A self-made millionaire’s story of success in a very male-dominated career field is one that female IT pros might find as applicable to their own situations as any IT career-focused material they come across. That’s despite the reality that she’s a former convict with a 10th grade education, she has a string of business failures under her belt, and she’s not even close to being an IT professional.
I’m referring to Gigi Stetler, CEO of Planet RV, a recreational vehicle business in Davie, Florida, and author of “Unstoppable: Surviving Is Just the Beginning.” What convinced me that Stetler’s voice is one that should be heard by any IT pro or entrepreneur, but especially by women, is what she conveyed to me in a recent interview. For one thing, she stressed, based on her own experience, that women need to be more willing to take risks:
Women are now climbing up the corporate ladder and running big companies—the numbers are up remarkably. But I would like to see more women owning businesses, because women are creating these big empires that are controlled by men—the women are basically just employees, even though they have big titles. I think the reason there are not more women business owners is they just don’t take as many risks as men—they think a little more emotionally. Women tend to step back and take a more conservative path. Being an entrepreneur and a business owner, you don’t have that luxury, because being an entrepreneur is extremely risky. So I think women need to be more programmed to think outside the box and to take that additional risk. Women are more afraid of failure than men are. If we can just get women to accept that failure is only a stepping stone to success, we would be unstoppable.
My sense is that no one would fault Stetler for being too politically correct. Consider her views on how women can use gender bias to their advantage:
I guess, without sounding sexist, women can play two cards. I don’t like playing the woman card as far as being a victim. But you can play the softer-side card, as long as you know what you’re talking about. You’ve got to know what you’re doing—you can’t trick your way out of a situation. If you’re negotiating a very big deal, and you have the exact same ideas as a man negotiating the same deal, obviously if the woman is batting her eyes and looks better than the guy, and the woman can put her money where her mouth is and hold up her end of the bargain, she may get a couple of brownie points when the guy has the option of looking at a woman or looking at another guy. He’s going to pick the woman, but she’s got to be able to produce. So you can use your femininity to close the deal. But you’ve still got to know what you’re doing—that’s just the closer. … If I was up against any man, in any position, say, if we were bidding on the acquisition of a company, and we’ve both got the same money and the same everything, then you go for the charm. I’m not saying you take your clothes off—I’m saying you bat your eyes. If you use your feminine skills, and you’re more charming, you’re going to close more deals than the guy. But you have to be on 100 percent equal ground in what you have to offer.
I asked Stetler what would be the single most important piece of advice she has for a young woman entering a male-dominated profession. She said whatever you do, don’t take what you’re confronted with personally:
Women take things personally, and if you take it personally, you’re done. It’s just business, but the minute it becomes personal, you start thinking emotionally, and you’re done. … You will fail. There is no doubt about it that you will fail in your first, second, fifth attempts—that doesn’t mean anything. What matters is how quickly you can get up and start over again after you fail. That’s the measurement of success.
Finally, I asked Stetler if she could have one do-over as CEO of her company, what it would be. Her response:
Looking back now, there’s an old saying that if you’re going to borrow money, borrow a lot. Put yourself in a position where you’re too big to fail. Why do you think General Motors didn’t fail? They were too big to fail. I have a 10th grade education, and I always thought that owing less money is a better position, but it’s not when you’re playing on a big field. You need to set yourself up, and be in a position where you don’t get kicked off the field by the competition.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.