A Silicon Valley CEO On Mentoring and the Disappearing Glass Ceiling
Noreen King, Founder and CEO, Evolve Manufacturing Technologies Inc.

Noreen King, Founder and CEO, Evolve Manufacturing Technologies Inc.

I’ve got a radical idea I’d like you to consider. Ready? Here goes:

Women are never going to break the glass ceiling.

Now, before you turn the page or click away, let me assure you that I know that the disparity between women and men in the workplace is sizable.

This is true in spite of the fact that, as a study commissioned by American Express Open in 2013 demonstrates, the number of women-owned businesses with revenues of $10 million or more grew 57 percent between 2002 and 2012 (a rate that was 47 percent faster than their male counterparts’ businesses earning similar revenues).

What’s more, this same study found women-owned firms generating over $1.3 trillion in revenues and employing nearly 7.8 million workers.

Still, the majority of women entrepreneurs have yet to approach their potential. According to the National Association of Women Business Owners, just one in five firms with revenue of $1 million or more is women-owned, and only 4.2 percent of all women-owned businesses generate revenues of $1 million or more.

Things aren’t any better in the C-suite. Here, women hold just 24 percent of senior leadership positions around the world.

No matter how you look at it, there’s room for improvement. But the way I see it, the women who will successfully level the professional playing field in all matters—from the positions they hold to the pay they earn—are the ones who will approach the act of removing the glass ceiling as one not of destruction, but construction.

What’s the fastest way of getting there from here? Mentoring. Allow me to explain.


Lessons Learned from the Shop Floor

For most of my life, I’ve been involved in one way or another in manufacturing, arguably still one of the least likely places you’ll find a career woman.

My passion for this profession began when I took a summer job working with my father as a machinist in a carburetor factory. While my time there served as an industry crash course of sorts, what was more interesting to me was how my dad interacted with the girls who worked alongside me.

To be fair, none of the young women were there because they were passionate about widgets. After all, this was Ireland in the 1970s—a time and place where a job was a job, and something you were lucky to have.

Needless to say, expectations from management on down to maintenance weren’t particularly high for these girls—nor were they meant to be. As far as I knew, no one was looking to be groomed for advancement, and few, if any, intended to one day follow in my father’s footsteps.


Old Challenge, New Approach

I left Ireland to pursue my career in manufacturing in California, first as an employee, eventually as the founder and CEO of my own company. Along the way, I observed as women power-suited their way into boardrooms and struggled to define themselves as equals to their male colleagues. And I came to two conclusions: 1) Women are never going to break
the glass ceiling; and 2) in time, we won’t need to.

Because thanks in large part to the efforts of our women predecessors, who have opened boardroom doors for the rest of us to walk through, that women can do a “man’s job” has been demonstrated over and over. It follows, then, that as women-owned businesses mature and proliferate, and women command more positions of authority and greater leverage in the C-suite, the old glass ceiling challenge eventually will disappear.

If you’re like me, however, quickening that eventuality is a top priority. That’s where mentoring can make all the difference.


3 Go-To Strategies for Success

When I was coming up in my industry, I knew that one of the best shortcuts to success lay in finding a mentor. At that time, however, there were few women in manufacturing that I could look to. Fortunately, with her unwavering vision and bootstrapping sensibilities, my mother filled that role effortlessly. From her, I learned the importance of focus and that the most successful people are the ones who never lose sight of what they want—regardless of the obstacles that stand in their way.

These days, I’m proud to serve as a mentor to young girls who are interested in pursuing careers in science and manufacturing. My benchmark for success? If I can pass along the value of holding that same laser-sharp vision my mother possessed, I will have done my job.

How does holding a vision translate into practical, workable solutions? Following are three go-to strategies for building success in any industry, and making the glass ceiling a thing of the past, that I often share with the young women I mentor. If you’re looking to do the same, read on.

1. Make building relationships a top priority, and focus on local clients first. In an age of digital connectivity, it’s easy to lose sight of the important role that face-to-face human interaction plays in nurturing your professional network. We need to look potential clients and business partners in the eye, in order to read body language and pick up on those subtle clues that provide insight as to how the relationship is going in a way that emails, texts, and even phone conversations can’t. Building a business locally first enables these crucial, one-on-one relationships, and is a natural place to start.

2. Cultivate within yourself a mindset that places you on equal footing with prospective clients. Removing the glass ceiling is an inside-out job, and one that begins with mindset. Whether meeting a prospective client for the first time, negotiating a deal, or making critical decisions for the direction of your company, practice taking gender out of the equation and focus instead on the value that the new business relationship, negotiation, or way-forward strategy will provide to all involved. In this way, you level the playing field, while creating an environment in which cooperation thrives.

3. Remember that “polite, but persistent” pays off. This is where vision can help take your business to the next level, regardless of who you are or where you’re starting from. As I remind the young women I mentor, getting to yes these days often requires multiple points of contact, and delays aren’t necessarily denials. Be patient but persistent and always on the lookout for opportunities to connect. Remember, those in a position to make decisions are often also the ones who carry the most responsibility, and they can be inundated with demands. Knowing the value of what you have to offer, holding your vision for what you want to accomplish, and being respectful of others’ time is a potent combination that will pay off.


Putting it All Together:
Mentoring Tomorrow’s Leaders

Today, more than ever, the role of mentorship is a critical one, especially when it comes to empowering women to assume positions of leadership where they will stand shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues.

Is it a tall order? Sure. But by mentoring these women on the path to their success and teaching the importance of building relationships, cultivating the right mindset, and keeping a persistent focus on the goal, I believe we can make the glass ceiling a thing of the past.

It’s only a matter of time.