10 Perspectives on Building Female Business Success

By John Cox

A panel of speakers with dinner and a keynote will have to wait another year. Email has instead brought together 10 professional perspectives for this month’s focus on Bakersfield women in business.

We asked each of our print guests what sorts of professional challenges she had overcome on the journey to achieving her current position. In what ways had her strengths or sensibilities as a woman helped along the way?

What might she have done differently, in retrospect? What advice would she share with other women looking to make their way in business and what further goals did she intend to accomplish in her field? What kind of peer support did she see as the most helpful to women trying to succeed in Bakersfield professional circles?

Here’s what each of them wrote back. (Some responses were edited for space.)

Shontay Smith-Sweeney

Community manager, Chase
Professional challenges: As a woman, single mother of three daughters and being Black, you have this feeling that you have to prove you deserve the role you are in. Many times I have been the only woman in the room. I’ve had to ensure my voice was heard so that I could be seen as an equal in the room. Knowing and understanding success allows you to build your career where you can speak confidently to what you’ve done. I find that many women working professionally struggle with feelings about promoting their value and accomplishments during an interview process.

Strengths and sensibilities: Being a mother living paycheck to paycheck at one point in my life gave me the desire to push myself. As my daughters grow up into the young adults, and teenagers as they are today, they watch everything I do. My goal is to create a legacy of young women who see themselves as smart, beautiful and confident and able to take on their dreams and aspirations. My mother who passed away unexpectedly in June was this person to me. She had so many friends and influence among people in the community because of her dedication to create a space of love and change by being patient and listening to others.

In retrospect: Although I have no regrets, I would have taken a few more chances on myself and tried different roles in banking. I’m doing that now in my early 40s, but I would have started so much earlier. I think many of us, especially women, get caught up in feeling that we are not good enough or we think that no one will take a chance on us. If I could have smashed that self-doubt years ago like I have now, who knows where I would be today?

Advice: First build a support system of mentors, women and men experienced in your field of interest who are successful. Set up a good system of sponsors that speaks well about you at the boardroom table even when you’re not there. Allow the things you’re involved in to help build your strengths and weaknesses. Lastly, don’t be afraid to give yourself a brag sheet that will help you drive success in your career.

The financial services and banking industry has made great strides in promoting financial health education and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion with the Black, Hispanic and Latino communities to create a safe space for those that have been underbanked and underserved. Young diverse business owners are better equipped financially and build themselves up as successful and financially strong businessmen and businesswomen.

Peer support: When you’re looking for mentors, find out their story. Be ready to listen and not judge. On the flipside, also ask for feedback, whether it’s good, bad, hurtful or even fantastic. Be loyal and don’t over-promise anything. Take each day and learn something along your journey and bring others along the way with you.

Tracy Leach

President/CEO, Providence Strategic Consulting Inc.
Overcoming challenges: Youth and inexperience! Truly. The path for an entrepreneur is filled with learning from our mistakes and making corrections, while continually refusing to give up despite setbacks, disappointments and enormous challenges. If you don’t learn from your mistakes and make corrections, you’re likely going to repeat them and experience the same poor results. This repetitive process of error and correction, pursued with humility, is a huge contributor to future success. Don’t give up!

Strengths and sensibilities: Candidly, and although we are a “woman-owned” business, I’ve never overly fixated on this fact in the pursuit of business goals; however, some arguably female strengths like mastery of multitasking are tremendously valuable in public relations.

The fields that I’ve worked in — both political consulting and agency ownership — are male-dominated. Rather than finding that discouraging, I loved the challenge and enjoy pursuing my passion. The unsurprising key to success is still hard work, serious grit and total commitment to excellence.

In retrospect: I might have started sooner with verbalizing to my senior leadership where exactly I screwed up and what I should have done in a given situation, so that they could avoid similar mistakes. This is beneficial to your business and to building strong leaders.

Overall, looking back too much and dwelling on things you cannot change is highly unproductive. Many people seem to be crippled by regret, fear of failure; but it’s very true that rewards come from taking risks. Don’t be afraid.

Advice: Seek out mentors and ask a lot of questions. I really love encouraging great people — men or women — to be entrepreneurs if they have that desire, but I do see more hesitancy with some women to take risks, disagree or negotiate. My favorite female friends were either born and raised as self-confident humans, and/or they learned through hard knocks not to accept anyone disrespecting them or their point of view. You can be very formidable in your profession and still be an awesome woman/wife/mother/Mimi in everyday life. These qualities are not mutually exclusive, ladies!

