I learned how to dress for success as a young girl, and later became determined to change it as a fashion entrepreneur. We all know that the way we dress and how we look sends an important message. But unless we expand the notion of what power dressing looks like, a lot of people are going to be left behind. Here’s how I learned to embrace being a girl, without letting it hold me back.
"I learned how to dress for success
as a young girl, and later became determined
to change it as a fashion entrepreneur."
I got my first fashion lesson early on in a strange place - on the mat at my Kung Fu school. I was passionate (obsessed) about Kung Fu and was willing to do anything to succeed. Early in my training, I got a big opportunity to attend a class taught by my idol, Ms. Munayer. I showed up ready to kill it...with my hair up in a flower scrunchy (this was the 90’s and I was 13 years old). I pushed myself as hard as I could on the mat, kicking and punching with all my intensity. I felt like a warrior and knew I had shown who I really was. Afterwards, Ms. Munayer approached me, all swagger and focus. To my surprise, she pulled me aside and hissed privately, “Carson, you’re a blue belt now, lose the flower!” I was crestfallen, and wanted to disappear. I was so embarrassed by my girly hair decoration, which had clearly undermined my strong performance in class. She was trying to help me by showing what it would take to succeed, and I’m grateful for that: in a field where I needed to gain respect, my femininity was a liability.
"I felt like a warrior"
There was no way I would let my being a girl undermine my success in the field I loved so much. That day, I put away the cute scrunchies for good. I showed them how serious I was by behaving and appearing as traditionally masculine as possible. Over my martial arts career, I hid every aspect of femininity in order to gain respect. It worked. I ended up a national and international Kung fu champion many times over, gaining that respect and success in the field I loved.
"When women are the bosses,
then their appearance and
voice have the authority."
I brought that same hard core approach to my investment banking career, trying to become one of the guys. It was disappointing to realize as an adult that no buzz cut or tough-guy strut would protect me from the overarching societal challenges women face, and I wasn’t helping myself or anyone else by conforming to the status quo of leadership. At work, the leaders were mostly white men in suits, and a lot of them were really nice, but it was impossible not to equate leadership with a certain gender, race, and nationality. And I could never be that.
Now that I have the chance to lead my company my own way, I get to create a new face of leadership and redefine power dressing. When women are the bosses, then their appearance and voice have the authority. At Leota, the boss has the voice of a kindergartener, tattoos, and a penchant for red lipstick and polkadots. At Leota, femininity doesn’t equal weak or submissive. My business is filled with female leaders calling the shots, and the men are listening too. It turns out there is a way to be feminine and be taken seriously.
"Today, my toughness is beyond reproach
- flower scrunchies included.
That’s power dressing on my own terms."
Here’s the problem though - the World Economic Forum estimates that it’s going to take the United States 208 years to achieve gender-based equality. That means no one alive right now, not even their future grandkids, will live to see equality happen. I don’t know about you, but I am not willing to wait that long!
That’s why, for Women’s Equality Day, Leota’s Times Square billboard takeover message suggests the beautifully incongruous aspects of a strong woman, and includes a call to action to accelerate the pace of progress:
Check out #Equalitycantwait for some little things we can each do to make a difference. At Leota, we’re donating to causes that improve the status of women and we’re using our voices and platform to raise awareness.
Will you join me? Join in @leotanewyork