A version of this essay was originally published on Medium.
I've never published anything about what it's like to be a woman in business, but today is International Women's Day, and I decided to use my incredibly keen wit and personal experiences to speak some truths.
I have boobs. They are small boobs, but they are still boobs. I also run a business. It's bigger and more important to me than my boobs. These are just facts, but I'm sure I've already offended someone, so let's just keep this rolling.
I started my first business at 16, and have been a CEO with employees for the past seven years of my life. I'm 29 now. I started out life as a baby and then a little girl in Detroit, and now I live in LA and run Lumi. Yep, these facts make me a Female CEO. Similarly, a person who starts life out as a baby that turns into a little boy who then devotes the better part of a decade to building businesses might end up as a Male CEO.
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For anyone in the business community who interacts with people with boobs (cough, cough, 100 percent of the business community), these are five things I've never said about the things you shouldn't say, either. All of them are from personal experience.
I fully understand and support efforts to make business events more diverse and inclusive, but inviting me to an event and in the same breath admitting that you're doing it because you want women to be there is sort of like inviting a black guy to your birthday party and admitting it's because you don't want your other friends to think you're racist. It feels icky and makes the invitee feel like the invitation isn't genuine.
Yes, someone asked me this about a contract I sent them. This is just one example of the blatant questions and comments older men wittingly or unwittingly ask young females in business without understanding the gravity of the sexism involved. Would you ask a mid-20s self-made male businessperson if their father helped them with something?
Yes, my dad was a lawyer, but he is also dead. The last document he helped me draft was a middle-school English paper.
In the past three months, I've interviewed more than 60 candidates for sales, operations and financial roles as I work to build out my team at Lumi. The frequency with which male job candidates ask demeaning questions is fascinating, and always shocking.
Here's an example: While interviewing a man for a comptroller position, he asked me if I was familiar with financial statements, like a balance sheet. This person knew I had been an entrepreneur for years. When I simply replied yes, because I found the question so mystifying, I was met with laughter and a five-minute lecture on why balance sheets matter. A lecture that would have been more fitting for a high-school-level finance class than an interview with a CEO who carved out a precious 30-minute slot to speak with a candidate.
Assume that women know things. Provide real intelligence and value when you speak with them, or get out of the way so they can find a different colleague.
I'm a five-foot-tall woman weighing in at about 118 pounds. Even though I spell my name Jesse, the male spelling, most people I meet use the internet and already know I am a female. Other people learn about Lumi just by experiencing our company or products online, and then find out that I am the CEO. It's often those people who react with some expression of shock, like, "Whoa! Lumi is actually a really cool company. You're the CEO?" Actually, I really am.
Another cringeworthy reaction I get is surprise, if not skepticism, that I'm not in a female-focused industry. Female CEOs are making extraordinary progress with female-specific products in industries that were all but totally neglected, but just like with male founders, we have the capacity to focus on passions beyond our anatomy.
Both of these expressions of surprise suck. I can run any type of company I want. I could start a company around male mental health if I wanted to, and the more comments I get like this, the more I consider it.
If I told you about a sub-30-year-old guy who raised more than $270,000 on Kickstarter during college, personally sold a product they invented into 1,500 retail stores, built a company into seven-figure sales without venture investment, turned down a deal on "Shark Tank," got into Y Combinator, raised venture capital from top-tier investors and has been an active CEO without a single break or sabbatical for seven years, would you question their level of ambition?
Nope. So don't question mine.
I've seen dudes being hailed as ambitious simply for quitting their cushy day jobs, yet it's surprisingly common for women to be questioned on whether they are ambitious "enough." Stop questioning the ambition level of women in business.
Having boobs and running a business is exactly the same as having a penis and running a business, except boobs are more aesthetically pleasing. I hope, at minimum, we can all agree on that.
An entrepreneur since age 16, Jesse Genet is the founder and CEO of Lumi, which makes it easy for businesses to order the branded packaging and supplies they need to ship their products. She has raised more than a quarter-million dollars on Kickstarter, was featured on "Shark Tank" and HSN, and participated in the Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator. She studied Industrial Design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and lives in an Airstream trailer. Reach her @jessegenet.
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