Goals: My current focus and enjoyment is mentoring the next generation of leaders. Most of the talented young professionals who populate our public relations agency are inquisitive and willing to put in the effort to excel, so they are a pleasure to teach and include in our projects, which focus on mostly mid-to-large size corporations and organizations.

Our success has allowed us to send our team members to trainings and professional conferences around the country. And in some cases, around the globe. Seeing the growth, maturity and enthusiasm for our industry afterward is incredibly gratifying.

Support for success: It depends on the individual. I’ve noticed over the years that while some people prefer the frequent interaction of a group organization, others seem to gain more from a quiet lunch with an individual they look up to, who will advise them. Still others do very well in a small peer group meeting. And some will do all of the above in the course of their careers.

Be comfortable assessing yourself and pursue opportunities for professional growth that are right for you and you alone.

Dana Brennan

Vice president of external and corporate affairs, Grimmway Farms
Challenges overcome: The steep learning curve of moving from public to private sector. Someone once told me to prepare for between a six-month and one-year learning curve when changing industries, but frankly I would insist it is more like one to two years. Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to have a boss that believed in hands-on learning and mentorship. He allowed me the time to really try to get to know the issues. In September, I will celebrate my four-year work anniversary at Grimmway and I’m infinitely grateful for the skill sets I’ve learned thanks to those challenges.

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Strengths and sensibilities: It’s all about that gut feeling! Call it woman’s intuition, discernment or whatever you want, but I’ve leaned on that feeling so many times and it’s never let me down. Grit and determination have also been my close companions. There have been times throughout my life, both professionally and personally, where I was underestimated because I was both young and a woman — and nothing makes me want to prove someone wrong more!

Looking back: I wish I would have taken the time to enjoy and appreciate the big milestones along the way. I think we are always in a rush to set the next goal or reach the next promotion and we forget to enjoy where we’re at. I’ve had a number of “pinch me” moments throughout my career thus far and I wish I spent a bit more time relishing those moments and celebrating the wins. More recently, at the urging of my husband, I’m trying to more openly celebrate the “wins” so that my daughter understands the value of honoring the milestones!

Advice: Give yourself grace. Grace to learn. Grace to fail. Grace to succeed. And grace to make your own way, on your own terms. Nothing about my journey has been traditional, but there is such beauty in each individual journey.

And while you’re blazing your own trail, don’t forget to look behind you and bring a few professional women along with you. Much of my success has to do with one woman, retired state Sen. Jean Fuller, who took a chance on an idealistic, graduating college senior and gave me a job. You never know where one helping hand can lead.

Goals: No matter where this field takes me, a desire for continued growth and development is paramount.

Peer support: Find a group of similarly driven and determined women who feel the need to support each other, not compete!

Arleana Waller

Founder/visionary, ShePower Global Ambassador, ShePower Global-MLKcommUNITY-Willie J Frink College Prep
Challenges overcome: Oh my gosh… so many! The biggest obstacle is being an opinionated, truth-telling, system-disrupting, proud Black woman in Kern County. That’s challenging all in and of itself. I’m doing things in ways that have historically not been done, creating change that systematically wasn’t possible and doing it collaboratively, bringing folks together in hard conversations of change. All while finding the balance between love, truth and understanding. Changes do not occur because of who you are, but who you work with and their commitment to it.

Growing faster than I was staffed for was another challenge to overcome. We stayed on the front lines of the pandemic and depended on staff to stay with us. We needed to show up and be folks’ hope during times that felt hopeless. Having to release people you personally like, but who are not getting the job done, especially when you are short-staffed, that’s a tough challenge.

I love my feminine power. Pink is my power color. I love glitter and extra lip gloss. Being a woman is my super ShePower. Just how God designed me is my strength. I’m a girl boss and I believe in building other women. Strength is often grouped with masculinity; true strength is vulnerability. My work is hard, and I use my ability to connect with people, be present with people and be empathetic. People know I really care. It has allowed me to be trusted in the most unique spaces, which has allowed me to be intentional and resilient in my work. My feminine power is my strength. I am proud of who I am, how polite I am, how empathetic I am and how much I smile at people. I’m even proud of how damn glittery and over the top I am. Only thing I would have done differently is, trust myself more and know, I am more than enough.

