This is Mentoring Moments—a series of stories about triumphs and skids from successful women. Mentoring Moments is now a podcast.
Liz Elting is a self-made woman whose success landed her on the FORBES’ list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women. She’s the cofounder and CEO of TransPerfect, one of the world’s largest translation firms. She’s also a linguaphile—by the time she was 25, Elting lived and worked in five countries (Portugal, Spain, Canada, Venezuela and the U.S.) and studied four languages. At 26, armed with her MBA from New York University, she took that “perfect” job that didn’t turn out to be so perfect. But that’s when the romantic entrepreneurial story begins—with her boyfriend, in a NYU dorm room, with no outside funding, TransPerfect was born. Today TransPerfect is valued at over one billion dollars, but it hasn’t been all wine and roses. This is Elting’s Mentoring Moment, in her words:
Needless to say, there have been several points throughout both my life and career that I consider “defining” – however, one moment in particular has always stood out to me because it involved making a difficult decision that ultimately had a profound impact on who I am today.
I was 26 years old living in New York City and had just graduated from NYU with my MBA. Eager to begin my career in international corporate finance, I immediately took a position doing equity arbitrage—investing and trading—in the proprietary trading division of a French bank in midtown Manhattan. I was elated to have earned this position, tasked with what was sure to be a challenging but stimulating role, and could not wait to get to work.
As my first few weeks passed however, an unnerving reality began to set in. As the only woman in the office, I quickly recognized a concerning tendency among my colleagues. No matter where I was or what I was doing, whenever the phone rang, I would hear insistent and commanding shouts across the office, “Liz—phone!” Now I knew that I was not hired to take on the duties of an assistant, office manager, or any other administrative position that would perhaps explain my colleagues’ assumption that I was responsible for answering the phone. I wasn’t even the junior-most employee in the office. Yet this happened over and over and over—all day long. Unfortunately, the unavoidable explanation I was left with, although far from surprising, was nonetheless upsetting and painful. I knew that this wasn’t happening because my knowledge, skills or qualifications were any less than those of my colleagues. It was due to something well beyond my control—it was because I was a woman.
Despite my intellect, experience, qualifications, ambition and work ethic, I was assumed less capable and less adequate than my peers. As one may imagine, confronting the harsh reality of blatant yet insidious gender-bias and workplace sexism was daunting if not devastating—the guilt that I had somehow failed, that what was happening was my own fault, began to set in. While I have nothing but the utmost respect for assistants and offices managers, that was not the job I was brought on to do. And I knew that I had not spent tireless years studying, honing my skills and working my tail off so I could make coffee and take messages for my colleagues. So although I had never quit anything in my life, with the deeply-held belief that I deserved to lead, I gave my two-weeks notice.
Although at the time it felt risky and yes, even a bit scary, that very decision is what led me to create TransPerfect. We are who we choose to be, and I knew that if I wasn’t going to be allowed the space to utilize my talents and fulfill my potential, I would have to create that space myself. This was a moment of complete and utter self-awareness – one in which I had to quiet my self-doubts and criticism and instead trust in my abilities, know my value and refuse to apologize for who I am. It’s worth noting that the traits identified as strength, assertiveness and ambition in men, are often given very different names when exhibited by women: bossy, aggressive, difficult. As a woman and innovator in the language and technology solutions industries for 25 years, I have grown to wear these titles proudly. They are qualities that should be encouraged and celebrated, not quieted or criticized. I think what this defining moment reiterated for me was that, as a woman, when others view you as bossy, outspoken and overly ambitious, you’re very likely making the right choices. When you’re not permitted to collaborate, lead, stretch your wings and utilize your talents, you may very well find your own defining moment by forging your own path forward, chasing after what scares you and taking what’s yours.
Nobody knows what ambitions you have laid out for yourself, and nobody will be as sorry as you if you don’t go after your goals unapologetically and with everything you have. So, if the space is not there for you to lead, create it. If there are obstacles in your way and boundaries to be crossed, push past them . We all have the potential to be great, but achieving greatness does not happen by chance – it happens, through grit and determination, in the moments we choose to ignore tradition, step outside of our comfort zone, be true to who we are and get down to work.
Through creating my own space, I have been able to stay ever-passionate about my work, push industry boundaries, challenge myself professionally and above all—remain true to myself. Although there is no one indicator to know if you are on the right path or heading toward success, many of my life’s most defining moments were when I have rejected the status quo, questioned what was expected of me, took risks, felt scared and even made mistakes. While I might not have been consciously aware of it at the time, it was my choices that ventured outside of my comfort zone and into these heart-pounding moments, often accompanied by uncertainty and doubt, that ultimately came to define my career, life and who I am today.
More Info: forbes.com