustle to get what I needed. My parents were both under the poverty line so even if they wanted to provide for me, they wouldn’t have had the means, so I learned how to be scrappy, how to tell a compelling story, how to persuade people of my value even when I felt I had so little of it. My mother kicked me out as I turned 15 and from that point, I have been providing solely for myself.

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

As soon as I was old enough and had rustled up enough money, I booked a flight to the US. At barely 18, I landed in the states with no real idea of where I’d go or what I’d do, but I knew I had always been able to work things out before. For the first couple of years, I floated around meeting people, finding couches and quick cash jobs, and figuring out the landscape. I eventually found myself in Oregon and with a temporary work visa in hand, I was placed at a national insurance carrier in an administrative position. It was my first real office job and my first experience in a professional social setting, and I excelled at it. I found it easy to produce the right results and as a citizen of the UK, I found the concept of health insurance especially fascinating. Within 90 days I was promoted to a full time claims processor, and then later an analyst. My output, accuracy, and morale were the highest of my team and everything just kind of… fit. I understood the intricacies and complexity of insurance policy and continued to promote quickly. Being in “insurance” was completely by accident and necessity.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

It didn’t happen until my 13th year in the business. At that point I was in executive and client facing roles. I had graduated from administrative, and claims positions many years prior and was solidly gaining notoriety in my field. I was speaking across the country on stages and panels and working with some of the most innovative people in my industry as a business leader but, I had a leaning that was more non-traditional. I was so much more analytical and strategic in the execution of my job than most, and I could see a path to change the insanity of healthcare costs for employers and consumers. I began talking more publicly and loudly about the solutions I could bring to the table, but many others couldn’t grasp the shift or how to really talk about it, let alone sell it and implement it for their clients. But, in 2018, at a conference in Kansas City, MO, after a long day of professional development I was approached by someone I’d never seen or even heard of before. Completely by chance, this person introduced themselves to me and we struck up a fairly normal, work-related conversation that ended up revealing that he and I were cut from the exact same cloth. While I dominated the West Coast with what was still considered ‘wild’ ideas to change healthcare he was on the exact same podium on the East Coast. We discovered we’d been at the same conferences for the last 4 years, likely missing each other’s speeches and walking by each other in halls, never being able to connect that we were two kindred spirits chasing the same star. It was life-changing, in so many ways. Meeting someone that could empathize and understand the journey of being ‘alternative’ in a space where traditional practices are the easiest and most lucrative career path. It was just weeks later that we leaped off the deep-end, still as mostly strangers, and went all-in by walking away from the security we knew and founding E Powered Benefits together — an idea and plan already underway by my new partner that he thought he’d have to tackle alone. It was the most interesting introduction I’ve ever stumbled across, for sure!

You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

It has taken me years of practice and mistakes to understand what leadership really means and how to be good at it. The key is understanding (and accepting) that perfection is an impossible standard, and authenticity will win out time and time again. Failure isn’t an option; it’s a requirement. I have made so many little, silly mistakes along the way… and some really big ones too. I have accepted jobs that didn’t feel like the right fit right from the start and later had to inevitably pivot. Leadership requires humility, empathy, and authenticity with a passion for helping others succeed. It’s not about me rising; it’s about elevating other people to capture their potential because if I can lend a hand in someone else’s success, then I have also succeeded in doing what I love — Leadership.

Humility — being able to admit that perfection is unattainable and that mistakes happen. That admission of taking a misstep is important in leadership, because we have to be able to teach that trying and failing is totally okay. It’s the acknowledgement and regrouping with a better understanding of what-not-to-do that can lead us to a better outcome the next time.

Empathy — this one actually took me the longest to grasp and it might be the most important. I struggled for a long time with demonstrating sympathy for my teammates when empathy would have been more appropriate. In business, it can be incredibly difficult to bring a personal flair in. Many of us believe that business is, well, serious business! But we’re all people with similar challenges and familiar feelings of hopelessness from time to time. Big titles don’t exclude us from the same personal woes as everyone else, and we can empathize by letting our professional guard down and embracing a more human approach to leadership.

