7 Women Who Rock

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: June 30, 2015

Get a new job. Land a promotion. What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg posed that query in her best-seller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Hundreds of thousands of women worldwide have looked inside themselves so they can identify and overcome barriers, according to the book’s spinoff organization, Leanin.org. Below, seven women recount their lean-in experiences and offer advice and inspiration to others.

Emily Chang

Emily Chang cried in bed one night while worrying: Could she handle a TV anchor job and becoming a mom? Seven months pregnant, she wondered: Maybe I’ll need to quit—after working up to her anchor post through so many long workdays and missed vacations. She didn’t want to choose between TV and motherhood. Then she leaned in.

She reached out to successful working moms she knew to crowdsource their advice, which boiled down to this supportive message: She could handle both, and what’s important is quality time with your child, not quantity. It worked. Chang went on to host not one but two shows and, by November 2014, found herself seven months pregnant (her second son was born in January). “This year has been my most challenging yet as a working mom,” she said “but by far the most rewarding.

“Being pregnant and having a rambunctious 2-year-old and an increasingly demanding full-time job is like trying to run two marathons at once,” said Chang, who anchors the daily tech show Bloomberg West and more recently launched the weekly interview show Studio 1.0, in which she talks with influencers in tech, media and entertainment. “As my pregnancy progressed, I got bigger, slower and busier while my [toddler] son only wanted to be chased, tickled and tackled  more.”

And just when she thought she nailed the balancing act, Chang rushed home from a long day excited to see her boy. “My precious little angel said straight to my face, ‘No, Mommy, I want Daddy.’

“I burst into tears.”

Immediately she reached out to her SWAT team of fellow mothers with this question: What am I doing wrong? “Nothing,” they replied. “He’s 2. Don’t take it personally. Tomorrow, he’ll do the same thing to Daddy.”

“The crowdsourcing of working mommyhood has been one of my most productive personal discoveries,” Chang said. No matter the question—When do I start potty training? Why won’t he eat dinner?—multiple messages instantly hit her inbox from moms who’ve been there, done that, with no judgment at all.

“I couldn’t do what I do without amazing support at home, at work, and, of course, my husband, who’s there for our child so often when I cannot be. Yes, I still feel guilty all the time. Yes, I feel like I’m not doing enough for everyone all the time,” Chang said. “But I know that’s my problem. It’s just who I am. I’m also someone who happens to love being a mom more than anything in the world and love my job, too. I don’t have a secret except to say when you need help, ask for it. It’s much better than trying to really ‘do it all’ all by yourself.”

Frances Hesselbein

Long before 5-foot-2 Frances Hesselbein became sought out by Army generals and White House chiefs of staff for her leadership advice (making her look something like “Yoda dispensing wisdom to Jedi knights,” as author Jim Collins put it), she was a young married mom in Johnstown, Pa., fending off requests that she lead a 30-member Girl Scout troop that otherwise would disband.

“I did not want to take a troop. I was the mother of a little boy. I knew nothing about little girls,” Hesselbein recounted in her book My Life in Leadership.

She relented, and in a pattern that would repeat, she agreed to volunteer for only six weeks until they found a “real leader”… and ended up staying for years. She later agreed to fill in for six months as executive director of her local Girl Scout Council until a “real leader” could be found… and stayed for years until she became CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, which at the time “was near collapse,” as President Bill Clinton would describe it two decades later, in 1998, when he bestowed on her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She earned it, he said, for turning around the organization’s numbers by actively recruiting girls from all races and backgrounds while boosting cohesion, making it “a model for us all.”

In Hesselbein’s view, a key “lean in” experience happened early in the Girl Scouts’ turnaround, when a business leader told her: “You have to stop this diversity stuff. Nobody wants to hear about it, and if you keep it up, you will never raise any money!” She didn’t take the advice, and the Scouts’ capital campaign raised $10 million, as she noted in an essay at LeanIn.org. (You can read more about all of the women in this article through their essays on LeanIn.org.)

“In my life, I don’t have roadblocks and obstacles,” Hesselbein said. “I might have something you would call a ‘challenge.’ I throw that out the window, and I call that a wonderful opportunity. When you see a roadblock or challenge as an opportunity, it is amazing how you are already halfway there,” says Hesselbein, whose many titles include president of The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, co-author of the new book Peter Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions: Enduring Wisdom for Today’s Leaders, and former leadership chair at West Point. “It helps to have your blood type ‘B positive,’ ” she quipped. “That’s my private joke, and it’s true.”

