I recently attended my 30th high school reunion. It seems like just yesterday Wham!, Madonna and Chaka Khan were topping the music charts, typing class was required, and Ronald Reagan was president. During this time, there were only two Fortune 500 female CEOs -- just 0.4 percent. There was also a huge deficit of aspirational female role models beyond my mother and Mother Teresa.
Fast forward to today. There are now 25 Fortune 500 female CEOs (a whopping 5 percent), and there are many more visible female leaders to inspire us. But we still have a long way to go before there is gender balance in upper management. I believe all-girls schools can play a meaningful role in helping to inspire and prepare more young women to be the leaders of tomorrow, both at home and at work.
I have many fond memories of my high school days at the Convent of the Visitation, an all-female secondary school in St. Paul, Minnesota. No, I was not studying to be a nun. Rather, my parents recognized that their shy daughter might flourish in the school's environment. It worked.
My experiences at the school led me to take leaps of faith throughout my career. Whether it was moving halfway around the world to help run an advertising agency in Hawaii, or stepping up to run a company when the previous CEO was abruptly removed, my courage to try new things and believe I could make great things happen was largely influenced not just by Visitation itself, but by the fact that it was an all-girls school.
I have tried to instill this courageous mindset within the cultures of the organizations I have been a part of, as well as in the women and men I mentor. I can summarize what I took away from my time at Visitation in three words: passion, confidence and generosity. These three qualities can prepare young women for life and leadership.
High school is a time of self-discovery. It's a chance to ask: Who am I? What do I want to become? What am I good at? And, most importantly, what am I most passionate about?
My school curriculum exposed me to the arts, sciences, mathematics, technology, government and religion. Because of the all-girls environment, we were encouraged to explore any and all subjects. Girls also held every leadership position and created a community that supported each other. We all learned that, regardless of gender, we can aim high to pursue our passions. There was no reason why I would not pursue my own passions in life or in my career.
As one of the few female CEOs leading a large advertising agency, I have faced plenty of criticism. You have to have thick skin and realize bias exists, no matter what you do. Having the confidence to do what's best for my family, my community, my employees and my clients has always been the guiding principle for every decision I make.
My experience at an all-female school helped me to better understand myself, and to have confidence in who I am and in what I believe. I grew from a shy, unconfident young girl into a woman with a strong passion for creativity and a solid point of view. Because I lived in a world without gender limitations in high school, I developed confidence and the courage to step outside my comfort zone.
A generous spirit is one of the most important attributes of an effective leader. You have to share your time, talents and insight to mentor future leaders, and to build successful teams and organizations. At an all-female school I gave my time and talents without any gender concerns. I learned how to support other women and was encouraged to give my time and become a leader. These lessons stayed with me in my professional career, as well as in my nonprofit and board work.
I am extremely thankful for the lifelong friendships I gained and the lessons I learned through my all-girls high school experience. It helped shape me into the person I am today. It taught me to be passionate about what I do and what I believe in, to be generous and share my gifts, to have the confidence to be who I am, and let my voice be heard -- attributes that I know would benefit all future female leaders.