“Men, you CAN sit with us”

By Ludovica Martella

“Fighting for gender equality from the beauty industry to the United Nations. A conversation with NGO CSW/NY Gender Coordinator Houry Geudelekian”

About a week after the end of the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), I sat with Houry Geudelekian, gender equality activist, mom, child marriage survivor, and unbelievable kind soul, between many things. Houry is currently the Gender Program Coordinator at the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, NY (NGO CSW/NY). This non-governmental organization (NGO) supports the work of the UN on its fight for gender equality, but especially, CSW, the yearly global gathering of women in NY, meeting to discuss and network on the topic of the year. For this 63rd gathering, the priority theme was “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” Houry is also UN coordinator for Unchained at Last, an NGO fighting against child marriage. I met with Houry to talk about her formation as a women’s advocate. Our conversation revolved around two main pillars: how the beauty and fashion industry can be demeaning to some women, and why men should help women achieve gender equality in the work space in the time of the #MeToo movement, where talking gender can be a scary subject for some men. 

 The beauty industry and the fight for gender equality. How both men and women should be aware of false beauty stereotypes

 Originally Armenian living in Lebanon, Houry came to NYC in the 70s, where she ran successfully her own business with her former husband for about 35 years, in the beauty and fashion industry. In her field, she started noticing images that demeaned women and girls. “When I went to press releases, I would always say that ‘beauty comes from within’ and that you don’t need to follow fashion to be beautiful. Obviously, there were people rolling their eyes at me but there were actually a lot of people who appreciated that. So I guess I could say that without knowing, I was for gender equality, but that was not intentional.” As many women (some of whom are not aware) both Houry and I have been victims of societal pressure to look a certain way. “They (beauty industry companies) make you feel less than you are just to sell you crèmes etc. and honestly, you don’t need all of that. The reality is, it’s a gazillion dollars industry and people need to make money.” Because of the monetary factor, but also because the human being thrives to be accepted by others, these standardized beauty norms are well integrated in our society. The trick to not get stuck in them is to call them out and realize they are money schemes and to truly start appreciating ourselves for how we are. 

Houry speaking on behalf of NGO CSW NY in New York City.

Houry speaking on behalf of NGO CSW NY in New York City.

But HOLD ON a sec, how is this connected to gender equality?

There is evidence that these schemes demean some women because of several reasons. First of all, women might not feel the freedom of being themselves and embrace their natural features. This can cause relevant stress and insecurities in a woman’s life, which in the worst case, can bring to mental illnesses such as eating disorders. Furthermore, being persuaded to feel the need to “look a certain way” is a substantial waste of time: a distraction from working on ourselves from within. As a result, some women run the risk of spending more time beautifying themselves rather than on working towards their life goals. “I went through months of sadness thinking that no one was going to touch me because I am not going to give into whatever it is that women have to adhere to,” Houry confessed. “But then I realized, I am not my body, I am thankful for it, because it carries me around, but I don’t need it to be perfect in order for it to be valuable” (hands clapping emoji here). Another way in which mainstream beauty and fashion industries also demean women is, unfortunately, in their representations in advertisements. As I always quote, “the medium is the message,” and considering that we are consistently fed with advertisements with photo-shopped women, these false beauty standards end up being digested by not only some women, but some men too. “There are not enough guys who want that (natural beauty). So, I think we need to keep on talking about the truth behind all beauty and fashion industry. And again, there are women who want to adhere to beauty standards, and guys out there who want that, and I am not going stop them” Houry commented. Obviously people are and should be free to do what they want, but I would say, let’s save the savable. By talking more and more about the false reality of the commercial standardization of beauty, we can protect young women especially, and encourage them to accept themselves for how they are and live a life with less stress. 

A recent Avon ad was criticized (here by feminist activist Jameela Jamil) for demeaning women and their perfectly normal features.   Jameela Jamil’s Twitter @jameelajamil

A recent Avon ad was criticized (here by feminist activist Jameela Jamil) for demeaning women and their perfectly normal features.

Jameela Jamil’s Twitter @jameelajamil

 If you are personally struggling with accepting yourself for who you are, I advise to follow these inspiring women on Instagram: @whollyhealed, @ownitbabe (who also has an amazing podcast, “Own it Babe,”) @mybetter_self , @jameelajamil and @bodypositivepanda.

