Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Some say it’s intimidating to be the only woman in the room, and as someone who has been the only woman in the room on many occasions, I can empathize. However, I want you to remember one thing the next time you’re the only woman in the room: The only reason you’re in that room is because you have earned the right to be there. Your skill, experience, expertise, reputation or ideas secured that invite.
That said, I know human emotion, self-doubt and a fear of the unknown are very real. I also appreciate that you can walk into a room completely sure of yourself and, out of the blue, be shaken by someone else’s words or actions. So, how do you manage inherent worries about your ability to be heard and respected as the only woman in the room? How do you prove to others that you deserve to be there — and that you deserve their respect, investment or support?
In my experience, if you “practice and prepare” ahead of every meeting, pitch or presentation, then it becomes easy (or at least easier) to communicate with confidence.
Related: 10 Rules for Success as a Woman
Learn from mistakes
Early in my career, I was less confident speaking up in meetings for fear that my ideas or thoughts would be perceived as irrelevant or immature. I would not contribute unless I really knew my thought would be well-received. But after working closely with men for a bit, I noticed they would often say the first thing that came to their minds, even if the idea wasn’t completely “perfect” or thought through at all. I also realized that if their thought was disorganized, it was quickly forgotten by the group. Notably, the men didn’t sit and wallow about it. They moved on immediately, typically by sharing more ideas.
The more I observed their behavior and attitudes, the more comfortable I felt following suit. Little by little, I would contribute more, and sometimes my ideas were shot down immediately. At first, I felt embarrassed, and I would certainly dwell far too much on the “failure.” But the more I put myself out there, the more comfortable and confident I got with speaking my mind, which, in turn, built up the confidence my male and female co-workers had in me. They saw me as a contributor and would proactively ask for my feedback. It suddenly became clear that trust is built and respect is earned when you demonstrate that you are knowledgeable on a subject and authentic in your approach.
You must also have a focus on the other person, whether they’re a colleague, customer, partner or other business contact. There is a simple saying: “No one likes to feel like they are being sold to.” This is something that has always stuck with me, as it’s applicable whether you’re an entrepreneur, a sales professional for a larger company or simply trying to get the other person to buy in to your idea.
When I pitch our product portfolio to a customer, I speak in terms of their challenges and how the solution I am pitching was built in direct response to the challenges we have seen customers like them have. Yes, I speak to why we have been successful in selling this solution to others. But I don’t boast about the fact that we are leaders in the enterprise and that we serve the largest customers in the world. People don’t care about how great you think you are. They care about how you can help them, whether they are trying to gain a competitive advantage for their small business or Fortune 500 company. Once you’ve demonstrated that you know your stuff and that you care about helping them, they will give you the opportunity to prove it.
Do as I say — and what you say you will do
You can practice and prepare all day long for a pitch, presentation or meeting, but if you don’t follow through on what you say you can or will do, then those words you practiced lose value. Actions always speak louder than words — or at least validate that you can be taken at your word. Don’t make a promise you can’t keep. And if you pitch an idea that is quickly embraced, speak up if you will need help executing it. It’s okay to just be the “brains” behind the plan and not the one steering the ship to its final destination.
Because I have not always been the most vocal person in the room, I have had to take my own advice often (that’s why I know it’s good advice). I may sit quietly through meeting after meeting, feeling like a fly on the wall. But once I understand the task at hand and how I can contribute, I walk out of that room and make a lot of noise with my results. I make things happen. So, if you want to know how to be “seen” as the only woman in the room or get others to buy into what you’re selling, show them you are capable of being the person they need you to be — the person who delivers on what they want or what you’ve convinced them they need.
Building the connections needed to be invited into the room
I’ve heard people say that all entrepreneurship is “social entrepreneurship,” which makes sense, considering you have to connect with people to succeed. But if it’s not in your nature to be overly social, or you are just a more reserved person like I am, then you may find value in having allies, mentors and buddies like I do. I don’t set out to find them, but when I connect with someone who makes me feel comfortable, safe or confident, I make an effort to build a relationship. I also appreciate when people challenge me. In fact, many of the ways I’ve made connections throughout my career is by taking on stretch projects or new job roles within the company, whether proactively or because an ally or buddy presented the opportunity to me.
I have held six different roles in my 15 years at Zebra, from product management to product marketing, to vertical marketing and now regional product management. With each move, I met new people, worked for new managers, and as a result, I made allies, buddies and a pseudo mentor. (We never made it official, but I always thought of him as a mentor). Having allies from other departments always made each new role easier and made me more valuable to the new group, because I had connections within other departments.
Now, if you’re venturing out on your own as an entrepreneur and don’t yet have a strong business network, you may not see the parallels between my experience and yours. You don’t have a “built-in” set of resources to tap into. Or do you?
What about friends, family and neighbors? And their friends, family and neighbors? Just because you don’t have a formal business relationship with them today doesn’t mean they can’t support your business. Plus, they already know you, so it will be easier to earn their trust in this context if you don’t already have it. There are also several community resources available to you, including SCORE, an organization that can help you find a volunteer mentor (or 10).
So, my advice is to find allies wherever you can, and find ways to work with more people. You do not make allies just by going to a networking lunch. You make allies by working with others and showing them that you’re not just well-polished talk.
Take heart knowing that action speaks louder than words — and gender. Being the only woman in the room is a privilege, and we should treat it as such if we are so lucky as to have the honor. So, have the courage to speak up when you have something to contribute to the discussion, and don’t be afraid to just sit, listen and learn. That can be just as powerful when you’re trying to earn others’ trust and prove you can be a powerful business partner, advisor or ally. Others will appreciate that you truly heard them and understand what they want and need, and they will be grateful when you deliver exactly what they asked for as a result.