Learning from “In The Company of Women”

Anyone else a huge fan of Grace Bonney, the woman behind Design*Sponge? I’ve always enjoyed this well-curated site, but the thing that transformed me into a huge fan was Bonney’s radio show After the Jump where she’d interview fabulous creatives and share her own insights on art, life, and business.


You can imagine how thrilled I was when I heard she had penned a second book focused on offering inspiration and advice from a diverse set of creative and business-savvy ladies laid out with the kind of simplicity and beauty that feels classically Design*Sponge. In the Company of Women profiles over a 100 female creative entrepreneurs coming from many different walks of life. It’s release in October was accompanied by a series of panel discussions of women profiled in the book moderated by Bonney. When I realized our family adventure to the Hudson Valley was going to prevent me from joining the discussion in DC, I decided to head north a day early so I could participate in the discussion in Rhinecliff, NY. I am so glad I did.



Here are some of the key nuggets that stuck with me after leaving the event:

Community is powerful

Looking around the Morton Memorial Library in Rhinecliff, one could not help but notice that the audience – perhaps not surprising given the topic – was almost exclusively women. (Kudos to the couple of men who showed up! If I have learned one thing from my interest and focus on women’s leadership, it is that it is a topic that demands attention from both genders.)

I knew that by attending in a town where I am stranger, it was unlikely that I would know anyone who would be there. But that did not detract one bit from the connection I felt to the room. Strangers and old friends alike gathered in warm tones and open dialogue. I met an administrator at the Culinary Art Institute who was still working through what she thought of life outside of Manhattan and an urbanite-turned-farmer struggling to find a business model that worked worked for her. The book that drew us all to this sleepy street along the Hudson River seemed to inspire the very understanding, tolerance, and receptivity that it promotes.

It was wonderful to be surrounded by women, but that wasn’t the true power of this community. For me, the energy of the evening seemed to come from being in the company of people who were wanting to dig into a common set of questions and to face head on a shared set of challenges. Rule breaking and disparate perspectives were all invited in. What a beautiful community to join for an evening.

Also funnily enough, while waiting to have Grace sign my book, I realized I did know someone in the audience. A former colleague of mine – who also doesn’t live in the area – had seized the opportunity to come to this venue as well. We hadn’t seen each other in almost a decade – not since she had left the Advisory Board, where we had both worked together for several years, to earn her MBA. A lovely reminder to me at the interconnected paths we weave.


May the bridges I burn light the way

An audience member shared a personal struggle during the Q and A about getting critical feedback from men in her industry. Specifically, they felt she came across as too pushy. She acknowledged that her military background (impressive!) made her very comfortable directing others in a straightforward manner. Her question was really around how she could adapt her communication style and still be authentically herself. She was was open to changing herself, but was feeling a double standard. Her behavior, she felt, might be praised for it’s candor and direct manner on a man, but here she was being advised to tone it down.

This is a topic that comes up a lot among the women leaders I work with and there are lots of tools and resources I’ve leveraged to unpack this topic. Grace’s response to this inquiry was delightfully fresh because it’s so different from my own impulse.

She gave a little laugh and said something along the lines of, “How does that old adage go? May the bridges I burn light my way.” She went on to say that if the way this woman approached this question was any indication of her natural communication style she didn’t think there was a call to heed this feedback from others. Sometimes we have to burn bridges to get to a new and better place.

I’d never heard this phrase before and it has really stuck with me. I am so naturally drawn to building consensus and creating a shared perspective, that I needed this reminder. Sometimes a burned bridge is just the thing that’s needed to catapult you forward.

And just in case the message didn’t come through loudly enough on that day, I stumbled this same phrase just a few weeks later on a small tray in a random apothecary in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. I really do think that when we need to learn something new, the universe will keep giving us chances to do so. Message received, universe! Message received!


You don’t have to create a life’s work now

There is a general sense of urgency that feels pervasive in our culture. With such an emphasis on personal brand, it’s not surprising that so many people feel a pressure to create a life’ s work. And ideally to have created that life’s work yesterday.

The women onstage addressed this idea throughout the panel discussion. They advocated for quieting the urgency and not getting hung up on the idea that a life’s work is really the thing to chase anyway. It was a great reminder. We will all create a life’s work. But it is not likely to be the singular result of a grand plan executed with precision. No. Our life’s work will be the summation of all the little steps (sidesteps and missteps included!) that we take along the way.

Be open to stepping off the path ahead and exploring what lies in the forest of the unknown all around you.

Beware: Your success can limit you

It feels a little counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Success getting in our way? What a great problem to have, right?!

Not always.

Our success can be a profound burden. When we reach success, we can feel compelled to stick with that track. Why leave a great job? Why shut down a business that is flourishing? Why try something new when you are in midst of something that is working so well?

We are lucky (at least in some parts of the world) that we live in a time where we can hold and pursue a diverse set of interests. This is sometimes referred to as the “slash generation.” I can be a banker/gluten-free baker/graphic designer/disc golfer. It seems light hearted and fun. And it can be.

Who knew I was in the wave of this trend when I created this business card back in 2013. Very characteristically me that I used the “+” over a “/”. =)

But we’ve got to be wary. In our slash-y world, many individuals end up feeling compelled to stick with the place where they find success first. Which may or may not be the thing (or things) that really lights them up. And rarely do I find that a person’s interest hold steady for the course of a a year or two, let alone a whole lifetime, without any variation. Be careful, the panel warned, not to be limited by where you find success first.

Follow your curiosity. Stay attune to where you spend your energy.

Seize your moments to pivot

One of the greatest reminders I got during the panel is that there is magic in jumping – in embracing the often fear-inducing path of change.

Seize your moments to pivot. Lean in to opportunity to shift direction. I know that this doesn’t always feel easy, but this is where the magic of life happens.

One of the woman on the panel was X of X. She has a thriving ceramics business in Hudson, NY. She lives in the flat above the store. She loves this life that she has created for herself. And it came from following an interest in learning something new.

In her 40s she had woken up to a startling new reality. She was recently divorced, her daughter was a teenager more interested in sleeping until noon than talking to her mom, and the whole identity that XX had owned for decades was vanishing before her very eyes. On a lark, she enrolled in a ceramics class. She didn’t know it would lead to a whole new life and business at the time. But this is beauty about seizing an opportunity to change. I really appreciated hearing her personal story because I think it illuminates something that each one of us it challenged by when we are standing at the precipice of something new. Pivoting often begins by letting go of something – often something we have valued greatly.

But there is magic in jumping. And so sometimes we’ve got to release our grip and just let go.

Dream Big!

The last question that Grace posed to the panel was to share a closing piece of wisdom or advice that each woman had for the group. There were many great pearls shared.

  • Remember that everyone is still figuring it out.
  • Learn something new.
  • Always want to grow and learn. It’s not about success so much as about continuing to learn.
  • Ask questions.
  • Don’t be afraid to do something different.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for what you are worth.

Grace herself didn’t offer an answer to this question, but I felt the inscription she wrote in my copy of In the Company of Women was a perfect close to the evening.

Dream Big! she advised. May each of you find the courage to do so as well.