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We Must Inspire Women To Design Their Own Paths

Avid Larizadeh, Stanford University December 30, 2013

This post was originally published on Forbes.

I have been very fortunate throughout my formative years and still today to be surrounded by inspiring men and women. At the age of 34, I feel I have only scraped the surface of everything I am yet to experience and achieve both professionally and personally. My resume so far is the result of a lot of hard work, but also and mostly of the belief that only the sky is the limit.

I started no differently than any other little girl, with perhaps one major exception: I was always told by family, friends, and mentors that I could achieve anything I wanted as long as I was open, worked hard and remained helpful to others. My gender was never part of the discussion, but it seems my experience was rare.

It has become clear that we need to do more to shine a light on the ambitious, successful women who dream big and achieve their personal and professional goals while staying true to themselves. Men seem to have these kinds of role models in abundance and perhaps as a result do not struggle to imagine that they can affect change and become leaders. But many girls and young women struggle to find similarly successful, relatable role models who can inspire them to imagine everything they could achieve and believe that each of those possibilities could become a reality. Learning about the stories of these role models can help young women make educated choices about what suits them and then pursue their goals with all their energy.

At Boticca, we try to share the stories of inspiring women organically through our business. Eighty percent of our brands are led by women, all entrepreneurs fighting to build sustainable businesses. We love being their partners as they expand their businesses globally and realize what the possibilities truly are. Recently we have partnered with Women for Women International, an organization founded by a formidable woman, Zainab Salbi, one that is committed to giving women in war-torn countries the tools to rebuild their lives while sharing their stories of resilience with the world. It is critical to tell the stories in as many contexts as we can in order to help and celebrate those women who are making a difference.

Beyond “Lean In”: More Women Who Help Us Dream Big

The key is the awareness that we can design our unique path and as long as we are confident, hard working and willing to give it our all, we can make that path work.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, has shined a lot of light on this subject with her book Lean In. Her arguments make a lot of sense, but to many, she may seem difficult to relate to because of her “one fourth of one percent upper class status,” as Gayle Tzemach Lemmon points out. However, she has emphasized something that applies to all of us regardless of status: we should embrace the theory of the “and.” Why limit ourselves to being either career driven or family oriented? Why not do both, if that’s what we want? Little girls will only figure out what they want by being aware of and evaluating all of the available options. There is no “one path” that works for everyone. Each person is unique and each stage of life is different. The key is the awareness that we can design our unique path and as long as we are confident, hard working and willing to give it our all, we can make that path work.

There is only one Sheryl Sandberg, but there are numerous women who gracefully embody the possibility of the “and.” All of their stories should be shared, so that girls and young women can find inspiration in their examples. That’s why I’m sharing the stories of five of the most open, giving, impressive women I know. Each is very unique in her path and identity, however they all share a few very important traits: They are passionate, positive, hard working, confident and most importantly, they are constantly learning and teaching. They promote others and are great leaders with loyal followers. And if you ask each and every one of them, they will tell you that they are no better than you. If they can design their own paths and stay true to themselves, you can, too.

Shripriya Mahesh is an incredible woman: A wife, a mother, an award-winning filmmaker and a successful Silicon Valley executive. She owes all of it to her passion, openness and determination. When I first started at eBay, she was assigned to me as my mentor and then became my boss and my friend. I’m now lucky enough to be godmother to her twins, so I know first hand how open, passionate and strong she is. Shri leads by example: She taught me how to create solutions for any problem and above all, that you can pursue your passion at any stage. She reinvented herself as a filmmaker after 15 successful years in technology while having twins and supporting her parents who were struggling with illnesses. Shri has now found a way to fulfil both passions by leading the product launch for a startup and working on her first feature. She proves that it is possible to handle any personal and professional challenge with determination and positive energy.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, who I mentioned above, is one of the formidable women I am lucky to call a friend. One of my business school classmates, this independent thinker doesn’t take anything for granted. A successful journalist, the New York Times best-selling author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and a Senior Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program, Gayle went to business school when she was already quite senior in her career. She simply wanted to learn more about business, knowing that the experience would help her achieve her goals. Gayle and her husband both believe nothing is impossible and Gayle manages every challenge with grace. She spent a lot of time in Afghanistan reporting on women’s efforts to be heard by their own government. It was on one of these trips when she found out she was pregnant and due just days before her book’s publishing date. Gayle is from a humble background, but was inspired by hardworking women who showed her that “only our imaginations could determine our limitations.” As a result, she constantly works to inspire and share stories of other women with the world.

Nisa Godrej, one of my dearest friends, is another inspiring woman I met at business school. Nisa is a force of nature who inspires others through her vision and drive. She could have chosen a life of leisure, but instead chose to fight to create a performance-oriented culture in the 117-year-old Godrej Group, allowing the company to excel on a global scale. Motivated by a force within, Nisa’s imagination has no limits and she will push herself and those she cares about to achieve their full potential. She is as dedicated to her professional growth as she is to her personal one.  We celebrated her birthday climbing Kilimanjaro, trekked in Bhutan and Iceland on what she considers holidays relaxing for the soul and discovered the ruins of Petra in lieu of a hen party. A dedicated daughter, Nisa’s loyalty is boundless. Now, she is married to a wonderful man who shares her passion for life, they are expecting a child, and she continues to lead her company forward.

Judy Gibbons, another mentor of mine, is a truly extraordinary woman. Ranked among the top 20 most influential European businesswomen, she has held senior positions at Apple, HP and Microsoft and is now on the board of the Guardian, Michael Kors and more. The list goes on and on. Again, she owes it all to her hard work, openness and dedication. Judy took me under her wing when I started at Accel Partners and has been a guiding force ever since. She was one of the first people to believe in me when Boticca was only an idea. She has always gently pushed me and others to dream big and believe that we can make anything happen, both in our professional and personal lives, if we put our minds to it. She has been an incredible force for young people in her life including her own nieces to whom she is a surrogate mother. She is multidimensional and will not let anyone be otherwise. There is no either/or for her, it is all about the possibility of the “and.”

Sherry Coutu is yet another woman who embodies the possibility of the “and.” I met Sherry a number of years ago when I first moved to London. I remember having lunch with her and finding out that she had just climbed Kilimanjaro, which I planned to climb a few months later. I knew from that moment that she was a force to be reckoned with. A former CEO and angel investor who now serves on the boards of LinkedIn, Cancer Research UK and the University of Cambridge among others, she is a staunch promoter of entrepreneurship, for which she was awarded a CBE in 2013 from Her Majesty the Queen. She is also the founder of Founders4schools an organization that inspires young students to believe in themselves and in their ability to be entrepreneurs.

All of these women are great examples because they are not simply hard workers, but are open and looking to share their experiences and learn from others. They are the kind of people you want to work for and be friends with. I don’t believe that there is a particular way a woman should be, or that there is only one way she should be. But I believe that each woman should have the option to choose what she wants, knowing at the beginning all of the possible permutations of her dreams so that she can design her own path. Join me in sharing the stories of women like these.