A panel of entrepreneurs and executives shared stories about their rise to the top during the kickoff event for the third annual Women Entrepreneurship Week at Montclair State on Oct. 18.
The five women told more than 200 attendees about how they built a business—whether it was a venture they started from scratch, or a division they grew inside the walls of a large company.
The panel for “Power Play: What Makes Women Great Leaders” included:
Barbara Agoglia, VP of Global Brand and Communications for the Commercial Payments Business, American Express
Adenah Bayoh, founder and CEO, Adenah Bayoh and Companies
Ruthi Byrne, founder, Zinn, Graves & Field Inc.
Gail Mandel, president and CEO, Wyndham Destination Network
Debra Vizzi, president and CEO, Community FoodBank of New Jersey
Moderator: Linda Lacina, managing editor, Entrepreneur.com
The panelists shared advice that was particularly relevant to the Montclair State students and other young people in the audience.
Agoglia recommended having a good sense of who you are. She noted the path forward is never clear long term—it will become clear at one time, and then unclear again. For leading staff, Agoglia advised listening with empathy to create a space of trust. She also emphasized the importance of making clear what an organization’s mission is, saying no one wants to be a brick builder but everyone wants to build cathedrals.
Mandel said the recipe for being a successful leader is to be confident of maneuvering through uncertainty, ready to tackle curveballs thrown your way. Mandel, the first woman CEO at Wyndham, said she reached that high position because male bosses gave her flexibility to do previous jobs when she had young children.
Bayoh, who escaped civil war in Liberia to build a life and business in the U.S., echoed that, saying, “Remember the universe always throw things at you.” She advised always having your antennae up of where you can fill gaps, and not being afraid to ask for help.
Byrne, who started a PR firm after a stint volunteering in politics, recommended knowing when to cut your losses—sometimes you need to cut loose a client. The witty Byrne drew laughs from the audience with her asides, like her candid comment “I love making money,” about why she transitioned from volunteer gigs to entrepreneurship.
Vizzi said she surrounds herself with strong talent. “The best picks you make around you will make you shine,” she said. After growing up in foster care, Vizzi was inspired by social workers she met as a child and chose helping others as her profession. Vizzi said male bosses taught her to use her voice. “I was forced to use my voice for good,” she said. Vizzi also recommended that young people—anyone, really—take initiative in the workplace, sharing a story about how she wrote a grant application at a previous nonprofit even though she worked in a different division. The grant was funded, and that launched Vizzi’s move into fundraising.
A common theme among the five panelists was supporting other women during their rise through the ranks.
“I’d like to see more of us at the table making room at the table (for women). … If I see a woman being torn down, I’ll speak up. And I don’t care what I’m called,” said Bayoh to applause.