Appearances can be deceiving, said Sheila Lirio Marcelo.
As a petite, female Filipino-American, she is aware that she doesn’t look like what most people in the U.S. first envision when they hear “CEO.” But Marcelo is the CEO and founder of Care.com, started in 2006 and now the largest online care destination in the world with a market capitalization of $252 million. She has been named one of Fortune’s “Top 10 Women Entrepreneurs” and has appeared on the Today Show. She has both an MBA and a JD degree from Harvard.
And yet: “You must be the assistant,” an investor said to Marcelo ahead of going public earlier this year. Marcelo had entered the meeting room later than her CTO and CFO — both men — and headed straight for the coffeepot, running on little sleep. She offered others in the room coffee, too — “because my mother raised me well,” she explained. After the investor made the comment, Marcelo said she “smiled really big” and simply said, “I’m founder, chairwoman and CEO of Care.com.”
This wasn’t the first time, said Marcelo, that she was judged based on her appearance. When she was a young VP and general manager of TheLadders.com, a leading job-matching service and employment website, she was late for a meeting with an important software vendor. “I slid into an empty chair at the end of the table…. I decided midstream that I had a lot of questions…. Within two or three questions, [the vendor] looked at me and said, “Little lady, do you know anything about the recruiting industry?” Marcelo says she continued to ask her questions, and it finally became evident to the vendor that he was dealing with the decisionmaker in the room.
People see what they want to see, and what they are programmed to see, Marcelo stated. But, she added, an important part of the equation is how women leaders view themselves. She noted that psychologists have found that more women than men suffer from something called “imposter syndrome” in which they feel that even if they have achieved a senior role, they are not actually qualified for it or deserving of it.
“[The vendor] looked at me and said, ‘Little lady, do you know anything about the recruiting industry?’”
Conquering the Three P’s
Marcelo noted that there are special challenges for Asian-Americans — and Asian women, in particular — in becoming strong business leaders, which can be traced to parenting traditions. She said that from an early age, she was instilled with “the three P’s” — “and I’m not talking about ‘pricing, positioning and packaging’ from your business school days,” she quipped, “but ‘pleasing, passivity and perfection.’”
The “pleasing” part involved doing what one’s parents wanted. “[We were] Asian-Americans: designated professionals. My siblings pursued these careers. I have a doctor brother, a dentist sister, an accountant brother…. I was supposed to be a lawyer.” Marcelo wanted to become an entrepreneur instead, but was extremely worried about disappointing her parents. Ultimately, she did get her law degree, from Harvard, but then went her own way. “I had to be self-aware about what was important to me.”
The “passivity” part was something that Marcelo wanted to conquer as well — leading her, she said, to some counterproductive behaviors early in her career. “Why was it when I was a young executive with all men in the room, did I want to be overly aggressive? Was it because I’m Asian-American? Was it because I was the only woman? Why did I, what I call, ‘over-project’?” While Marcelo herself has moved beyond this impulse, she said she now actually encourages young women at her company — and young men, too — to risk “sounding a little aggressive or argumentative,” which is important for “finding your voice.”
As far as “perfection,” the third point, Marcelo believes that women in general hold themselves to a higher standard in life. She noted that the same psychological process that makes many women overly upset about leaving dirty dishes in the sink, or a bed unmade, also operates against them at work. Marcelo has recognized this “perfection” principle in herself. “When I was asked to be promoted to be a director, I looked at my manager and said, ‘Are you kidding? Are you sure?’ I don’t think many men would have had that conversation.” She recalled that the same questions ran through her mind when she was promoted to VP, and when investors agreed to fund Care.com. It was as if “I had to know the job of a director, a VP, a GM and a CEO before I took on those [roles],” she said.
‘Raise Your Hand High’
To combat the insecurities to which she feels female professionals of any ethnic background can fall prey, Marcelo encouraged the audience to spend time on self-awareness. “What are your triggers? What bothers you, makes you [feel] insecure? Why are you going into a meeting and not speaking up?” Only by investing time up front in thinking about ourselves can we shift our attention outside of ourselves, according to Marcelo. “To lead, you’ve got to get through your own stuff [first] so that you can focus on others,” she pointed out.
“To lead, you’ve got to get through your own stuff [first] so that you can focus on others.”
“If you’re running a meeting, and you’re in the room, you have to pay attention to the content, the strategy, the body language, who’s negotiating, who’s listening, what’s going on,” Marcelo noted. “Now if 90% of your brain is focused on your insecurity about what you’re going to say, how you’re going to sound and how you’re being perceived, how the hell are you going to run that meeting?”
Marcelo asked the audience members to raise their hand if they considered themselves a female leader, and about half the room raised their hand. Then she asked a probing question: “How many of you are comfortable stating that publicly?” “Half of the half,” she noted. “Say that you’re a female leader,” she exhorted them. “Raise your hand high, so that more women can see that.”
According to Marcelo, there is an ongoing debate among women executives about whether to identify yourself as a “female leader,” because “it says you’re different.” Why would we want to do that if the idea is to create parity? Because “the reality is, we are different. Why not [come] together to create strength?” She noted there is ample data demonstrating that diversity in the boardroom is good for companies: “It improves productivity, performance and stock price in the long term. Diversity proves that things can be better.
“Own the differences,” advised Marcelo, “and then they are absolutely strengths.”