“Is Madison a supportive community for women leaders?” Katie Dean, moderator of a panel discussing women leadership in Madison, asked as her first question on Tuesday night.
One of the panelists — Sabrina “Heymiss Progress” Madison — laughed.
Madison, founder of the Black Women’s Leadership Conference, clarified that her true answer to that question was both yes and no. She feels very supported by black women in the community, but it’s a different story when she’s talking to potential financial investors.
“Support dries up when you start talking about dollars,” she said.
The panel, hosted by the Cap Times at business incubator 100state, discussed issues and barriers facing women in local leadership, and touched on topics like money, mentorship and balancing a career and motherhood.
Panel members included Madison; Mary Burke, CEO of Building Brave and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate; Jan Eddy, who chairs the investment committees of BELLE Capital USA and Phenomenelle Angels Fund; Karen Menendez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano; Claudia Seidenberg, operations manager at 100state and Heather Wentler, executive director of the Doyenne Group, a support and networking group for women entrepreneurs. Dean, city editor of the Cap Times, moderated.
While acknowledging that there is a growing social support system for women, panelists discussed barriers like behind-the scenes sexism and unconscious bias built on hundreds of years of traditional gender roles.
“We meet with a lot of entrepreneurs who go in to pitch their businesses, and as a woman they get asked questions like, ‘Do you plan on having a family?’ or ‘Where’s your Mr. Co-founder? I would rather talk to him,” Wentler said.
Panel members spoke of their own struggles to succeed and offered perspective on what needs to be changed in Madison to foster more women leaders.
Eddy, who has years of experience in corporate America, believes in using facts and statistics to show men that hiring and promoting women can improve the financial performance of a company.
“They have to understand that this is a good business decision. You’re not doing anyone a favor. This is a damn good business decision,” Eddy said.
Burke added that facts may not be able to overcome unconscious biases, and that women entrepreneurs should be held up as examples in order to start changing social norms.
Multiple panelists emphasized the importance of mentors and sponsors to open doors to new opportunities, and encouraged women to seek out mentors.
When discussing the challenges of motherhood, Wentler encouraged women to live in the moment and trade the guilt of working for acceptance of self.
Coller said that planning for transitions, building a system of support and maintaining a vision of the future can help working mothers succeed.
When asked about the conflict of juggling motherhood and work, Madison reminded the audience that many women have no other option — they need to work to support their families.
Several panelists commented on the need to speak up in the face of inequity — for men to stand up for women, for white women to stand up for women of color and for all women to stand up for each other. Seidenberg called attention to the fact that the packed room was majority female, highlighting the issue of a lack of male support.
“Step up and do something,” Seidenberg said. “Otherwise, we’ll stay in neutral. That’s why we’re having this conversation.”
After the panel, audience members were encouraged to brainstorm action steps in breakout sessions. Ideas included an inter-company networking program for women employees, gender-neutral dress codes, sharing more stories of women entrepreneurs on social media and a monthly women’s leadership happy hour.
The evening emphasized the importance of action.
“Regardless of what skin you find yourself in, whatever your circumstances are, whatever your background is, you truly just got to go,” Madison said. “Because you’re going to fail a little bit, but you're not going to get to that end point if you just don’t go."