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What do EBONY media, INTREN utilities and Genesys Cloud Services have in common? For three companies serving different markets with different missions, the answer isn’t obvious.
But when Eden Bridgeman Sklenar, Sherina Maye Edwards and Elcenora Martinez — all executives at these companies — met for the first time to discuss their views on #breakingthebias, it was like they shared the same corner office. Their passion for diversity, equity and inclusion made the Zoom room glow in our Genesys fireside chat commemorating Women’s History Month.
Climbing the corporate ladder, Elcenora, Eden and Sherina have cultivated ways to break ceilings, bust biases and blaze trails for women and under-represented groups globally. Their stories will inspire you and their wisdom will help you build your leadership.
To navigate biases in male-dominated industries, all three executives point to personal accountability. Eden’s advice is to start by looking inward.
“It’s easy to point fingers at other people’s unconscious biases without taking a step back to unpack your own first,” said Eden Bridgeman Sklenar, Owner of EBONY and JET media and CMO of Manna, Inc. She intentionally educates herself about unconscious bias and regularly puts her learnings into practice. Then she prioritizes teaching others so they can feel more prepared for their journey ahead.
Sherina also embraces a personal mandate to help others be successful. “I always try to remember something my parents taught me — that you have to reach back.” said Sherina, President and CEO of INTREN, a US energy infrastructure company. “I have a bloody forehead because I’m constantly hitting a glass ceiling trying to overcome obstacles and break barriers so those behind me don’t have to. But fatigue is no excuse to skip sending the elevator down and pulling it back up to bring people with me.”
Equally important, you can’t miss your own elevator ride. “Recognize when sponsors and mentors are sending the elevator for you. It’s your moment to jump on and believe in yourself.” said Elcenora, SVP of Product Marketing at Genesys. “Remember that your sponsors and mentors believe in you so deeply and so strongly. They will be your champions until you believe in yourself.”
Elcenora shares this advice from having a strong mentor who recognized her potential and kept challenging her early in her career. She experienced what it means to have someone lift you up. “These are moments that can make a difference in your own journey. I will continue working the rest of my career to pay that forward,” she said.
The three leaders also bonded over breaking social norms and the so-called balancing act of career and family. As a working mother, Sherina believes you can absolutely have it all — just not in the same moment. She gave up on the concept of balance a long time ago and shares this pearl of wisdom: Trying to balance being a CEO and a CFO (Chief Family Officer) is always a tipping scale. It’s impossible to give all of yourself to more than one thing simultaneously, so whatever has her focus in the moment gets her full attention.
“If I’m being 100% mommy, I’m likely not being the best CEO — but at that moment I needed to be the best mommy. Juggling career and family isn’t about balance. It’s about integration,” she said.
Elcenora has also wisely found forgiveness rooted in the successful integration of career and family. She remembers being on maternity leave with her firstborn and watching an episode of Oprah where her main takeaway was that stay-at-home moms wished they’d continued working — and working moms wished they’d spent more time with their kids. It was a defining moment. She decided to forgive herself for whatever decisions were to come later, which included a big career opportunity that would cut her family leave short if she accepted. With no regrets, she declined the promotion to bond with her baby instead.
Eden looks in the mirror and sees a completely different person than who she was two years ago. She became a new mom during the pandemic and had to learn how to manage being an executive for multiple companies while working from home with a newborn. She decided to own her journey. “Part of breaking societal norms is defining what works for my household, which may not be what works for someone else’s. And in that, I needed to give myself grace, lean into my support system and recognize that I can’t do it all myself,” she said.
Speaking of not doing it alone, Sherina attributes her greatest professional milestones to sponsorship. Both Sherina and Eden noted women will often collect mentors but forget or misunderstand the value of a sponsor.
Sherina clarifies the roles of coaches, mentors and sponsors brilliantly: “Coaches speak with you — that person you bounce ideas off. Mentors speak to you — they provide guidance and advice. Sponsors speak about you when you don’t have the power, influence or availability to speak about yourself.”
As a mentor to many, Elcenora points out that mentorship is a two-way street; she learns so much from these relationships. She also encourages getting involved in peer-to-peer coaching communities to speak with others who are unbiased but understanding of your professional challenges.
Sherina’s mantra is that your network is your net worth. A strong network that spans industries, age and experiences builds bridges and shines a light on new opportunities to grow. And she’s admirably committed to staying connected. Amidst a mountain of responsibilities as an active member of many state committees, boards, President, CEO and mother, Sherina carves out at least four hours a month to send handwritten notes to those in her network. The message could be as simple as: “I haven’t spoken to you in a while. I’m here if you need me. I’m thinking of you and hope all is well.” Putting a stamp on it and sending it in the mail maintains a unique connection.
With another Women’s History Month in the books, we look back to celebrate progress and look forward to step into the future. Breaking biases and busting ceilings shouldn’t only happen in the month of March. Every day, we need to be an advocate for others and ourselves, build our network, and define our balance.
All three women agree on this call to action: Assemble your army of sponsors and sponsor others. “I don’t blaze the trail alone. I need to rely on a community to help me be all I can be in each season of my life,” noted Eden. And with a career full of firsts, Sherina defines her success by how she helps the next. “If I were the first and the last, that would be a failure on my part. My job is to help the second, the third, the ninth and the 10th. My job is to make sure I’m not the last.”
“Your responsibility as a leader is to create more leaders,” added Elcenora.
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