Women In Leadership Share Insights About Mentorship, Advocating for Equality, and The Future of Female Led Organizations
Nothing is more important right now than staying safe, following social distancing guidelines, and acknowledging the need to hunker down at our homes for as long as it takes for the coronavirus to pass. We're grateful to all of those folks in the healthcare industry who are putting in the work every day to keep us all safe and healthy.
The impact of the coronavirus has been surreal, permeating nearly every aspect of our lives, not just in the U.S., but around the world. Just two weeks ago, YML was immersed in a variety of plans to celebrate Women's History Month, highlighted by a thought leadership panel event we had planned in Atlanta. However, as soon as the pandemic began rapidly spreading, we postponed our event, eager to protect our community, panelists, and team.
We will host the event down the road when things settle, but in the meantime, the outstanding and diverse women panelists who would've been featured in our event have shared a few cogent, compelling thoughts for our community. The panelists featured below are:
Vijay Yerraguntla, Enterprise Technology Executive – Digital Experience at State Farm
Sherry Graziano, SVP, Mortgage Omni Experience | SunTrust now Truist
Anne Billmeyer, Director of Product Insights for Warner Media News and Sports
Umama Kibria, CEO and Founder of SweatPack.
Marcela Lay, VP of Client Strategy and Head of Atlanta Studio
We're grateful to each of these women for their insights, and their leadership.
Question #1: It's more widely accepted in society than ever before that women are impactful assets to their organizations, however, there's still very few women leading organizations. How do we ensure more women have opportunities to reach the top?
Vijay, State Farm:
- To ensure women reach the top, we cannot start at the top. We need stronger representation in the pipeline early on. We must institute intentionality to make sure that company standards and processes are free of unconscious bias. We need more role models and in-house champions for women that can pave the path for other women and bring them along. I had numerous mentors in my career that have supported me. These people gave not only encouragement but also brutally honest feedback that was necessary for growth. It was painful at times, but it undoubtedly made me a better person and leader. So it’s extremely important to have a mentor that not only supports you, but also stretches you out of your comfort zone. They are bending you without breaking you.
- Pay it forward. It starts with the leaders who are genuinely committed to driving inclusion. We must be willing to harness a top-down and bottom-up approach to foster inclusion with an intentional focus on personal and professional development for women. Women’s networks are a starting point, but we must also encourage mentorships, sponsorships and 1:1 coaching to continue to move the needle. And let’s not forget that men committed to changing the landscape are incredibly powerful allies.
- Ensuring women have access to career-expanding projects, workstreams, and roles gives women opportunities to reach the top. In a nutshell, access matters in a corporate environment. A proactive, open-minded approach to selecting talent ensures women build the skills and have the opportunities needed to reach the top.
- This starts with women taking responsibility for our confidence and presenting ourselves. Then we have to create the opportunities we want as entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs. This also takes organizations hiring senior leadership that believes in innovation. This happens through more empathetic adaptability, measured check-ins, internal innovation competitions, and mentorship. That’s how inclusion works.
- First, we create more opportunities for women to join organizations by balancing the candidate pools. Second, we create work environments that support working moms with flexible work hours, and where social events take place during working hours so they can also build rapport with their co-workers and leaders. Third, we create women empowerment initiatives and gender partnership initiatives to develop a gender-neutral work environment. Finally, we bring more opportunities to women for middle management levels. As that number increases, it will create more candidate opportunities for the top. It will also create a multiplier effect where more women will become mentors, leaders, and positive role models for other women in their organization.
Question #2: How do you feel your brand has moved the needle towards gender equality?
Vijay, State Farm
- I’m proud to work for an organization where our Chief Information Officer (CIO), Chief Admin Officer, Chief Risk Officer, and Chief Data & Analytics Officer are all women. At State Farm, gender equality is not just our commitment. We make sure our actions actually reflect this promise. Over 30% of our leadership employees are women. We’ve been among the Top Companies for Executive Women and recognized as one of the Best Companies for Multicultural Women. AnitaB.org has also named us as a Top 5 Company for Women Technologists. It’s just incredibly rewarding to be a part of an organization that upholds inclusivity and continually empowers invaluable talent.
- Having achieved success in numerous roles throughout my career, I have noticed one significant trend - diversity is strength. Diversity and inclusion in the workforce is the secret weapon that inspires new creative ideas, fresh thinking and a better workplace culture. I personally spend countless hours mentoring teammates and developing the next generation of leaders, which I have no doubt will continue to move the needle on equality.
- There are several explicit programs designed to support women at WarnerMedia News and Sports. We are lucky enough to work for a leader who has publicly gone on the record espousing the benefits of a diverse workforce. Support from high-level allies (both male and female) is still critical to moving the needle for women.
- I teach women every day through my personal brand, @smallandstrong.fit, that fitness can be a tool for empowering our confidence, work ethic, and student mentality. Through my own journey of creating opportunities for myself within the fitness and tech industry, they’ve taken that playbook and applied it to the momentum in their careers. I’ve been honored to hire many of these strong-willed women and hire a male Chief Operating Officer that has had a legacy for empowering women’s careers.
- At YML, we have successfully: Closed the pay gap, balanced candidate pools, broken up gender silos, created a harassment-free environment, and created a work/life balance environment for all employees - including parents. I couldn't be more grateful and proud.