Should men stand up with women on the fight for gender equality? (A.K.A. rhetorical question) 

In 2010 Houry decided it was time for a change. She got divorced and got fired from her business, which she now laughs about, then she stumbled upon NGO CSW NY through a friend who said an Armenian organization needed representation. She knew she wanted to work in social justice, and she admits that at the time, she knew very little about gender equality, but she accepted the job anyways and got involved with the UN. “I remember being in the room listening to Michelle Bachalet talk and say why they were creating UN Women and why it was necessary to have a separate entity to fight for gender equality and suddenly everything made sense, all of the world made sense. That was it. The rest is history”. From then on, Houry embarked a career working toward gender equality, a topic which involves not only the participation of women, but the one of men too. This prompted me to ask her about men supporting women in the time of the MeToo movement, which turns out to be, a tricky subject.

DO women want to be supported by men in achieving gender equality norms?

I personally stumbled upon some men who said to be “afraid” to stand up for women because these might take it as undermining their own strength (gentlemen, I would say, when in doubt, offer help: that is always appreciated). “The bottom line is,” Houry said, “we need to humanize both men and women. We are both human. At the end of the day, we are on similar quests. There are no reasons why no woman starting up as a secretary, and no man starting as an assistant, for example, can’t become the CEO of a company. To get to that point, there are a lot of steps you have to take. None of that is unique to male or to a female. So to me, the idea that a man shouldn’t support a female because she is ‘strong and independent enough’ is irrelevant. It has nothing to do with what we are talking about. Your genitalia should not make a difference on how you behave.”

“Here’s the million dollar light ball: men can be affected from patriarchal society as well. There are enough men out there who do not need to be patriarchal to achieve their goals. The problem becomes when those men who don’t want to be in that patriarchy system feel less supported even than the women. Because they become the bullied ones and they are the ones who end up saying ‘it’s not worth it’. They are not the ones going after the CEO position because they feel like they are not going to be supported, because they think differently. So can’t we just ask the controversial question, ‘can a human just support another human’ and not see it as gendered? 

The way we support people is by humanizing them. Slavery happened because we dehumanized the black skin. Or American Indians, or indigenous people. Violence happened because we dehumanized them. There is no gender there, but there is dehumanizing of humans, so you can control them. The same things happens with members of the LGBTQ+ community. We dehumanize them. We say, ‘no human being could be with another of the same sex, it’s not human, it’s not how God created us.’ To fight that, we need to humanize ourselves. To this day, the same thing still happens with slavery and there is so much more work to be done. It took 200 years to abolish slavery, but there is still much work to be done to end it. And perhaps it’s like that with gender equality too.” In fact, the fight against gender equality (just as the one against climate change, *sigh) is much younger, than, for instance, the fight against racism. “Perhaps this is a time where we are chipping away by giving good example on how an equal society should be, but it will take time. Look at the United States women's national soccer team. They are suing U.S. Soccer because there is no reason why a woman should be paid less of men for the same amount of work. The only reason why it happens it’s because these companies have been doing this for a long time. Furthermore, there are men who are starting to stand with us. Look at actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who claimed was going to refuse his role unless his female co-star would get the same money.”

Members of the U.S. women's national soccer team filed a lawsuit in March 2019 against U.S. Soccer, accusing it of gender discrimination.   Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Members of the U.S. women's national soccer team filed a lawsuit in March 2019 against U.S. Soccer, accusing it of gender discrimination.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Small gestures to stand up against inequality of any type, can go a long way, even if we live in a seemingly unfair society. Change though can happen, eve if slowly, and it could impact the lives of many people. So, when in doubt, let’s stick together for everyone’s success.

What do you think about these subjects? Feel free to leave a comment below.

You can look at the work by NGO CSW NY by clicking on the link or by following them on social media.


