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Lead Your Team Women in Business

Women in Business: Susan McPherson on Sexism, Networking

Women in Business: Susan McPherson on Sexism, Networking Credit: Christopher Farber

In our Women in Business series, female CEOs and business leaders share their stories and weigh in on the challenges they face as women in their industries. In this installment, Susan McPherson talks about her experiences with sexism throughout her career and the importance of networking. McPherson is an angel investor and the founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies, a communications consultancy with a focus on social good.  

Business News Daily: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

Susan McPherson: I have to say, I've had nine lives. But I worked in corporate America for many, many years — almost 17 years at a company called PR Newswire. I was very much an intrapreneur, meaning when there were special projects, I often had the…I don't want to call it "the pleasure" because it was obviously very hard work, but I, oftentimes, was asked to head them up or run them because I always was one who was known to get things done. Which can be challenging when you work for a company that has disparate offices, especially before the internet because it meant communicating almost entirely over the phone or via fax machines, which was kind of the case in the early '90s. But all told, there was a five-year stint in the middle when I left PR Newswire and I did marketing and business development in the tech sector.

I lived in Seattle for many, many years, and I moved to New York City in 2003 after going through a divorce. I essentially moved here and I knew one other person, so I started my whole life over again. And I was with PR Newswire until 2010, and then in 2010 I left to go to Fenton Communications. Fenton was very much known — it'd been around at that point for 29 or 28 years — as the communications agency for causes and NGOs and advocacy groups. The first client was Nelson Mandela, way back in the '80s. I joined with the remit to build their corporate practice, meaning, how could Fenton work with corporations who were getting behind causes or true sustainability? And after three and a half years of doing that, I decided to go it on my own. So, then I launched…and, actually, I should take a step back. I did not have the intent to launch my own consultancy. What happened was, clients actually came to me and they kept coming to me, and so it kind of morphed into a consultancy. And when you think of a self-fulfilling prophecy, it kind of just happened. And now, almost two and a half years later, our clients range from the Tiffany & Co. foundation to J.C. Penney, to Coca Cola, to Blackbaud, to a variety of social enterprises and nonprofits. So, it's very exciting. And I never in a thousand years would've thought I was an entrepreneur.

BND: So you never had the intention to start your own business, it just kind of happened?

McPherson: Nope. It just makes me laugh. And that's the professional side of things. I mean, I've always, always been involved in nonprofits, served on boards of nonprofits. And then about four or five years ago, I decided to become an angel investor, with one stipulation: I only fund women-owned businesses. You know, if you look at venture capital and the investment world, it is highly skewed toward white males. And whatever I can be doing to help women get a leg up and also help them follow or reach their dreams, I feel I'm — even if I don't make money off of them, there's a reward that I get just in the happiness factor.

BND: What challenges do you think a lot of women face in their careers?  

McPherson: Well, that's a loaded question because obviously it's such a personal thing, and it depends so much on a woman's education, her socioeconomic background, her skin color — clearly women of color are going to have it even harder than a Caucasian woman like myself.

I think, inherently, we're seeing it play out in the election campaign this year. Hillary Clinton is being accused of shouting, and when you look at the men on the Republican debate side, I mean, I thought they were going to get into a boxing match. So, I think stereotypes in many cases still exist, and we still have true inequality when it comes to pay. I don’t know the exact figure off the top of my head but it's something like 78 cents a woman earns for every man's dollar, and it's like 66 cents for a woman of color. I think there's obviously without paid maternity leave, we're setting not only women up to fail, but their families suffer, too. And paternity — I mean, it goes both ways there. I obviously think things are somewhat better than they were in my late mother's day. But clearly, when you look at the scientific advances we've had, and [how we're] just clear light-years ahead in terms of technology, [and then] when you look at women in the workplace, we're still, I think back in the '80s.

BND: So, what challenges have you faced as a woman in the business world, personally?

