Rachel Braun Scherl was three meetings into her trip to male-dominated Silicon Valley when — after failing to raise any money — she decided to change her approach.
“I brought $100 into the next meeting and said, ‘If anyone says a sexual innuendo that I haven’t heard before, a double entendre that makes me blush or asks me a question that I can’t answer, this $100 is yours,’” Scherl said.
That was back in 2008, when she and her business partner, Mary Wallace Jaensch, set out to raise funds for their company’s over-the-counter female arousal product, Zestra.
“I had to raise my voice in order to grow my business,” said Scherl, now co-founder and principal of the South Orange-based business consultancy SPARK Solutions for Growth.
“I was raised to believe that if you worked hard and did your job well, you’d be successful.”
But it wasn’t until she traveled to Silicon Valley — a “faceless, nameless place where you can’t tell one fund from the next” — that she realized her work ethic wasn’t enough.
Her well-researched and rehearsed scientific facts? Met with glazed eyes.
But that $100? Turned into tens of millions of dollars in venture capital shortly after.
“That’s when I added that you also need to be able to successfully navigate the culture you’re in,” Scherl said.
When doing business in a workplace designed by men for men, Scherl said it falls upon a woman’s shoulders to figure out how to communicate with the opposite gender — whether it’s with a joke or with a statement that frames the issue in a way men can relate.
It’s a skill Betsy Myers knows well.
Myers recalled working as the senior adviser on women’s issues for President Bill Clinton’s administration.
“Everything I got done in that office, I framed like this: ‘The president should do this because women will re-elect him,’” she said.
“Clinton had a million things competing for his time and attention, so why should he commit to my issue over another? Because he needed to in order to win re-election.”
Take it from a woman who created and served at several high-profile leadership centers and initiatives for women and business at Bentley University, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Men often feel uncomfortable, excluded, apathetic or confused about the topic of women in business, Myers said.
So Myers simply learned to frame her women-focused agendas as win-win business strategies when discussing them with male colleagues at the White House.
“It’s not about submission — it’s about directing our authentic selves to make strategic and thoughtful choices about how we show up in the environments we’ve chosen,” Myers said.
OK, we’ll start by throwing out the easy line: Men need to learn how to communicate with women.
This may be a cliché from personal relationships, but it can be a very real issue in business relationships. So says … wait for it … a man.
“Men are often afraid to say what they think because they’re afraid to offend, and sometimes, people may be sexist without even realizing,” Joseph Bottitta, ethics counsel at Genova Burns in Newark, said.
“So women need to interact with men in leadership roles — especially those who are older — so that these men can be educated.”
Having mentored and promoted diverse leaders throughout his entire career, Bottitta believes millennial women should tailor their concerns and questions for those currently in charge in order to effect real change.
Because it’s not going to happen at a women’s event.
“It’s not something where we can put together an agenda and move on from issue to issue discussing solutions,” Bottitta said.
“Strip away the formality of a presentation, and maybe some of what I’m spewing might make somebody go, ‘Wow, that makes sense to me.’ ”