 Updated on April 23rd 2019 at 11:52 A.M.


women tech experts discuss succeeding as an entrepreneur

By Ludovica Martella

Matt Harrigan (left) co-founder and CEO of Company and Alexi Nazem (right) with co-founder and CEO of Nomad open the event. Picture: Nick Weinberg

Matt Harrigan (left) co-founder and CEO of Company and Alexi Nazem (right) with co-founder and CEO of Nomad open the event. Picture: Nick Weinberg

A shorter version of this article can be found through Company’s blog

On March 14, 2019, the event “Leading & Succeeding: Women in Tech” took place at Company. The event was co-hosted with Nomad Health, one of the companies curated by the former, which specializes on creating a marketplace for clinical work. Its co-founder and CEO, Alexi Nazem, introduced the panel for the night, which included three of the most successful women in tech: Shan-Lyn Ma, CEO of Zola, Alexandria Stried, CPO of Ellevest, Inc., Hayley Barna, Partner at First Round Capital, and former co-founder and co-CEO of Birchbox, and to the pleasant surprise of the audience, the host of the event, renown journalist Susie Gharib, Alexi’s mom. If for some of the audience the environment of the event didn’t feel like a family yet, it most definitely did now.

In fact, the events at Company feel exactly like that. People can come in advance and network while enjoying some refreshments, but most of all, of course, their company (you see what I did here?). The environment reflects exactly what co-founder and CEO of Company, Matt Harrigan, explained while introducing Alexi, “at Company, we believe that people that you surround your self with, are key to your success”. The space was a full house, and to my surprise, despite the topic of the night mainly involved women, the audience seemed to be filled by as many men as women. The conversation resulted in a very informational session on how women can be successful entrepreneurs in the field of tech and how men can support them. 

The engaged audience at Company’s events plays a key role in the conversations. Picture: Nick Weinberg

The engaged audience at Company’s events plays a key role in the conversations. Picture: Nick Weinberg

First of all, how do you become a successful woman entrepreneur? “No career path is perfect”

For your idea to be successful, you don’t have to know it all from the start. “Every step along the way came as a surprise to me” reassured Hayley Barna, when addressing the young women who often ask her how she had her success with Birchbox and then career as a venture capitalist, all planned out. The secret is, she didn’t. She just followed the opportunities that arose. In fact, Hayley started her career by working as a consultant, which “gave her the tool kit to start her business”. She later co-founded Birchbox as an outsider of the beauty industry, as she describes herself growing up as a tomboy. With her co-founder she found a way to package this experience in an “innovative shopping way-to-find beauty online”. Then, after six years since the launch of Birchbox she decided she “wanted to help other people create innovative experiences and business models” and followed the path of venture capitalist. 

 Both Shan-Lyn and Alexandria, also didn’t have a clear career path from the start. Shan-Lyn grew up in Australia, where she had no connections to the big tech companies of Silicon Valley, which she dreamt about. She took the courageous step of moving to California and found the opportunity to intern with Yahoo!, where she “learned to go above and beyond what everyone else was doing, and to do what needed to be done even though” she “wasn’t always told to do it”. After this incredible experience she decided she wanted to work in a smaller company and have a larger impact on people’s lives, which brought her to move to New York. There she joined the online retailer company Gilt Groupe, whose founder, Kevin Ryan, encouraged her to her later success. Alexandria terminated her career as a professional ballet dancer after undergraduate school, enrolled in a masters’ degree, ended up interning at Weight Watchers (WW) and became one of her most successful employees on the Product team. Around the time she was thinking about moving on, “I got a LinkedIn message from a recruiter which was actually very sketchy because it mentioned these two high-up people in finance, but wouldn’t mention their names, who thought I would be perfect for their new company. I have no background in finance but I didn’t want an opportunity to go by, so I called him”. Today, Alexandria is glad she took that step and left her secure job at WW to take the risk of joining the startup Ellevest, Inc. a financial investing platform for women. The takeaway of this is: never turn your back on potential opportunities, even if you might receive them in a sketchy LinkedIn message. Give it a chance (but be careful of course!)

The reality is that no process will be perfect and it is ok to explore and learn along the way, which may include failures.