“When you see a roadblock or challenge as an opportunity, it is amazing how you are already halfway there.”

Amy S. Hilliard

Long before Detroit native Amy S. Hilliard became president of the world’s largest black-owned cosmetics company, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, she packed everything she owned into her Volkswagen Beetle and drove to the campus of Harvard Business School to begin master’s degree classes financed with a loan. Jitters set in as she gazed at the ivy-covered buildings. She recalls thinking, I am really here. Can I do this?

“I had to make up my mind at that point that I was going to lean in and do whatever I could to make it,” said Hilliard, who quit a fun New York fashion-industry job to become the first in her family to attend an Ivy League school (although her sister Gloria Mayfield Banks followed her, making them the only African-American sisters to graduate from the school’s MBA program in its history). “The responsibility I felt to my family and myself to make this work was heavy.”

Hilliard recalls writing in her journal: I’m a bit scared. I have got to be able to compete. So, self, what are you going to do? Are you going to sit behind and do the minimum? “I said, I’m just going to jump right in.

She told about sitting down front in her first marketing class, where 50 percent of the grade came from class participation, and the professor called on her out of the blue to ask what she would do if she managed marketing for the hypothetical XYZ Paint Co. Without hesitation, she replied, “I’d raise the advertising budget by $5 million.”

Hilliard told SUCCESS that “my knees under the table were rattling, I was so scared. What was important was I had to act like I  knew what I was talking about [although] I had no clue.” She privately reassured herself: I may not have the Ivy League background that others have, but I’m just as smart. In fact, I’m better than smart because I had to be to get here. She graduated with honors, as she had done earlier at Howard University (where she currently sits on the board of trustees), and worked her way up at companies such as Gillette.

Still, she almost didn’t go to Harvard. Hilliard said she walked into the kitchen at home intending to tell her father that she had decided not to go to Harvard after all. But that evaporated as he greeted her by saying, “There goes my baby, the first to go to an Ivy League school.” She said she couldn’t disappoint him, and she’s glad she didn’t. “I think there should be more women, more women of color, going after these kinds of opportunities because that’s what’s going to continue to move the ball forward. The world is changing.”

Stephanie Wear

At job interview time, all that stood between marine biologist Stephanie Wear and a dream promotion was that she refused to scuba dive, because she sometimes panicked and tried to resurface too quickly, which could kill her. On several occasions, a dive partner resorted to holding her legs to keep frenzied Wear from quickly surfacing, potentially endangering them both, while all Wear could think was, I want out. I want out of here.

Yet the job posting listed scuba diving as a requirement, so Wear leaned in. “Why do I need to be a scuba diver?” she politely challenged her would-be boss during the job interview. She didn’t see diving as important to the job of coordinating an outreach project that entailed training hundreds of park managers in about 80 countries on how to communicate with the public about issues facing coral reefs. The would-be boss, it turned out, was kind of an old-school marine biologist who loved being in the water, although usually to snorkel. “I was like, ‘I will get in the water,’ ” Wear recalled, “ ‘but not with tanks. I really think I’m your person for this job.’ ”

And she got it.

“That job led me to an incredibly satisfying career,” Wear said. Eleven years later, she’s still with The Nature Conservancy (a total of 14 years there). She has traveled the world and led work in her field, thanks to her newer post as lead strategist for coral reef conservation. And it’s all because she challenged a job-description requirement.

Wear hopes more women will do the same: “This is going to sound really cliché, but I’m just not seeing enough women in my field finding their way to leadership positions, and it’s really getting to be frustrating.” Peers tend to be men, not women. “As you get higher up, they disappear. The reasons for that are not  clear.”

Good things can come from choosing to lean in rather than to retreat. Sometimes you have to make a counterintuitive move.”

Karyn Twaronite

Tax professional Karyn Twaronite was waiting to hear whether she made partner at Ernst & Young, and she suspected she’d get a phone call of congratulations if it were good news or a meeting invitation for bad news. The phone rang. She couldn’t believe it: A meeting request. For the next morning.

“I felt… my career plan was falling apart,” Twaronite wrote in her LeanIn.org essay. For 11 years, she had worked her way toward partnership with help from mentors and sponsors.

By chance, she was at a work dinner when she received that call, so she confided in one of the firm’s female partners, whose husband, in turn, offered advice for leaning in: Be positive during the meeting and talk about your accomplishments. Exude confidence. That’s exactly what Twaronite did, and the next year she made partner.

