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Advice from the Strong Women Who Came Before Me

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us remember to listen to the voices of our great-grandmothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, mothers, and all the women who came before us. They have spoken up, challenged expectations, and have been on the frontlines of change.

The bravest thing you can do is to have the courage to take charge of your life. Be fearless in face of barriers and limitations....

As I reflect on turning a “certain age,” I see a life and career that has been filled with love, compassion, brave leaps, challenges, determination, role models, and encouragement from those who believed in me and lifted me up. As a businesswoman, I am grateful to the generations of women before me who broke down barriers, spoke up courageously when denied access, and who fought for equity in the business world. I recognize their role in my success and the importance of paving the way for the next generation of female leaders.

While the demands and challenges women face today may differ from the ones our great grandmothers, grandmothers, and our mothers faced, we are all in pursuit of our dreams, discovery, and fulfillment. I have been inspired by my ancestry line of wise, smart, courageous, and strong women. I often wondered if I could sit down with them, at the kitchen table, what wisdom and advice they might share.

When I closed my eyes to imagine such a gathering, I see my Nona. She is sipping her demitasse coffee. Her wig is held in place by a hairnet. She is wearing a black dress, stockings with orthopedic-style shoes, and has a serious stern look on her face. She has a quiet, yet commanding presence who is clearly a woman in charge. An immigrant from Italy, newly married, Nona could barely speak English and lacked formal education. Yet, she had the courage to step off the boat with a dream in hand and set off with my great grandfather to build a new life in Brooklyn, NY.

Times were tough after my great grandfather was injured in a subway cave in and he was unable to work. At a time in history when women were assumed to take a subordinate role in family matters, Nona began to figure out how to buy and rent properties. This was not always possible for women, never mind one who barely spoke English. But the Married Women’s Property Act of 1848 carved out a place for married women like Nona to own and control the property. She was a fearless and tenacious businesswoman who supported her family. I imagine the advice she would offer me, “The bravest thing you can do, is to have the courage to take charge of your life. Be fearless in face of barriers and limitations.” The gift she passed on to me was her guts and vision.

My great Aunt Anna would be also sitting at the table adding in her wise-cracking two cents to the conversation. Aunt Anna was a short Italian woman, probably no more than 5’ tall, all chest, teased red hair, and a mouth that would make a truck driver blush. She never, I mean never, held back to tell you exactly what was on her mind.

Aunt Anna had unyielding strength and wit that carried her through life struggles. She didn’t seek anyone’s approval, had a crass sense of humor, and always persevered in face of life’s challenges. She was all grit. My Aunt Anna’s advice would remind me that having a sense of humor can make life a little easier.  She would say, “don’t take the criticisms to heart, if you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself,” and then she would most certainly tell the critics to bleep off.

My grandmother was the ultimate connector. In this scene, she would be at the stove preparing an amazing Italian meal.  I can smell the sauce simmering on the stove now, the basil, tomato, oregano, garlic, and the mouthwatering flavors filling the room. As she cooked, she would be talking a mile a minute, jumping from one topic to the next, telling us who she met, who she could help, who she ran into. She was a master networker.  I am certain she passed the gift of creating a connection on to me.

She was a natural saleswoman who could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge and you would be happy to own it. She was someone who was easy to speak to and you could make an instant connection with. She was warm, caring, and generous. When she and my grandfather retired to Florida, I don’t imagine this move was easy for her because she was leaving behind her friends and family – her ‘network’ – her ‘people’.  But within weeks, her kitchen became the hub spot in Miramar Florida where family and friends gathered.

I am sure the advice she would share, “always remember that people are connected everything we do. Every decision, every interaction. Relationships matter, so take care of them.”  She wrote thank you cards, remembered every birthday, every anniversary, any ‘firsts’ – you could always expect to get a phone call or a card. 

And of course, my mother is at the table too. Fashionably dressed, always looking younger than her age, incredibly organized, she would be capturing the details, taking notes, and making lists to ensure nothing would be missed.

My mother has been my role model both in business and in life. She has taught me to be independent and to take initiative.  As a female stockbroker in the 1970’s, she faced many obstacles in the workplace.  While she started her career as a secretary, she quickly looked past being stuck in a stereotypical role.  Determined to advance her career, she took the necessary tests and became a stockbroker. She was the ‘only’ for years and participated in a class-action suit gender discrimination suit fighting for equal treatment and pay for women.  She not only thrived in her career but help break down barriers so other women could follow.

When I thought women had to choose between family and career, she showed me how to do both. Like so many women, especially in the 70’s, she felt the pressure to do it all – trying to live up to impossible expectations to be a perfect mother, wife, homemaker, and businesswoman — all effortlessly of course. Her advice, “remember you are good enough… follow your instincts, don’t try to do it all, simply trust and believe in who you are!

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us remember to listen to the voices of our great-grandmothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, mothers, and all the women who came before us. They are our sources of courage, wisdom, and resilience. They have spoken up, challenged expectations, and have been on the frontlines of change.

Meet The Author: Lisa Bergeron

An accomplished business leader, Lisa Bergeron is AWE’s Co-Creator and Chief Visionary Officer (CVO).  Lisa brings a unique blend of strategic vision, business savvy, forward-thinking and depth  of experience to steer AWE’s course into the future. An architect of relationships and connections, Lisa is a catalyst, progressive, and innovative thinker who creates pathways to explore, expand, and thrive in a rapidly changing business environment.

Lisa leads AWE’s vision for driving outstanding results and revolutionary strategies to expand AWE’s value, impact and mission for humanizing the new future of work.  Understanding the disruption and reset happening in business, Lisa leads with curiosity, optimism and brings her creative thought-leadership to help uncover business needs, translate critical trends and help others to envision solutions for growth, transformation, people development and thriving in the next-normal.

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