The year 2020 has served up a whirlwind of changes—both here in the U.S. and globally. Businesses have taken hits, and they’ve needed to adapt and transform. Small businesses, in particular, have experienced extreme pressures over the recent months.

In honor of October being National Women’s Small Business Month, ASUG Women Connect hosted a virtual panel to discuss how these recent changes have affected women in the workforce and, more importantly, how women are staying on the path toward growth and success.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, the U.S. was seeing a 4% increase year-over-year of women-owned small businesses. According to the National Association of Women Business Owners, there are 11.6 million women-owned businesses that generate $1.7 trillion in sales and employ nearly 9 million people in the U.S. This number becomes even more impressive when you consider that there were only 402,000 women-owned businesses in 1972.

The panel of speakers—Allison Boutilier, program management (SAP and strategic efficiency) at Marine Atlantic; Laurie McCabe, cofounder and partner at SMB Group; and Lori Palmer, president and owner of REB Storage Systems International—discussed how to focus on your strengths, advocate for yourself and other women, ask for what you want, and more. Here are three key takeaways from that lively conversation.

1. Contributors to Transformation Are Inclusive

Many organizations—both large and small—are accelerating digital transformations in response to COVID-19. For small businesses, however, the stakes are higher. That’s because resources are scarce, and for some, the digital maturity just isn’t there. “A lot of these companies are looking to cut right to the chase and understand how this technology can help solve their problems right now,” McCabe said.

It’s not just about technology, however. It’s about knowing you play a role in that transformation, as do the people around you, and that everyone has something to contribute. Boutilier added, “When I moved from a large corporation to a smaller organization, two things happened. First, I felt more connected to the bottom line of what was happening within our company. And second, I felt I had I had a smaller pond to navigate, which means I have access to people in influential roles and key positions.”

Palmer talked about having done just that—she navigated her way through the company she works at to now sit on top as president. “Three of my mentors were men who taught me the business,” she recalled. “As I grew, I was able to bring other women into the business and my goal was to help them grow into executive positions.” When she started out at the company, she was one of two women at the organization. Today, all except for two of her VPs are women. “I’ve watched them come in and grow and learn the business internally. And in a small business environment, it gives you that opportunity to basically touch all areas of the company so that it enhances your growth and knowledge of the business.”

2. There Is No One-Size-Fits-All for Women in Business

As with anything else in life, there isn’t a prescribed way in which women can contribute to a business, or one way in which they should be expected to, either. Boutilier noted, “What I’ve learned is that women in business means something different to every business.” She explained how her company has recently adopted a corporate strategy of diversity and inclusion, but that she takes it upon herself to have influence, even without authority, in making sure that everybody feels supported and knows what they're good at. “We can all foster that kind of culture amongst the team,” she said.

McCabe described a different type of work environment where she interacts with external contractors, both men and women. She noted, however, the importance of not only working with women, but also in diversifying that pool of external contractors. “We not only work with women, but minority groups as well,” she said. “There is strength in diversity, especially in the tech industry.”

It’s not just about having diverse representation that adds to the bottom line for an organization. It’s about recognizing how that diversity plays a role and what each person can contribute toward a shared goal. It’s about allowing everyone the opportunity to step into roles that perhaps traditionally have not been ones they’d even consider going for. “As I grow in my career and as I get older,” Palmer said, “my job is to mentor and give back to the industry and to other women. I love to encourage women and watch them succeed.” Boutilier added, “It’s important to help our male peers and colleagues understand what kind of challenges we have, and that we can overcome those challenges and still get the job done.”

3. Women, Speak UpThe Floor Is Yours

One of the most enlightening things I have heard this year is that we need to stop telling young women to find their voice, but rather to use it. Boutilier talked about the basics of being prepared and being assertive. “Humility is something that you need to find the right balance of in the workplace, especially as a woman,” she said. “I may have sacrificed too much for the sake of humility.” She added, “It's okay for us to take a step back and say, ‘I do have something to say.’” She reminded the audience that they have to ask for what they want, whether it's that promotion or to be recognized for their contributions. One great piece of advice she offered the women in attendance is to seek mentorship from women and from men as well. “I found that it has really been rewarding.”

Palmer agreed and cautioned, “You can’t just sit back. You have to always go for it.” She recalled being a young lady in a room full of men and using that as encouragement. “You have to speak up,” she said. “People around you are going to help you and they're going to encourage you if they see that you are going for It. You can’t wait for someone to come and bring you along."

When asked what we can all do to move the needle forward, Palmer reminded the audience to wake up each morning with a goal, to be kind, and to be encouraging. Boutilier agreed and said, “foster the kind of environment you want to work in.”

Register for the next ASUG Women Connect Think Tank, “Soft Skills Needed to See Your Teams and Projects Through," on Nov. 19, at 3 p.m. ET/2 p.m. CT.

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