Authenticity — another trait that took some time to feel comfortable with! As a scrappy kid from the southwest slums of England who clawed my way into adulthood, I felt for many years that I couldn’t be honest about where I was from or who I was for fear that I wouldn’t fit the narrative of the professional woman I strived to be. In fact, I even phased out my ‘farmers accent’ when my career became paramount to my life so I would better fit into the professional network I needed to engage with. It has taken me years to realize that my story, and everyone else’s, makes me (and them) more compelling… more interesting. It is totally okay to have a different experience, or a different perspective, or a different execution, in fact, it’s needed. Without the true expression of the authentic character traits of those around you, we might all end up pretending to be the same robotic version of ourselves at work when we could be nurturing a much deeper and empathetic connection with our audience instead.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?

Gosh, I think it’s one of those age-old adages that started with gender-specific roles and expectations and unfortunately that mindset still exists. Historically, so few women have been outspoken, or resilient, or openly ambitious and so as women in business began to rise, I think the unfamiliarity of that dynamic has been hard for many to grasp. Women who are assertive are often seen as bossy. Women who travel or work outside the home can be accused of not being present for their kids. Women who socialize in business can be told they’re presenting themselves inappropriately. And women who come to the boardroom with strategy and thought leadership can sometimes be reduced to feeling as though they don’t have a seat at the table for anything more than notetaking. But it’s not that women don’t have good ideas, great work-ethic, or stellar leadership skills, but instead that men have been made to feel inadequate if the ideas aren’t theirs to own. I think similarly to how women have been made to feel their value is in having a submissive role, men are taught that they only have value in a dominant role, and so we still see this grappling of gender roles trying to be defined in an age that has long passed. Making men feel undervalued is no better than making women feel the same, particularly when there’s so much opportunity for collaboration and partnership instead.

Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?

So many examples! One that really sticks out actually occurred somewhat recently and it was during a group conference call between my company and our advisors, and a vendor company and their team. We were on a call to discuss some service issues we’d been experiencing with this particular vendor, and some misinformation around their product pitch. My business partner introduced everyone on the call and asked that I take lead on the discussion as I was the closest and most well-versed in the issue at hand. Each time I would speak to the topic, the male executive from the opposing company would cut me off and disagree with my [quite fair] assessments but even worse than that, each time he answered a question posed by me, he specifically addressed my male business partner to respond. Eventually, after this had occurred a half dozen times during the conversation, my business partner asked this executive to address me directly which was perceived as offensive. He specifically noted that he and my business partner had commonality in their roles, and they could “talk offline”. When my business partner refused, the executive hung-up, leaving his two female colleagues on the line to apologize on his behalf and while I remember feeling particularly frustrated by the experience I endured during that call, I felt worse for the women on the line who likely dealt with that treatment as a standard at their workplace. Needless to say, we ceased working with their company. It is not uncommon for me, as an owner and c-suite operator of our company to take the lead on our client initiatives, but I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have initiated a project, a phone call, a request for information to an external company we have a relationship with, only to have that male counterpart respond by calling my male business partner on the inquiry instead.

What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?

My dear friend, Naama Pozniak, has always said “hold your space” and I recite this to myself so regularly. It doesn’t require aggression or defensiveness, and it doesn’t require submissiveness either. Just hold your space. Women are so trained to believe that they take up space, that they need to pipe down and quietly contribute but that notion is as outdated as it is misogynistic. We can hold our space, comfortably and confidently, without really having to say anything at all. Again, I truly believe this isn’t about women being too strong, but men fearing that they’ll be made to look too weak if they are forced to share the space.

What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?

Elevate them! My partner is an incredible leader in our industry, and he spends an inordinate amount of time pushing me, my name, my ideas, and our company into the spotlight. We have to find more of these allies in our ranks and they are out there! Our company believes in collaboration in every way; we thrive in togetherness. If we all spent more time elevating each other, regardless of gender or perceived power, we’d all be that much greater. Women aren’t going away, we’re not backing down, we’re not giving up — we are firmly holding our space so please come work with us! Spend time with us and take advantage of our perspective, our process, and our grit. You are always going to have a client that would prefer a male representative over a female and vice versa. You can level up your game by becoming more inclusive and understanding that you can’t be a one-size-fits-all just like I can’t, but together we can be a lot more. My value doesn’t subtract from yours and nor does yours subtract from mine. Help me help you so we can all find the pot of gold we’re running after.

In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?

