Thursday, March 21, 2013

Do stories matter?

My wife and I went to a program on Thursday called Advancing Women's Leadership at the University of the Pacific. I am not normally a fan of these types of events.   They often devolve into repetition of cliches for a couple of hours.   But this program had some substance.  The Keynoter was Condeleezza Rice and I wanted to go just for the opportunity to hear her speak. As I thought about it, I do not believe she has ever found a job because of her gender.

The first speaker of the day was the founder of Latina Magazine, Christy Haubegger. She was witty and insightful. One of those insights was "It is hard to be what you can't imagine." She evolved from doing a business plan in Stanford Law School to finding angels to help fund the venture. She said her initial hit rate was about 3 in 200. But she said she went back to those who turned her down - with the idea that the negative response could yield results.  Even if a small percentage of the people offered reasons why she had been rejected, she would begin to understand how to improve her pitch.  She made a strong point, which was seconded by Rice, that mentors come in all shapes and sizes.   As ground breakers, both pointed out that had they waited for mentors that looked like them - they would have had to wait for a long time.

Rice's speech offered a couple of interesting observations including that authoritarianism is not stable.    She illustrated the point with a story about Nicholae Cheausescu, the former leader of Romania.  At one point when an old woman in the crowd called the dictator a liar, the crowd quickly turned against him.   She also had some great points about the relationships between rights and responsibilities in our system.  Finally, she also said that Americans are a strange mix because they are the most individualistic and yet also the most philanthropic.

I was struck with one a contrast between two parts of the event.  In a panel between the first speaker and Rice, the moderator, a Pacific professor, made a couple of comments about the problems with being from a "marginalized group."   Rice's remarks argued that the only people who can be marginalized are those who accept the status. She argued that when people are confronted with racism or sexism they can figure out how to get around it, or to deflect it or in some instances to confront it.   But walking around with a chip on your shoulder (she described it as running around with "your hair on fire") is not productive because a) it does not solve the underlying problem and b) ultimately puts one in a marginal position.

Rice was a superb and interesting speaker.  I also enjoyed Ms. Haubeggar.   The problem with the idea of "marginalized groups" is that what is begun as a temporary condition to address perceived wrongs can evolve into a permanent status.   Over time those perceptions will destroy one of the strengths that Rice talked about - namely that we are an individualist people (valuing individual achievement).

No comments: