Powerful in pink
In recognition of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America, Family Business is dedicating this issue to strong female leaders. I count my grandmother among them. In fact, Grandma Selma, born in Missouri in 1886, was a suffragette. She recalled voting in 1920 — while 8½ months pregnant with my father — in the first presidential election open to women.
Grandma was active in politics, charitable organizations and cultural institutions. She was the first woman president of the Kansas City Museum. In her 80s, she took courses to finish her college degree. Later, she chained herself to Union Station, the landmark train station, to prevent the Beaux Arts building from being torn down (it wasn’t).
An incredible role model who hosted mandatory family lunches every Sunday for over 40 years, Grandma was the influential woman behind her husband, who presided over our family business for four decades. While she was not actively involved in the running of our grain and flour business, she certainly understood it and saw her role as one of keeping the family together.
Another female leader whom I have greatly respected and admired is my college friend Carol Lavin Bernick, who began working with her parents, Leonard and Bernice Lavin, at Alberto Culver right out of college and went on to build it into a multibillion-dollar consumer products company until it was sold to Unilever in 2011. At the time of the sale, Carol was executive chair of the board.
As she recounted in her book of lifelong lessons, Gather as You Go, and in a Wall Street Journal podcast, it was not an easy journey. Her father, a brilliant, dynamic legend in the industry, was very hesitant to hand over control. Carol’s (now ex-)husband also worked for the company, eventually becoming CEO, but they each reported separately to Leonard. After many years, Carol finally confronted her parents and said she and her husband were prepared to leave if control was not passed along. Her parents stepped back and the company, and its culture, progressed.
Despite enormous personal and professional challenges, such as her divorce and later the sale of Alberto Culver, Carol says that she loved working in the family business — “There is nothing better!” Today, her three married children have joined her in various business ventures and civic endeavors.
A diligent worker, Carol moved up through key areas such as marketing, product development and operations while raising her children. She lived her own philosophy of work/life integration. “Find a company that values families,” she says. “You will still work just as hard, but the best companies judge your performance by the points you put on the scoreboard, not by the hours you are face to face — though being there with the team most of the time is critical.”
Opportunities for young women today are better than in her day, Carol says. “I think there are more mentors and success stories today, and I believe that women in family business — or any business — should be proactive and find role models who make it work.” She encourages working somewhere else first, “for two reasons: to build your credibility, but also to take the good stuff back to your family business and implement it.” Solid advice from someone who was recognized by Harvard Business Review for establishing the unique and successful culture at Alberto Culver.
As I reflect on the many successful female leaders that I have known, I am hopeful that the world of my four granddaughters, joined recently by a grandson, will be brighter, with limitless opportunities to flourish.
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