McPherson: First of all, I'm very petite. I'm about 93 pounds, maybe 95 when I'm wet, and I'm 5-feet tall. And part of this is my own insecurity, but I have to say, there is a feeling of lack of confidence when you walk in, and I think, in many cases, you're just dismissed because you're tiny. So, I think from a physical standpoint, that has always been something. And again, part of it is my own issue, but clearly when you're sitting at a table with men who are all 6-feet tall, you tend to not be taken seriously. I also have a very kind of high voice, which I have been told that I sound emotional, when actually I'm very passionate. And I find that to be a very sexist comment.

I think just — I've had very, very similar things. I was physically assaulted when I was 23… 22, when I was working in a senator's office. And, you know, I won't go into the gory details, but after that, I luckily pushed away, which was smart, but I was then kind of blackballed by the manager. So, I suffered from a sexual harassment incident. So, you know, pretty much all of the above.

BND: What traits do you think make a good leader?

McPherson: Well, confidence, knowledge, intelligence, passion and compassion, listening skills, patience and empathy. One must be emphatic. And, I'm failing to think of the exact word, but, the ability to project out a vision, I think, is really important. And to be able to communicate that vision, because you definitely need to galvanize people so that they're on board. I think that women have many of those qualities, and are ideally suited to be leaders. And I'm not saying that men aren't; I'm just saying that these skills — empathy, compassion, passion, communication — are skills that are inherently good in women.

BND: Going off of that, who do you think are your biggest female role models?

McPherson: I absolutely adore Michelle Obama. I think — oh my God, so inspiring. She's magnanimous. I think the senator from New York state, Kirsten Gillibrand, is phenomenal. Judy Woodruff, I think, is amazing; she's been a female broadcaster for many, many years. A woman who's a philanthropist, her name is Ruth Ann Harnisch. A woman named Lisa Witter, who I worked with for many years. She's now launched a new business in Berlin.

BND: So, I found out about you through one of the lists you were on honoring you for being one of the most influential women on Twitter. I'm wondering — what's your Twitter strategy?

McPherson: You know what's funny? Somebody once said to me, "Oh my gosh! You're just like your Twitter feed," and I thought to myself, "Well, what did you think?" And then somebody else said to me, "Oh, you seem so much larger online than in person." I didn't know what that meant. But, I think, in lieu of calling it a strategy, I tend to use my Twitter feed to promote others' good things. Yes, occasionally I have to promote myself, because obviously we all have to be somewhat self-promoting, but I come from an era when humility was much more important than I think [it is to] the generation today. And I'm not saying that as a criticism, but I do think that there is a notion of holding back. And I love to use Twitter to shine a light on others, and I also love to be somewhat fun and optimistic and hopeful. Again, that's who I am, and that's part of the business that I run. We do marketing and communications through the lens of social good, so I try to live that every day, and use the platform for those means. So that, I guess, would be my strategy.

BND: What advice do you have for other aspiring female CEOs or entrepreneurs?

McPherson: Build, build, build, and nurture your network. It will pay back in dividends for years to come. But do it through authenticity, and do it for the sake of doing it. Don't do it as a means to get somewhere. In other words, over the years — I just love meeting people, and I love connecting people. And, I have to say, I don't think McPherson Strategies would be anywhere near as successful today if I hadn't been really caring and nurturing the people I've met and been fortunate enough to meet. And that means, when you meet someone, send a thank-you note. Pick up the phone and call somebody every once in a while and say, "How are you? Is there anything I can do for you today?" And I live by the mantra, if somebody does something for me, I thank them three times for what they've done in some shape, way or form. It just keeps me grounded, and it also ensures that, if I forget to thank them, there are two more times that I'll thank them. I think that that is hugely important.

I think, be a voracious reader. We live in a time now where it is so easy just to, you know, 140 characters and move on, but I think it's still really important to keep up with what's going on in the world. And even though, a business that a woman runs or a business that a woman wants to build, may be very focused on one particular subject, I think in this day and age it's very helpful to be mindful of everything and the whole ecosystem, as opposed to just focusing on that one particular subject area. 

Brittney Morgan

Brittney Q. Morgan is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor, as well as a graduate of Drew University, where she majored in History. Her work can be found all across the web at Apartment Therapy, HuffPost, and more. You can also find her on Twitter at @brittneyplz.