Personal advice: There is never a perfect time to be the star! Just shine. Be yourself, be authentically who you are, weird, different, over the top, glittery, overdosed on pink, whiskey in the morning, coffee at night, whatever. Love you as you are! Wake up every morning, drink your water and sit in a space of gratitude. Don’t worry about fitting in. It’s OK to be proud of yourself. It’s OK to have haters. It’s OK to own your ShePower, unapologetically.

Professional advice: There’s no substitute for arduous work. Don’t go into business because you want to be the boss. Being a boss can be horrible and lonely; it’s mostly about serving others. Don’t quit. Network with successful people. Read, honey, read real books. Be humble, no matter how amazing you are, someone glitters brighter than you are somewhere. Your reputation is your biggest asset. Be laser-focused, be willing to sacrifice for it. And lastly, trust your gut.

My next goal is to open a public charter school, Willie J Frink College Prep, named after my father, with the vision of closing the opportunity gap for African American student leaders, in 2023.

Shannon LaBare

CEO, Purveyor Branding Co.
Challenges overcome: I always wanted to own my own company, but I found myself in the corporate world for a while after college. It was great to learn on the job, but the big challenge came when I knew it was time to take the leap into full-on entrepreneurship without the safety net. From learning how to set projections, to maintaining a growth vs. fixed mindset to navigating the wild world of providing creative strategy and design solutions … all is challenging.

Strengths and sensibilities: I believe women are collectively incredibly empathetic, intuitive and creative, so it spills over well for me in this venture. We have to be able to empathize with our clients and customers, intuitive in following our gut, and insanely creative with getting a business’s brand from point A to point B. Also, we’re insanely tenacious and focused! Watch out.

Looking back: Trusting myself and my intuition has never failed me. When I’ve failed to take that reaction to heart, it’s likely a headache, fire drill or misalignment is on the other side.

Advice: As we do in our work in building out brand strategies, diving deeply into what you value as a person and business will help every idea, hire, path, new offer, new building, etc. be true to your vision. So often we focus on what’s ahead of us and get distracted and overwhelmed. Realizing what you value takes you out of that fog and allows you to see everything in clarity.

Goals: My goal through Purveyor Branding is to be a resource, partner and creative partner in crime for our clients. We are growing with an incredible team, exciting partnerships, and impactful offerings. We want to continue to hire local creatives and partner with entrepreneurship programs where strategy, design and great products collide. I want to help put Bakersfield on the map as a showcase of strategic and creative entrepreneurship success stories.

Peer support: Peers can be helpful to women business owners by providing them with quality and reliable referrals. Shout your love, admiration and support for them on the rooftops.

Fellow businesses can support by hiring women-owned, local and creative businesses for their next project, campaign or venture.

Laura Hill

CEO/executive recruiter, Pinnacle Recruitment Services
Challenges overcome: I think all business owners encounter massive challenges when starting a new business. That’s probably why so few people actually do it. For me, with Pinnacle, the biggest challenge I faced initially was time management. When I started, I was a single-person entity with no employees and a massive workload. I was fortunate to have a good network of clients when I started, but juggling the daily grind of doing real work and also managing the administrative and start-up functions of a new business was very challenging. To help with this, I invested in good professional support like a business attorney, marketing expert, website developer, etc. These investments were expensive but worth it to have my company set up professionally and give me more time to manage my clients and workload.

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Strengths and sensibilities: I think in general women have strong intuition. As a recruiter, we have to have a keen ability to understand people. My natural sense to read and understand a person’s motivations enabled me to make good judgment calls when presenting candidates to discerning clients.

In retrospect: When I launched, I chose a very long business name and coupled it with a very long website address, which resulted in very long email addresses as well. This ended up becoming a bigger problem later, which I corrected in the fall of 2020, but we were in business for five years prior to me buying a much shorter address. In hindsight, I wish I had thought that through more. Lesson learned. Make it really simple for people to reach you and find you online.

Advice: Be tenacious. Pay attention to the small stuff. I hate that old phrase, “don’t sweat the small stuff” because small habits that you create in the beginning that are positive make big impacts later. Also, be honest all the time. If you make a mistake, own it, correct it and change your policies to ensure you don’t make the same mistakes over.

Further goals: I would like to expand my company into the Visalia and Fresno markets, which I have been working on for several years. We purchased a building at 918 Truxtun Ave., which was a huge goal we recently accomplished. Continuing to build our brand and presence in the market is now our focus.