Question #3: Have you had a female mentor in your career, and if so, how did she impact your personal and professional development? What's the value of mentorship?
Vijay, State Farm
- During my early days, there were many times when I had to choose between my career or my young daughters. I used to let go of opportunities or not raise my hand for something because I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to have it all. I used to tell myself, “Not now. Maybe once my kids grow up a bit.” Thankfully, I had a female mentor who was a powerful force of change in my life and transformed my approach completely. One day, my mentor sat me down and shared that there is never a better time to balance life first and then focus on a career. Instead, she told me that I should actually focus on building a support system that would help me to manage both. She gently reminded me not to feel guilty when the equation goes unbalanced (as it’s bound to do sometimes) and that it’s completely okay not to be perfect. I used to be the woman who would wait—for permission to take on more or for someone else to tell me that I belonged at the table. But if it wasn’t for these incredible mentors that believed in me and told me to stop holding myself to impossible standards I have created for myself, I truly wouldn’t be here today.
- I have had the honor of having multiple mentors during my career, both male and female. I will never forget one who pushed me hard to stretch my thinking to grow and develop my skills in an area that didn’t come naturally to me. She quoted Ben Franklin — "opportunity is often missed because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like work.” She went on to remind me that you must be willing to walk through an open door and make sacrifices and be flexible to make an impact. Mentors provide an unbiased view and can often challenge you to grow and develop in new ways such as influencing new ideas, help build resiliency during change, focus on reflection, remind you of personal health, the list goes on and on.
- Mentors are invaluable and critical to navigating the work world. My mentors have been great at helping me put things in perspective while learning to think more like a leader. I also believe that less formal relationships are great for filling in the gaps needed to navigate the daily challenges of the workplace while stitching together a path forward. Everyone has something to offer!
- My mentor, Ena Harrison, was my first boss out of college. She’s grown with me through my career transitions while tackling personal growth, personal relationships, finances, and lifestyle changes. From the beginning, she groomed me as a professional with our tough leadership conversations but always added in the empathetic leadership that reminded she wanted me to succeed. My leadership is forever influenced by her. Overall, I believe in mentoring moments from new uncomfortable challenges and environments. That's why it's important for everyone to have mentors above us (that guide us), mentors beside us (that share the journey with us at the same stage in our professional growth), and mentors below us (people we can teach + train).
- Mentorship is extremely valuable. Mentors teach from real-life experiences on how to succeed, how to navigate challenges, and evaluate opportunities; Mentors help you think differently. Once a mentee experiences growth from that mentor-mentee relationship, there is a paying-it-forward mindset that creates a multiplier effect. Today, I'm able to mentor women in my organization, and I've already seen how these strong and confident women are becoming mentors to others. I had female role models I've admired in my life, but I didn't have any female mentors. While I regret not reaching out to women for mentorship, I did have some influential male mentors in my career who have been very supportive of women in the workplace. It is because of these male mentors that I see gender equality initiatives as an inclusive endeavor where men want to be part of the solution.
We're humbled by this thoughtful, strong group of women. YML plans to host our event celebrating and recognizing women in leadership as soon as there's renewed safety within our communities. We hope that day will be soon!
Reach out to YML with any questions or feedback.
More background on the panelists:
Vijayasri (Vijay) Yerraguntla is an Enterprise Technology Executive for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Companies. Her executive role includes leading strategic direction for all of State Farm Digital experience products, including statefarm.com, State Farm Mobile app, emerging digital capabilities and user experience center of excellence. She collaborates closely with the business unit leaders to evolve their strategies through digital competencies. Vijay serves as a customer advocate, partnering with other leaders across the enterprise to transform the customer experience and promote a consistent experience for customers.
Sherry Graziano leads Truist Mortgage Omni Experience and Relationship Deepening. She will be responsible for driving client-centric strategy, client experience, and client deepening initiatives. Sherry joined SunTrust in 2011, and brings a unique combination of sales, operations, and technology experience to help us deliver a differentiated and exemplary mortgage client experience.
Anne Billmeyer is a Director of Product Insights for Warner Media News and Sports. She leads the NBA Digital insights team on their quest to explore how the suite of NBA digital products are used and how those experiences impact the business. She has spent a fair amount of her career in traditionally male lead fields (sports and production homebuilding) where the power of representation really matters.
Umama Kibria is passionate about connecting people through fitness. She's been recognized on the Forbes 30 Under 30 List and fitness influencer of the year after working out at over 400 gyms and connecting with over 100k people on social media. Now she's leveraging technology to help people be active and stay accountable.
Marcela Lay is the co-head of YML's Atlanta office, and she shoulders leadership roles across account management, strategy, and people operations. As a strategic customer experience executive with over 18 years of experience, Marcela has worked with Fortune 500 clients like Lowe’s, Delta Air Lines, The Coca-Cola Company, State Farm, and Fresenius Medical Care. Marcela’s experience allows her to bring a holistic understanding of all aspects of digital, including marketing strategy, experience design, and platform development. Throughout her career as a trusted advisor to her clients, combined with a solid background in customer experience strategy and process optimization, Marcela has led cross-disciplinary teams to deliver a range of transformational customer experience solutions.