We’re celebrating International Women's Day by sitting down with inspirational women who have achieved success by embracing their identities and learning from the challenges they’ve experienced. Read on to learn about their stories, successes, hardships and career advice for men and women alike.
Women in leadership roles today
A study by Korn Ferry looking at the top 1,000 U.S. companies found that across the most prominent C-suite job titles, women only accounted for 25% of top leaders. Of this 25%, only 6% serve as chief executive officers (CEOs) and only one Fortune 500 company is led by a woman of color. Since women make up more than half of the workforce, it's clear there’s still work to be done to achieve equality. However, the three business leaders we sat down with show that women are making important strides in the workplace.
Here are their stories:
Altrichia Cook, Chief Creative Officer
Altrichia Cook is a business owner in Tampa Bay, Florida, who launched her own swimsuit line in 2013. Cook describes herself as a natural-born leader — confident and extroverted. During high school, Cook was class president, a National Honor Society board member, cheer captain and homecoming queen. After graduating, Cook earned her bachelor’s degree in social work while raising her son and went on to earn her master's degree.
After starting and developing a career in social work, her trajectory took an unexpected turn in 2013 when she posted a social media photo of herself wearing a swimsuit she designed. Her social media post received such a positive and strong response, she launched a body-positive swimwear line called Allusions by A.Lekay Swimwear. Her designs have been featured in New York Fashion Week and Cosmo, and have been worn by the likes of Nicki Minaj and other celebrities.
In response to her passion for business, Cook was invited to the White House for its inaugural United States of Women Summit, as well as important speaking engagements such as the Essence Festival. She also leads mentorship programs and works with teen mothers to help them achieve their professional goals. She shares the lessons she’s learned throughout her career with the young women she supports.
Q: What do you say to young mothers trying to advance their careers and find opportunities?
AC: “No matter what obstacles you are faced with, no matter what storms you may encounter, you have the power to press through it and obtain whatever goals you set out to do ... Dreams are still attainable with hard work and support from your community.”
Q: What’s your best advice for people with aspirational career goals?
AC: “Connect with people who can lift you higher, who can encourage you, who can give you new perspectives [and] who can push you forward."
Q: When it comes to mentorship (learning from someone) vs. sponsorship (being elevated by someone with professional capital), which do you find most helpful?
AC: “Facilitating an authentic connection is one of the most important elements. People should think, ‘I want a sponsorship, but I also want a relationship so that we can work together and reciprocate the work.’ Never underestimate what you can bring to the table when you're trying to explore a relationship with someone who you need.”
Cook says she believes that a person's place in life shouldn't determine their future. Instead, the young mothers she works with should be able to prove themselves and have opportunities for greatness.
Robin Follman-Otta, President and CEO
Robin Follman-Otta is a CEO, world-renowned opera singer and keynote speaker. She grew up in a family of talented singers and began singing and performing at a young age. By the time she was 16, Follman-Otta started a professional singing career, graduated high school and began taking college courses. When she was 20, she moved to Japan to perform the lead role in a musical.
Follman-Otta returned to the United States in 1991 to attend Indiana University where she studied opera and graduated with a degree in psychology. She went on to have an extremely successful and fulfilling career as a professional opera singer.
Later, Follman-Otta began working for her father's manufacturing company. She started in an entry-level position and worked her way up to CEO over 10 years. Follman-Otta has gone on to complete additional academic degrees, give back to her community and speak to others about her success, including at a TEDx conference.
Q: As a woman in a male-dominated field, how do you stay motivated?
RF: “I view myself as a human who has something to offer and to say, and I encourage others to do the same.”
Q: What’s your best advice for women seeking leadership roles, or those who are already leaders?
RF: "Lead with kindness in your heart, understand the goals of the individuals who you're working with and use that to fuel yourself to reach a mutual goal. When people support each other's success, we can all be successful ... The most important thing for me is creating a work environment where people feel cared for. If your intentions start in an altruistic manner, things will fall in place."
Q: What would you say to people who want to have a successful career?
RF: “If you're a hard worker, and you're driven, and you're goal-oriented and you're disciplined and dedicated, success will meet you. The work I produce speaks for me as a human being, and when I am working with individuals, I try very hard to not take into consideration anything but that."
Q: You’re a mentor and role model for many–what advice would you give other mentors?
RF: "You have to give with your heart, and your thought, and your spirit, and your philosophy — not just your knowledge.”
Sharonda L. Britton, Marketing Executive
Sharonda L. Britton is the Head of trade, merchandising and shopper marketing at HARMAN International and co-founder of The Elle Brand. Britton has held roles as the senior director of marketing, strategic alliances and member services for Sam’s Club and director of media integrations and strategic partnerships and director of multicultural marketing for Walmart Stores, Inc.
From an early age, Britton’s mother played an integral role in exposing her to meaningful experiences and opportunities that helped her become a well-rounded individual — a trait she attributes largely to the success she’s achieved.
After high school, Britton became the first college graduate in her family and went on to earn her MBA. She has been named one of Black Enterprise Magazine's Top Women in Marketing, Ad Age's Top 40 Under 40, and made iMedia's Top 25 Cutting-Edge Creatives, Strategists and Technology Innovators. As an executive, Britton wants to pay it forward by creating new opportunities for others seeking career success.
Q: What’s your best career advice for people with aspirational professional goals?
SB: "The best way to achieve your personal goals is by ensuring you are focused on others. My greatest personal accomplishments are directly correlated to me wanting to see someone else win. It always propels me to the next level of my career. We need more women leaning in on each other and supporting other women and ensuring it's not just a hashtag #WomenSupportingWomen."
Q: Can you speak to the importance of asking others for help as a young professional?
SB: "As a woman of color seeking to grow my career as a marketing executive, I have learned to let people in [and] build trust by sharing my unique experiences."
Q: We understand that you’ve been a mentor to one of our other interviewees, Altrichia Cook. Can you speak to the importance of mentor/mentee relationships?
SB: “Our roles often switch as she has motivated me during some of my toughest times as an entrepreneur ... She is the definition of #WomenSupportingWomen."
Q: How would you say employers can support women of color in the workplace?
SB: "Learn to trust our brilliance and celebrate our magic ... We want to work hard and earn the respect that everyone else earns. Trust us to have the same level of brilliance and embody inclusion when working with us and alongside us. I think the most important element of setting women up for success is that women are able to see the vision embedded within the organization. It is about a culture that values diversity and translates that into its leadership."