(From left to right) Alexandria Stried, Shan-Lyn Ma, Hayley Barna and Susie Gharib. Picture: Nick Weinberg

(From left to right) Alexandria Stried, Shan-Lyn Ma, Hayley Barna and Susie Gharib. Picture: Nick Weinberg

Role models, Mentors and Sponsors. “I don’t think I would have ever became a founder if there weren’t female role models that showed me I could do it too” 

“I don’t think I would have ever became a founder if there weren’t female role models that showed me I could do it too” Hayley explained. She highlighted the importance of establishing relationships with people who you can call or meet for coffee, when an issue arises. For Shan-Lyn it was her boss Kevin, who, when she suggested she might have a good idea for a product, he said, “don’t wait too long to share it, don’t wait until it’s perfect, just come to me”. So she did and then kept on working on it along the way. Kevin acted as a sponsor, meaning, “someone who supports you even when you are not in the room,” as Alexandria put it. In fact, before Shan-Lyn knew it, Kevin had spoken to the board about Shan-Lyn’s idea and called her up to ask her to start realizing it. That is how she became the Creator and General Manager of Gilt Taste, the brand’s food and wine division. It’s crucial to surround yourself with people who support you.

Gaining confidence in your startup idea. “As women, we tend to shy away from negative feedback because we want to be perfect, but we don’t have to be”.

The key of coming up with a successful idea for a new business is to first ask yourself if you really believe in your cause. Once you believe it, ask yourself, “do I want to be investing the next 7 to 10 years of my life in this?” Shan-Lyn explained. If the answer is yes, “talk to everyone about it” Hayley said. The more you put your idea out there, the more feedback you will get. Curiously enough, Alexandria seeks negative feedback all the time. “As women, we tend to shy away from negative feedback because we want to be perfect, but we don’t have to be. The only way you can grow up professionally is to ask people what you could better next time. I would also ask myself when I came back home every day, how did I do today? And really reflect on that so I can make better decisions and get better at my craft”. As Hayley put it, “ask yourself, what is the worse it could happen?” 

Family and work: yes, we can do it all (but “make sure you pick the right partner”)

Of course, as women, we get this question a lot. How do you balance the private life with work, especially as an entrepreneur? “In my late 20s I was very focused on my career and not on who I wanted to marry and only later I realized, the person that I marry could enable my career success!” exclaimed Hayley. Thankfully though, she is happy to report that she did choose a good partner, with whom she can share responsibilities. The latter is key, confirmed Alexandria, who also has a young daughter. Additionally, asking for help, (something else that women tend to stay away from), even if it means hiring someone, it is necessary for both you and your partner. (This is why we need equal parental leave! Just look at how well the Scandinavian countries are doing on the quality of life indexes. But I digress.)

Role of men in supporting women rinsing in tech (or any other industry)

 Making sure you share equal responsibilities with your partner in the household is not the only way men can support female entrepreneurs. In the work environment, men can do loads too. For instance, “in meetings, giving credit to the ideas of women without letting other men taking credit for it,” which is something that happens often, even if we only base it on the raise of hands of the women in the room who said they experienced it. In general, it is the responsibility of men in leadership roles to believe in gender equality and act on that belief. According to Hayley, “if this is one of the core values of the company, recruiters should make it clear in the job descriptions and in the recruiting process.” Only this way, can a company can have a fair balance of men and women.  

What to do when talking to investors? What if you are a woman addressing a group of men?

According to Shan-Lyn, whether you are men or a woman, you should be ready to answer these three questions:

1.     Why you, and what is your story? 

2.     Why now?

3.     How is your proposal going to be a multi-billion dollars category-defining project?

In the case you are addressing a group of men, Alexandria suggests to base it on the research in order to really make your point. To which Hayley added, “if it is a product for women, make a comparison with something that would appeal to men and can grasp their attention”.

The three panelists concluded the discussion with a few pieces of advice:

1.     Go outside of your comfort zone and do something “scary” every day. If that means wanting to pick up an extra project because you might want to switch to a different job, do it! You will start feeling comfortable with the uncomfortable.

2.     Figure out who you want to be, figure out who is doing it, and learn from them. 

3.     Don’t compare what you do behind the scenes with that of someone else. Stop comparing yourself. Do your own thing.

A lot of info, right? Because of the density of topics that need to discussed in order to perpetuate girls and women in STEM, Company and Nomad Health might transform these kind of events in a series. For more information you can always visit Company’s site.