Peer support: I think it’s important to join an organization that gives back to the community but also can introduce you to potential clients. For me, it was KC SHRM, an HR-related nonprofit organization dedicated to education. If you choose to be part of a volunteer organization then you should do it well. Take on a leadership role (I served on the board for 10 years and was a two-time elected president of KC SHRM). In any leadership role, follow-through is key. Do real work for that organization. You can’t ask members to support your business if you’re unwilling to really give back to your community. Find a group that works for you, makes sense for your business, and go all in. Then ask them to support you.

Sheeza Gordon

Real estate agent, Team Gordon Realty
It is a great honor to have been asked to contribute my thoughts regarding my experience as a woman who has created a successful business. I have worked in sales my whole life starting out as a teenager while going to school.

Throughout my career, I developed a large group of friends with whom I keep in touch on a regular basis. Once I married my husband, who is a lawyer, our circle of friends grew even more.

Eighteen years ago, a couple of my friends suggested that I go into real estate and I took their advice. I was a top producer from the beginning, thanks in large part to my relationships with my friends. As a woman, my social skills and keeping in touch with friends on a regular basis have been great assets.

My biggest challenge was dealing with all of the technology that is involved in the real estate business. I have never been tech savvy, but I did not let this slow me down. I simply hired assistants who could handle this part of the business while I focused on sales.

My biggest regret in business is that I did not start working as a Realtor earlier. I have worked very hard to achieve the success that I have (pretty much seven days a week) and some say I am a workaholic. When my son joined the business full time after college several years ago, he helped lighten my load so that I have a life.

Hard work is essential to success. Another rule that I live by is to never procrastinate. There are always new tasks and problems that are constantly arising, so you have to take care of them quickly before you get overwhelmed. Particularly in real estate, if you do not promptly respond to clients and make sure that their transactions proceed in a timely manner, you will lose them.

I am now at the point where my goal is to continue to run a growing business while taking more time to enjoy the good things in life. One of the ways I will be able to do this is to rely on the other members of the Gordon Team — my husband, Frank, and my son, William. We all have unique strengths and skills which help to make us a great team.

I have learned a lot from my friends in business. It is very helpful to surround yourself with like-minded people who have similar goals and are supportive. I feel blessed to have achieved success in business. It is never too late to start your own. I also want to thank all of my loyal clients.

Emily Duran

CEO, Kern Health Systems
Challenges overcome: I was not born into a middle-class, college-educated family. I came from humble but happy roots, where I was the first of my siblings to go to college. I had to maneuver through life with a young child, working full time, and take college courses in the evenings. Throughout my career journey I had to work twice as hard and take on extra projects just to prove my skill, competence and dedication.

Women still have to prove themselves in the professional space while balancing career development, spouses, children, higher education, external activities, community engagement, aging parents and several other responsibilities. Despite these challenges, I have been provided the opportunity to lead a local organization that is positioned to create positive change in the health status of our community!

Strengths and sensibilities: The mental strength of women and our ability to multitask is not recognized enough. In general, we have to juggle so many responsibilities that oftentimes can lead to a delayed focus on career and personal well-being. The key is to prioritize the long “To-Do” list and don’t forget to include yourself as a priority. As you start your career it’s important to observe those you admire, listen more than you speak, learn from others, grow through this process, and never give up.

In retrospect: I should have promoted myself. I was always content with making things happen from behind the scenes, doing all the work and passing on the recognition. It took years for me to finally realize that I was doing a disservice to my career. I realized that by not being known and neglecting to promote and recognize my accomplishments, it delayed my career goals. Women need to tell their story in order to be afforded the opportunity to prosper in a professional journey and also to inspire others to stay focused, be determined, work hard, and fight for what we are entitled to: a chance to prove our leadership abilities.

Advice: My message to women making their way in their career is very simple. We must define our own success and not allow others to define it for us. Work hard, be true to yourself and follow your passion. Women are strong, smart and capable of creating their path and fulfilling their destiny.

Further goals: Health equity is my passion. As someone who grew up on Medi-Cal, from an immigrant farm worker family, it is a heartfelt path for me to serve my community and make an impact in our community health-care system. Access to timely, quality health care is the first step. However, the area that is most difficult to accomplish is creating a system that can facilitate long-lasting change in our overall health and well-being.

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Peer support: I am excited that as a community we are now focusing on professional networks. Support and guidance can come from family, friends, mentors and a number of local groups, clubs and organizations. Women should leverage the experience of other strong women, but most importantly, always remember to give back and reinvest our talents in the community that helped us grow professionally.