Oh, heck yes. Women in business, especially in an industry that is male-dominated like mine, face immense pressure to “sit pretty” and “play nice” even when they are being cat-called or spoken down to. At the same conference where I met my business partner in 2018, that very introduction put an end to an uncomfortable conversation already in process. My partner, David, interrupted a string of repeated “you’re so pretty… like really pretty. We should hang out… Let’s hang out tonight!” by a drunk male business acquaintance at the end of a long workday. This is so much the norm that women in my industry have learned to tune it out or shut it down, but it is entirely expected at almost every event we go to, and we prepare for it. And unfortunately, women who reject the unwanted advances of men in business are, of course, reflected upon as cold, aggressive, or bitchy. I’ve been at banquet tables with men who talk exclusively about golf, cigars, and scotch and say things like “scotch is like a type of whiskey, you know?”. Yes… I know.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The most common misnomer I experience at business functions are men who assume I am in an administrative or account management position. I have been stuck in conversations for extended periods of time with people who repeatedly refer to me as an account manager or similar, and even if I correct them by letting them know I am an owner of my firm, they have literally dismissed the correction as if it were not a clarification of any importance. But it is, because account managers are incredibly talented and valuable positions — I was one once and I am not now. I am actually probably less valuable from a production standpoint at my company because I work mostly on high-level business growth and I feel it’s important to both acknowledge my position, and not undermine or undervalue an administrative or account management position by assuming only women can do so and to imply that it’s less-than. Men don’t seem to face the same labeling — most men in my field are assumed to be advisors or consultants right off the bat and the women in their offices just “work for them”.

Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?

Yes and no. I am the mother of two of my own children, and a grateful stepmother to my two bonus children. For many years I felt I had to choose work or home life and often spent weeks solely focused on work and some weekends focused on home and my children, but this always left gaps, especially for my spouse and kids. There have been times when I felt I could simply increase my capacity; I could get up earlier and go to bed later, or maybe work on a Saturday morning just to make sure I’m covering all the bases. Eventually, I realized that it’s okay to find a balance where you don’t have to give 100% of you to a dozen different categories, but that you can give 100% of you to one category at a time by carving out your commitments and focusing on being present. Your kids will not always be kids, and there’s a balance in teaching them a solid work ethic and encouraging them to reach for their potential, but also being home at night to eat dinner and talk about Fortnite or Taekwondo. As I get older, I have learned that being a mom doesn’t detract from being a businesswoman and conversely, being a businesswoman doesn’t make me a lesser parent or spouse. In fact, my ability to be both adds to my ability to do both. My leadership skills help tremendously in my bustling kitchen every morning when kids are running out the door with backpacks and lunch bags as similarly as my maternal experience has helped me with my empathetic mentorship at work. I make a very conscious effort now to dedicate time to everything and everyone in my life that I love, respect, or elevates me personally and professionally and I do my darndest to make sure that the time I spend in each category is 100% of me, my focus, and my presence. Perfection is an absolutely impossible fishing expedition but striving to always be better when being perfect eludes you (and it always will!) is a great way to practice the three-character traits of leadership; humility, empathy, authenticity.

What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?

Guilt and acceptance. I don’t know how many times I’ve been sitting on a plane — sometimes the third plane of the day or the eighth plane of the week while I’m running from place to place to give presentation after presentation and thinking, “gosh, I really miss my kids”. That feeling is heavy, and it’s sticky, and it doesn’t go away if you just work harder or push it aside. I would often find myself in bubbles of guilt — guilt over not being home enough, guilt over not scheduling one more meeting in a day because the kids had a game I couldn’t miss (again). The problem with perpetuating these gender roles from so long ago is that the evolution of women in business has progressed with the continued belief that women still manage the parenting and household. So even when we say women can be powerful and have business acumen and be valued business colleagues, we also don’t relieve them much of their parental or household responsibilities either and this has led women to over-exert and exhaust themselves with a heaping side dish of internalized guilt. My advice is to lean in. Lean into your partner. We’ve been taught that we’re responsible for things that our partners can take a piece of the pie on, and they are capable and probably a little thankful for the change of pace and the opportunity to show value in a new area. We need to relinquish this idea that only we can get the job done. Have you ever said to yourself “if I want it done right, I’ll do it myself!”? Of course, you have! But you know what that means? You do everything… all the time. And your exhaustion grows alongside your resentment. Lean in.

I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?

