My Decision to Lean In

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One female CEO explains how Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean in” helped her to accept her CEO position and put self-doubt aside. 

By Sarah Bryar (CEO, Rivet & Sway)

In June, when my book club decided to read “Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, I had no idea how timely our book choice would be.  Less than two months later I would be the CEO of Rivet & Sway, a premium online eyewear boutique for women, just 18 months after I joined the early stage startup.

When I first started reading “Lean In“, I found it engaging and surprisingly uncontroversial. The statistics that describe a very real gender leadership gap can hardly be argued. Sandberg’s description of cultural factors that impact our perception of what it takes to be successful resonated with my own experiences. I appreciated her candid and personal account of her own challenges in managing a career as a woman.

During my first job after college, I was both devastated and confused to receive a negative performance review for “being too emotional and assertive” while my male peer with similar behavior was applauded.  While at Harvard Business School, I noticed a clear distinction in communication style among men and women in class. It was rare for men to qualify an opinion or admit not knowing an answer. The mantra was, “Fake it until you make it,” which seemed antithetical to my own value of, “work hard and it will pay off.”

What made the biggest impression on me, however, was Sandberg’s description of the ways in which women hold themselves back from opportunities to lead. I have often struggled with feelings of self-doubt. I’ve asked myself “Can I handle this responsibility?” and “Am I good enough?” despite the success I’ve had in my career.

When I was about half way through “Lean In, I was presented with the opportunity to become Rivet & Sway’s Chief Executive Officer. It was an unusual proposal. Rivet & Sway’s Founder and CEO, John Lusk, would stay in the company and transition to Chief Marketing Officer.  I would shift from VP of Product to CEO. The reason? It was time to have a woman in the driver’s seat.

When John started the company, his vision was to serve the customers for whom buying glasses was particularly painful:  women. We’ve conducted focus groups with hundreds of women and the response is consistent: women hate buying glasses.  When asked why, women say things like: “It’s a chore,” “It takes too much time,” “It is so expensive,” and “I have no idea how to buy glasses for myself.”  Women want the quality of a high-end boutique without the hassle and cost. They want the best options available, styles that fit them, and to have as much fun buying glasses as they do shoes or handbags.

The need for a better solution was evident, but it wasn’t just the business opportunity that intrigued me to join the company as employee number two. It was John’s vision to build a brand that motivates women to be free to express who they are. Glasses are a powerful accessory to create a look, and yet many women still prefer to wear contacts or take glasses off for important events. We want women to be unapologetic about needing glasses to see or to love wearing specs even if she has perfect eyesight. Our approach is not just to sell glasses at a great price but also to help women find inspiration in glasses as a way to celebrate her style.

During those first conversations, John also talked about his plan to have a woman leading the company someday.  After all, Rivet & Sway is a brand for women. Doesn’t it make sense to have a woman setting the direction for the company?

But I had no idea this decision would come so soon. Quite honestly, my first reaction was, “Wait! Become CEO? Can I really do that?” I questioned my qualifications and readiness. Frankly, I was scared.

In “Lean In,” Sandberg raises questions that I needed to answer for myself: What is my ambition? What attitude do I want to model for my son and daughter, not to mention the women with whom I work?  What would I do if I weren’t afraid? Her questions couldn’t have come at a better time.

My answer? Go for it. I’m choosing, as Sandberg suggests in “Lean In,” to shift my thinking from “I’m not ready to do that” to thinking “I want to do that, and I will.” I love this little company called Rivet & Sway.  I believe in our mission.  And I will help drive its success by serving women.

And so, I’m choosing to lean in.

How are you choosing to “Lean In”?

Photo via World Economic Forum / Flickr.

SarahBryar-headshot-April2013About the guest blogger: Sarah Bryar, focuses on the core components of Rivet & Sway’s value proposition: serving time-strapped women with high-quality, stylish, and affordable specs via an unparalleled shopping experience that is easy, fun, and inspiring. She leads the design and merchandising of the eyewear collection and drives innovation of customer-facing services, features and tools.