“I’m still here. Certainly I’m very happy,” said Twaronite, nearing 25 years at the 190,000-plus-employee firm and serving as its global diversity and inclusiveness officer. “I share this because I  want other women to know that good things can come from choosing to lean in rather than to retreat,” Twaronite wrote. “Sometimes you have to make a counterintuitive move.”

She shared some key advice learned along the way: Sponsors are critical. You cannot advance or gain visibility in a huge organization without a sponsor or two. Sponsors differ from mentors. Mentors give advice. A sponsor speaks well of you when you’re not in the room and helps you plan your moves upward. You may think you don’t have sponsors, but you do; they’re the people who hired you, promoted you, who gave you a bonus, for example.

Most of the work of finding a sponsor falls on the protégé to earn it, but, as Harvard Business Review reported, based on interviews and surveys, high-potential women seem to be over-mentored and under-sponsored compared to men.

“The good news is sponsorship can be earned,” Twaronite said. Here are some examples she cited: When you are working for somebody, consistently out-perform. You want your work product to make your sponsor look very good. Double-check your work so that it’s as perfect as possible. If your sponsor is going to a meeting, practice the pitch with him or her to show you have your sponsor’s best interest in mind. Swing the door wide open and ask for feedback regularly. And after you get feedback, be very open to it. Don’t shrink from challenges. They’re a reality, and Twaronite said they make her more empathetic.

“I think anybody, if they reflect upon their career, they don’t have all rainbows. And I don’t think that’s bad.”

Allison Ye

Allison Ye felt imprisoned by the notion that because she was 27 and single, she was shengnu or “leftover”—unwanted, with her value depreciating day by day. That’s the societal view in her city of Beijing, where the popularized message of “leftover woman” hits her from all directions: family, friends, the media and colleagues, some of whom ask, “When are you getting married?”

“In the eyes of mainstream society, women cannot truly be happy and successful without marriage, no matter how many achievements they have accumulated,” said Ye, who turns 29 this August. “For me, avoiding career fulfillment for the sake of being eligible for marriage was not the life I wanted. I began searching for an alternative path.”

It struck a chord when in March 2013 she came across Sandberg’s TED Talk Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders, which stressed that apart from institutional barriers, women hold themselves back by lowering their own expectations of what they can achieve and by lacking self-confidence. Get rid of those internal barriers, Sandberg urged. Pursue your ambitions.

“It was powerful and refreshing,” said Ye, who’d never heard Chinese female leaders speak openly about women’s struggles in business. “If we can take responsibility for ourselves, we can change our lives.” Inspired, Ye and a friend in May 2013 started a Lean In Circle, a group of women who meet twice monthly to support one another’s career pursuits. It’s among the 22,000-plus self-organizing Lean In Circles in 110 countries bringing together more than 300,000 women and men to share and learn together, but Ye’s circle stands out because it was the first in China.

“The response has been astounding,” said Ye, noting that 20,000 people in six months began following her organization’s account on WeChat, a social media platform. She estimated her group has helped establish and support about 20 College Circles and 10 Lean In Circles in cities across China since November 2013. “Women from around the country wrote to us asking how to get involved.”

It’s all helped her realize: You can change a person’s life by changing the way that person sees the world and herself. And before women can lean in to pursue success, they need to see and believe it is  possible.

Erika Cashin

Lt. Col. Erika Cashin of the U.S. Air Force Reserve recalls that at one point, she was the only woman out of seven squadron commanders. Once in a while at meetings, she is asked to take notes, presumably because she’s a woman. She responds: Sure, next time it’ll be so-and-so’s turn. On occasions when a dig is directed at her (oddly, usually by a woman), she makes a low-key comment—“I’m sure you weren’t serious”—to send the message that that kind of thing can’t be tolerated. In short, being a female officer is in itself an act of leaning in. But Cashin has taken it a step further: She started a Lean In Circle for military women and federal employees to provide peer mentorship.

“There are not a lot of women in leadership positions, even right now,” said Cashin, a married mother of two teens who serves as commander of the 934th Mission Support Flight at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Air Reserve  Station.

What sparked the idea was a quote she read in a magazine at a gym, a statement by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” She and friends on a girls’ night out joked about how they’re nothing like that. Cashin since has fielded emails from people interested in possibly starting their own Lean In Circles, including people deployed in the Middle East and one in Australia. “It’s kind of cool to just be part of that bigger animal.”

Watch Sheryl Sandberg talk about life after Leaning In.