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It’s Her Industry, Too.

Jan Muhleman
President
March 24, 2021
March 24, 2021

It’s 1990. Cheryl Sandberg’s seminal book on women’s leadership in business, Lean In (leanin.org), won’t be published for another 23 years. I have recently sold the $85 million company I co-founded to a larger agency and have joined their board as the first and only woman. On break, the Chairman, the head of account service and I continue to discuss a point raised in the meeting. Both being well over 6 ft. tall, they are literally talking over my head, oblivious to my efforts to participate in the discussion. It is my introduction to the culture I had just joined.

Months later the board is discussing an important decision. I am puzzled because important information is not included in the presentation. When the Chairman calls for questions, I repeatedly raise my hand, probing for the missing information I feel is relevant to our decision. On break, a fellow board member pulls me aside and gently but firmly informs me that when the Chairman asks if there are any questions, he really doesn’t want any more questions. It is my introduction to how decisions were made outside of the board room.

Having co-founded my own design and marketing agency right out of grad school 15 years earlier, and then taken over leadership when my partner left, I had the freedom to make decisions that made good sense to me, such as having an on-site daycare for our staff and an inclusive, open-book approach to management. We were regularly featured as one of the best places to work by Working Women’s magazine and even were visited by the head of the Department of Labor. What I didn’t realize until I sold was how unique our culture really was.

My experiences and the issues I faced running a business, however, were not unique. In the mid-80’s, I joined two executive organizations, the Committee of 200 (C200) and Young President’s Organization (YPO). While YPO was predominantly male at the time (I was the first woman in the Michigan Chapter), I learned that other CEOs experienced similar business challenges to my own. I am still a member and value the support a peer organization can provide. YPO (ypo.org) has made a concerted effort to recruit women and now has thousands in their Women’s Network.

C200 (c200.org) was and still is a premier women’s executive organization, dedicated to the advancement of women executives. Stories shared at our annual meetings were of pioneers breaking through and being successful in a predominantly male world. Like the story of a woman who took over leading an industrial family business on the unexpected death of her husband and didn’t tell their customers until a year later that he had died when she could point to uninterrupted service. Or, similar to my own experience, a woman who followed her fellow board members into the men’s room so she would not be left out of a conversation that was occurring on break.

The good news is that we have made great strides in recognizing that women bring not only comparable but often exceptional abilities to running a company. From Mary Barra at GM to Patti Poppe who recently left Consumers Energy to take on the challenged PG&E, women are being considered and elevated to significant positions of leadership. But, there is still a long way to go for equity. Organizations such as Paradigm for Parity (paradigm4parity.com)  founded by three C200 members, actively recruits corporations to commit to achievement of gender and diversity parity by 2030. Their website graphic clearly states the problem and the opportunity.

Women represented in companies infographic

Our own industry is woefully behind, both in gender equity and diversity. While women perform key roles in agencies, only 12% (in 2018) are Creative Directors and a huge pay gap exists.1 The stereotypes of the Mad Men era linger despite the fact that 85% of today’s consumer purchase decisions are made by women.2

It is no wonder that women turn to starting their own businesses. Over 12 million or 40% of US businesses today are women-owned, generating $1.8 trillion in revenue. Last year, 64% of new women-owned businesses were started by women of color last year.3

When the agency that acquired my company was sold to a large, publicly traded agency and our people and accounts resigned, I was totally geeked to create something new with what was left. I chose to align our team and clients with a company I always admired, whose culture I felt was a close fit to our own. I did not anticipate that they would have their own power struggles. After several years of battling internal take-over attempts, the company was sold to another large agency holding company. It created the opportunity to buy our office back, hence REGROUP.

It is now 20 years since REGROUP was born. I am proud of the team members we have, several of whom have been on the journey together for longer than that. We are well balanced in terms of gender and have a goal to continue to improve our diversity. We are committed to a culture of kindness and respect and to growing the next generation of leaders in our industry, both men and women.

On a personal note, it is my hope that my three granddaughters have no barriers to excelling at whatever they choose to do in life. It is also wouldn’t hurt if they grow to be as tall as their 6-foot-plus parents so they can look the men in their professional lives eye-to-eye.

1(https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/apr/14/sexism-in-advertising-industry-gender-pay-gap-diversity

2(https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/02/business/media/for-women-in-advertising-its-still-a-mad-men-world.html)

3(https://www.fundera.com/resources/women-owned-business-statistics)