Norma Dunn

Director, MCSC Kern Women’s Business Center
Challenges: I was working full time, raising a family and attending classes to obtain my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I had to create my experience and took several certification classes at Cal State Bakersfield to better position myself as a job applicant.

I began to strategically network and volunteer for organizations I felt would get me where I wanted to be. In 2014, I made a decision that completely changed my life. My older sister Sandy was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. I took temporary jobs to work around her treatment schedule. She passed away in May 2015, eight months after her diagnosis. After settling her final arrangements, I took time to figure out what I needed to do as a single mother and my nephew’s new legal guardian.

Once I started looking for work, I was either over-educated or over-qualified for entry-level positions. One of my most interesting interviews lasted almost two hours, with someone who said they only had five minutes. I remember him saying, “You don’t have executive assistant experience.” I took my resume from his hand and said, “See this position? I didn’t know how to do that job, either, but I learned.” They called me later and told me I got the job.

The position allowed me to network with federal, state and local elected officials and major corporations. It also allowed me to showcase my work ethic, customer service skills, determination, flexibility and education. I also built relationships with people I worked with, and I started collecting letters of recommendation.

Strengths: My determination to learn and my soft skills were my strengths, in addition to the “I can figure it out” attitude that I used to challenge myself. I continue to read business-oriented books, listen to business podcasts and take leadership development training as I grow professionally.

In retrospect: I would have started my educational journey sooner. I am the first college graduate in my family. Education seemed like something unattainable to my family.

Advice: Don’t wait! There is never a perfect time to create your future! No one will do it for you. You must sacrifice some things for a little while, but patience, perseverance and determination will yield success as you go through your journey. Find people that are doing what you want to do and ask questions. Kern County has networking groups that meet in person or online. Professional organizations such as the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), and the Kern Women’s Business Center can be useful resources.

Goals: I would like to establish a satellite center in eastern Kern and standardize hybrid classes and workshops within the county. I want to be a resource for women in our community, supporting their successes and increasing women-owned small businesses in Kern County. I have begun my journey as a speaker on topics of professional development and Women’s Business Center best practices.

Peers: Network network network! Find networking groups that challenge you and provide resources to help you professionally and personally. Get involved in the community, serve on boards and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Lauren Skidmore

CEO, The Open Door Network
Professional challenges: The biggest hurdle was shifting my mindset to not questioning my abilities, but exploring the real impact I can make. When we focus on our desired impact, the needed skillset will come to light or you will find an opportunity to strengthen yourself. In this specific role there were and continue to be many hours spent to build my know-how on the homeless population and victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Kern County. This was an exercise in challenging my own perceptions, habits and beliefs that could hinder me from driving results as the new CEO of The Open Door Network. Just like we ask our clients to reimagine their lives and futures, I have spent time reimagining myself and my roles.

Strengths and sensibilities: As a woman and mother of two toddlers, I have evolved as an even more heart-centric leader. This has evolved for me as a superpower, as I work to bring and level up empathy and equity throughout the organization and shadow that leadership for others. I see opportunities for more leaders to be open about their experiences in being a mother and/or woman. Things show up differently for us, and in leadership we need to home in on our sharing and being transparent about that showing. The world of leadership today desires authenticity.

Looking back: I see every opportunity and the learnings as teachable experiences that were critical in charting my professional path. I exposed myself to advanced conversations on diversity, hardships of running a business/nonprofit, specific services related to The Open Door Network (e.g. real estate, therapy, etc). I have never stopped learning and meeting people.

Advice: I coach emerging leaders to focus less on titles, which have little to do with growing their careers, and focus on their big “Why?” I also encourage them to create their own networks and not wait on someone to invite you to the table. When I was in my 20s I asked anyone of interest to grab coffee or lunch and I got really good at listening. One important ingredient for early career advancement is to observe and be an active listener. For entrepreneurs, I encourage women to get out of their own way and halt negative self-talk.

Further goals: The Open Door Network’s tagline, “Reimagine to be,” is a call to action for everyone to stretch beyond their limits and reach beyond their grasps. For me, this shows up by positioning my organization as the center of excellence and being the best representation for our clients. This is accomplished by not conducting business as a usual and seeking new diverse perspectives and leaders to ensure the organization further evolves.

Peer support: Reach out to the person next to you. Often, we don’t assess the circle of true influence around us. Big titles don’t necessarily mean the person will be an ideal mentor. Sometimes it is your coworker who will give you the best advice. Seek feedback from a diverse mix of professionals. One interaction can catapult your career. Keep your heart and eyes open to all the new.

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