Walk Through That Doorway of Opportunity…But Be Sure to Reach Back

Keynote Address to the
Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute
Portland, ME
December 8, 2016

Karen G. Mills
Senior Fellow, Harvard Business School and Former Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration

Thank you very much, Olympia, for that kind introduction. I am honored to be here, among so many of Maine’s most accomplished leaders like Mary Herman – the former first lady of the State of Maine – and Katy Longley – who is now the Chief Financial Officer at Jackson Labs – all of whom Olympia has gathered to support this important work.

And I am delighted to be here with our future leaders. As Olympia said, I worked for President Obama and was a member of the White House Economic Team and part of his Cabinet for five years, and was responsible for all of America’s small businesses. This was at the same time that Olympia – or should I say Senator Snowe – was the senior senator from Maine and the head of small business for the Republicans in congress – among other things. So she was pretty important to the country, to me, and also to the President.

I’ll tell you how I know this. One day I was in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing. When you watch all these TV shows, there is always a scene in a conference room with the President. That is usually the Roosevelt Room.

I was talking with the White House staff about a really important economic effort where the key to making it happen was getting the support of none other than Maine senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. And the President came in and he listened. He knew I was from Maine so he said “Oh I see– the future of all this rests with the ladies from Maine. That is who is important.” Everyone laughed but it was true and pretty remarkable that the people of this small state have such a big impact in places like the White House and all over the world. And he did not just say the people from Maine, he said the women from Maine – because of Olympia and a tradition behind her – including Margaret Chase Smith, who was a U.S. senator from Maine in 1949! What I didn’t tell the President — because I hadn’t met all of you– is just wait until you meet the next generation of women from Maine, Olympia’s Leaders.

I am not officially a Mainer. I came here 15 years ago when Barry, my husband, became president of Bowdoin College. It was a big change but once the greatest decisions we ever made. Before we came here, I was a venture capitalist in NYC for almost 20 years. What is a venture capitalist? Venture capitalists buy and invest in companies run by entrepreneurs – small businesses that have the chance to grow big. Let me tell you about one.

Who has heard of Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese? Well, we bought that business when it was just 8 people and Annie (and Bernie the Bunny). Let me tell you about Annie. She was an organic farmer before she started Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese. In fact, she never really wanted to be an entrepreneur – she just really believed in good, organic food. So she founded the company, designed the purple box, put a message on it from Bernie the bunny, and answered every letter to Bernie herself – and macaroni and cheese started flying off the shelf. In fact, after we bought the company, it grew to over $100 million in sales. But despite its success, after a while she went back to being an organic farmer.

And there is a lesson in there, which I think aligns with the one of the lessons that you are all learning here – and that is about values. One of the secrets of life is figuring out early on who you are and who you want to be. What are your values, and what are your passions? Because life will throw a lot of things at you – both opportunities and challenges – but what separates successful people is that they understand, at every turn, what their values are.

As some of the older people in the room can tell you, there will be many transitions in life – most of which you will never be able to see coming – but if you are confident in your values and what you think is important – you will stay level-headed. I call it being balanced on your own two feet.

In addition to Annie, I have had the opportunity to interact with a number of women entrepreneurs. My work – both in venture capital and during my time at the Small Business Administration – has been focused on giving these women entrepreneurs the opportunities to be all that they can be. And many of them have become incredibly successful. It turns out that women are really good at building businesses. Just listen to this: In just the last 9 years, the number of women-owned businesses in America increased by 45%. Employment in women-owned businesses has increased by 18% since the recession, while among all businesses employment has declined 1% since 2007. So it is the women who are starting businesses, growing businesses, creating jobs, and driving innovation and growth in our country. I have met many of these women, in Maine and across the country. And looking at all of you, I know that there are more women like this sitting around this room today.

But here is the problem. Despite the fact that women are successful business owners, they are less likely to get a loan. Despite the fact that women-owned businesses are growing fast, the top decision-makers in the venture capital world are still 94% male, women make up only 4.2 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs, and only 16 percent of the boards of directors of publicly-traded companies. And only 1 in 5 members of Congress are women.

This is true, even though we have data that shows that more diverse leadership of corporations and their boards creates better performance and that women legislators are often more effective than men when it comes to getting legislation passed. So how do we fix this? Well, it is tough and complicated, but I think it starts with women lifting one another up.

As all of you know, girls can sometimes be mean. And oftentimes, women feel like there are not enough positions for all of us, and we compete against one another rather than lifting each other up. But one of my favorite people, Michelle Obama, summed up well how we ought to treat one another. She said, “When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back.”

So, you are young, but how can you start lifting other women up right now? Well, there are many ways. To start, you can find the other girls in your schools who couldn’t be part of this program. Or find the girls who are left out and left behind – who are bullied, who are struggling in school, or who you know are having family or financial issues at home. You can find the girls who are younger than you and haven’t yet developed the confidence or the skills that you have. In all of these cases, you can be a friend, a mentor, or a teacher – helping them get the skills that you all are learning here. That is what true leadership is all about. You can make change right now – just because you’re young does not mean you have to wait.

Now, I have been inspired talking to so many of our young leaders here. So I want you ask you a question – how many of you think you might want to become a doctor, or a lawyer, or a CEO, or maybe run for elected office? – raise your hands. That’s wonderful, because it shows me the progress that we have made.

As you might have guessed, I’m a little older than all of you. So when I was seven – back in the dark ages before the internet – I would read a lot of books. And my favorite book was called “Cherry Ames, Flight Nurse.” It was the perfect story of a smart, adventurous young nurse who solved mysteries and helped wounded soldiers during World War ll. And for an ambitious young girl growing up in the late 1950s, this caring, curious nurse was an acceptable role model. After all, girls weren’t expected to be doctors or pilots or CEOs or Members of Congress or members of the President’s cabinet.

But, over the years, women have become those things and more, including important roles such as president of Harvard University. They’ve gone into space and are running Fortune 500 companies and powerful nations like the United Kingdom and Germany and maybe someday soon the United States – maybe Olympia will run for President. In my own career, I have bought and grown businesses as a venture capitalist, served as a director of public companies, and had the great honor of serving in the Cabinet of the first African-American President, Barack Obama.

So all of this is to say that while we still have a ways to go, we have come a long way. You are standing on the shoulders of giants – of people like Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Sheryl Sandberg, and of course, Olympia Snowe. And we will watch you climb even higher.

I know that in today’s world, it may sometimes feel like you can’t do it – that no matter how prepared or hard working you are, the obstacles are so much higher for you as a woman. Sometimes that is going to be true, but what is also true is that you are developing the skills to overcome those challenges.

I can also promise you this – as a woman who has been in these positions – your hard work matters, your preparedness matters, your values, your voice, and your vision matter. Because no matter how difficult the obstacles or how daunting the challenges, armed with these qualities, you will succeed.
So never give up. You are young, talented, and passionate women who are the future of this country. You are our next generation of leaders. I am so proud of all of you for the work that you’re doing, and as I look around this room, I could not be more optimistic about the future of our state and our nation. Thank you so much.