The event that has most shaped my Lean In approach to life is one I cannot even remember. I was four years old and my mother died of cancer. Although my memory bank cannot serve up footage of this time, my cells seemed to have stored the event in a file marked “VERY IMPORTANT.”
You see, if your mother dies at age 32, then you might very well do the same. And if you’re going to die young, then you better live fully. This is the only explanation I can find for my go-getterness. As the daughter of a man who collected his gold watch at the 35-year mark — in the insurance industry, no less — I was not raised to take risks or aim high. My stepmother did not work a day of my childhood. I never attended a “Take Your Child to Work” day. No Tiger Mom cranked up the metronome atop our piano.
Yet I had something even better. A creative spirit, a short attention span, and a debt to my deceased mother to realize my potential. A trifecta born of tragedy has yielded an abundance of gifts. Amazing things happen when you pay attention and realize that life’s too short to wait around for others to come fix what you see in the world that is broken.
In 2012, I had the ultimate Lean In moment of my life. After years of working as a Creative Director in advertising, I simply could not be quiet a moment longer about the lack of female leadership in my field. Advertising is a man’s world. Ideally, a single man’s world. The vampire hours and last-minute meetings make it virtually impossible for anyone with someplace else to be. I shudder to think how many dogs have gone unfed, unwalked, and unloved so that some mediocre TV spot could see airtime. Kids? Forget about it.
The very thing that drives women away from advertising — the family-unfriendliness of the business — causes the family-unfriendliness of ads. Yet women — moms, especially — are the single most powerful consumer segment in the world. Every Super Bowl always has two losers and only one is an NFL team. The other is any advertiser who paid $4.5 million to air ads that — almost inevitably — aren’t funny or motivating to women.
Bearing witness to this became the professional itch I simply had to scratch. So I leaned in — hard — and challenged this age-old boys club. How? By organizing and hosting a first-time event that brought together 30 agencies from all over the country to raise awareness, problem-solve solutions, and create community around the issue 365 days a year. I didn’t have a grant. Or a big corporation backing me up. I didn’t even have a staff. Once again, I had something even better. A certainty that this issue matters and that I am meant to be an agent of change. I am doing the very thing, at this very moment, that is my highest contribution to my industry. And that is the most fitting tribute I can make to the mother I lost 42 years ago.
Never, ever underestimate your ability to change the world. That person you’ve been waiting for — to come fix the thing you see that so needs fixing? Be open to the possibility that the person very well may be you.
Kat Gordon is a marketing to women expert and founder of the 3% Conference, a 2 day, 800 person event in New York City which champions creative female talent and leadership. Follow Kat Gordon on Twitter @katgordon.