Being the first or the “only” in the room is never easy. There’s no defined roadmap, lessons learned or insider tips to provide guidance. For super successful women, particularly Black and Indigenous women, being “the first” can be a particularly lonely road. There are few (if any) role models, mentors or simply others who look like you doing what you’re trying to do.
It’s hard to walk into a space where you feel foreign and own it, but these ground-breaking women have done just that.
As a neurosurgeon, Dr. Germano has had plenty of experience being the only female surgeon in the room, but she rarely focused on her “onliness” and instead maintained laser focus on her research and broader work. In The Epic Mentor Guide she recounts a time when she was described as “Dr. Germano’s nurse” when the person who’d just introduced her saw her approaching the stage. In that moment—even though she felt like running away—she continued to the podium and simply said, “I am Dr. Isabelle M. Germano. I am here to present my neurosurgery work.”
Arguably, successful women who are breaking barriers and excelling in traditionally male-dominated spaces should expect to be underestimated, misunderstood, overlooked or even misrepresented, and Dr. Germano’s experience serves as a reminder that those experiences can’t shake you. While it’s absolutely normal to feel disturbed, disappointed or even discouraged in that moment, Dr. Germano’s anecdote reminds us of the importance of simply continuing to move forward—acknowledging the feelings and emotion certainly—but maintaining composure in the moment and focusing instead on the work.
Nancy Lieberman, Basketball Hall of Famer, Two-Time Olympian
Question: As the first woman ever to become head coach of a men’s professional team in any sport, who was your most important mentor, and do you have any advice for girls considering careers in sports where they might also be a “first”?
Lieberman amplifies the importance of a simple—albeit rare—dedication to excellence and continuous improvement, recognizing that that is obtained through small incremental enhancements. “I was blessed to play for Pat Riley, Pat Summit and Marianne Stanley where I learned preparation, communication and discipline at the highest level,” she explains. “They taught me how to develop my philosophy and how to take my players, individually and collectively, to the next level. This is a daily discipline to achieve success.”
While continuous, incremental improvement may seem like a “no brainer” piece of advice, the key is arguably the habit and discipline around analyzing one’s performance. It requires taking time to be introspective—pausing regularly to assess what’s working and what’s not. In this CNBC article, Tom Brady insists that the best leaders don’t wait for failure to analyze how they can improve; instead, they’re constantly focused on improving. The article explains, “But the greatest athletes he’s ever worked with often have ‘chips on their shoulders’ that drive them to constantly work harder — and smarter — than anyone else around them, Brady said. That includes finding mistakes or areas of improvement to tackle even after doing something well.”
Tisha Alyn, Golf Media Personality
Question: How has your sport enabled you to break barriers and empower other athletes, and what advice do you have for girls hoping to break barriers of their own through professional sports?
Alyn insists that keeping relationships front of mind is a key to extraordinary success. “My best advice that I can offer to anyone who is hoping to break barriers is to make strong relationships with everyone you come across,” she explains. “Who you know and that first impression you make can catapult you into the next best thing!” While it can be tempting for those with exceptionally strong technical or physical skills and abilities to minimize the importance of relationship skills, Alyn’s advice suggests they do so at their own peril. She also advises athletes to leave their sport better than they found it, and certainly that counsel can be applied to any professional area.
Janey Whiteside, Chief Customer Officer of Walmart
Question: As Walmart’s first-ever Chief Customer Officer, what is the best piece of mentor advice you ever received, and what is your advice to anyone who will be ‘the first’ in her particular role?
Whiteside highlights the importance of taking on the non-glamorous, difficult roles viewing them as tremendous opportunities to shine, even surprise. Regarding those difficult assignments, Whiteside advises, “I’m here to tell you to take the job and do the best work you can in the role. Use the opportunity to learn and to dissect, process and feed your curiosity. It will help you become a well-rounded professional.”
Whiteside’s advice notwithstanding, many would argue that discernment is still in order. Many Black and brown women (in particular) should certainly be leery of “no-win” crisis situations positioned as “opportunities”—commonly deemed the glass cliff. That said, Whiteside discourages a reflexive urge to eschew tough (but reasonable) assignments simply because they’re tough. Indeed, there may be tremendous upside in the opportunity to not just deliver but exceed expectations, particularly when said projects are high-visibility.
These four trailblazers have not just succeeded but conquered previously unchartered waters sharing what they learned along the way. Being the first undoubtedly creates opportunities for more women and begins to chip away at long standing gender bias, helping to redefine the contours of cultural expectations in the workplace and beyond.