I can tell you this… for much of my adult life I have been obese. Up until 2015, I weighed about 300 lbs. After realizing that my health was at risk and that I needed to make a change, I lost 150 lbs. in a year. Not coincidentally, 2016 was the year my career really took off… although nothing about my intellect, my work ethic, my ambition, or my ability to be successful at my job had changed. The only thing that changed about me was the way I looked. But suddenly I was thrust into the spotlight. My speaking engagements were better attended, my meetings were more frequently accepted, and my ability to sell increased ten-fold. I have absolutely no doubt that a portion of my success has been due to how I look and honestly, I would be willing to bet that is the case for many women in my industry. Of course, women want to look good and feel confident and I’ll be the first to admit that a great outfit, shoes, or a red lip will accomplish that in a hot second. However, it is fairly obvious to me that a better-looking woman in business is likely more sought after than not and that also tells me that larger women, or women who don’t meet the societal standard of beauty, defined by both men and other women, are not going to gain nearly as much traction or credibility in their field and I have experienced it personally. And while the heightened success has been appreciated, I do feel I have to work harder to get my intellectual value out there as well. Even more challenging to digest is how many incredibly talented women are in my field and not receiving the recognition they deserve because they aren’t eye-catching enough. Having said that, I still feel pressure to look a certain way when I am doing business, or speaking on stage and frankly, looking good simply makes me feel good, as shallow as that sounds. But I do think that’s the case for most people, because we are still judged and merited on this particular metric by our peers.

How is this similar or different for men?

I am not sure that it really is any different for men, although I will say I think the societal standard is lower. For example, having a “dad-bod” as compared to a “mom-bod” has positive and negative correlations, respectively. But there are male beauty trends that loan themselves to heightened acknowledgement, too. There are entire communities around businessmen with beards! I’ve met lots of men that enjoy the look and feel of a tailored suit. They have a similar obligation to look the part that just exists on a different scale for men vs. women.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

A great community/support system — find your people, in work and at home. Make sure you’re leaning on your partner and your peers for the support you need to keep walking your path. I often reach out to other businesswomen to share successes, to complain about challenges, or to invite them to join me on a project. Be a woman other women want to be around.

Leadership traits (humility, empathy, authenticity) — It’s okay to be vulnerable and let people know you’re not bulletproof. Women have this ingrained defense mechanism that tells us we have to be outwardly tough to make it in business or to be powerful. But being powerful doesn’t mean being loud — maybe it’s being thoughtful instead. Maybe being powerful is actually pretty quiet and unassuming. Let people know that you aren’t as perfect as you seem, not as put together as your Instagram would have us believe. I love finding relatable women that help me normalize my own feelings of false inadequacy by showing me examples of strong, successful, powerful women who are comfortable being vulnerable, too.

Be intentional with your time & be present — Don’t allow people to monopolize your time. If you have an hour for a meeting, schedule an hour and start and end on time. Let people know that your time is valuable, but that theirs is too! This also applies to your spouse and your kids. Make a commitment and follow through. Be a reliable and dependable person that your kids can count on, and when they’re talking about a video game of which you have no frame of reference or knowledge, seek to understand why it matters to them. Be present, be available, and learn to be okay being yourself.

Take a few risks — I took a big risk in 2018 and thankfully, it has been one of the best of my life. Not only did I meet a lifelong partner who truly changed my professional and personal trajectory for the better, but I trusted in my own ability to do something big and scary. Try to quiet down the negative self-talk and take stock of what you know you’re already capable of… then add a little tax. Your leaps don’t have to be moon-jumps, they can be steps, hops, skips… Just strive move forward no matter what and when it gets hard… like, really hard. Rest… for as long as you need to, but don’t quit.

Don’t sweat the small stuff! Work will always be there, and another door will always open when one closes behind you. So far in life you have a 100% success of getting through hard times, maybe not unscathed or unchanged, but definitely better learned. There’s no reason to believe you can’t get through the next thing, too. If something is on your plate right now that feels looming and overwhelming, just ask yourself this — ‘will this matter in 6 months… or a year?’. If the answer is no, and it probably is, just take a few breaths and don’t allow it to take up more space than it really needs.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Simon Sinek! He has been an inspiration to me most of my career and he’s a leader I aspire to emulate in my field.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

--

--

Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

Co-founder and CEO of PROVEN Skincare. Ming is an entrepreneur, business strategist, investor and podcast host.