By Carla Rover (Content Curator, The Advertising Technology Review)
Most women, even very smart women, don’t attend Harvard, Yale or New York University. Most of us don’t have billionaire mentors steering us around career pitfalls and making introductions to their own powerful networks. Most of us, even the most daring entrepreneurs among us, don’t have image consultants helping us “brand” ourselves around an appealing concept, in order to seduce capital and influential tastemakers.

If you are an ambitious would-be tech star but cash or Ivy league-credential poor, what can you do? There are several ways to bootstrap your way into the right places at the right time, without having to land a role on a reality show.

Rule #1 – Enter Through the Side Door

Pick a company – any company that matches your ambitions. if you are seeking to work within a corporation find a way in through internships or volunteering for charity events that put you in connection with those who are the decision makers. This doesn’t mean that you should align yourself with causes that you don’t believe in or volunteer to be the cigarette girl at the yearly Christmas party. No points for getting drooled over by lecherous account managers either.

Get involved with corporate projects that you feel passionate about, doing work that showcases your expertise. If there isn’t an internship or volunteer program that places you in a position that showcases your talents and allows you to hone your skills, don’t do it.

You won’t advance if you allow yourself to stay in an area that is overlooked. You can, however, turn almost any position – marketing a charity event, developing social media apps for a CEO’s pet charity, into a stairwell to bigger and better things, but it has to be the right position at the right time.

If your work is brilliant and you are professional, you should be recognized. If you aren’t, then leave – you are wasting your time. You don’t have to abandon the charity or the company, but help in a way that makes sense for you and the people you’ve committed too.

Now you’ve got to be very careful about your mentors when you’ve found a company to make inroads within. Look at their track record in business. Look at the way they treat their employees and associates. Is this a summer flirtation or a real marriage? Will this mentor be a long-term guardian angel or at least a bridge to something better?

The rules for settling on a mentor are pretty much the same as those for a long-term relationship. No crazies, no one-track-minds. Mentors need to see your value as a professional, not just like having you around. Every interaction needs to add something to your skill set, knowledge or roster of opportunities. If it isn’t good for you, then it isn’t worth the considerable effort necessary to get to a meaningful relationship.

Takeaway: Volunteer your talents, get paid in experience and recognition.

Lesson #2 – Execute a Growth Strategy

Those who love to throw around the term “social climber” are usually those who have the most to lose by an infusion of new blood. Once you’ve got a few good connections with decision-makers that have influence within the sphere that you are trying to get a foothold in, begin to demonstrate legitimate value outside of the charity or intern circuit.

Ask for opportunities to offer proof of concept on your worth to the company. If you are an entrepreneur seeking to impress a targeted mentor or an angel investor, then ask to sit in on a low-level strategy meeting if appropriate or ask to have a day in the office shadowing an available employee. Make it known that you are willing to start at the ground level but you expect to be compensated with valuable, long-term learning experiences.

If granted a day at the office, ask questions, absorb the culture. Don’t try to rewrite the employee manual, but make intelligent comments and at least one suggestion that’s designed to show that you understand both the company’s and your mentor’s vision. If you are offered grunt work – politely decline, but offer your services one or two days per week, even on weekends, if you can spare it.

Again, you are climbing up a ladder, but you don’t have to start in the gutter. There’s nothing wrong with being a junior assistant, but if you are over 18, then you need to start building your resume with impressive titles, quickly. Instead of helping out your mentor’s strategy team without recognition, holding the title of an assistant or junior account manager, offer to work one day per week as a business development intern, for free. Why? Because the power of your enthusiasm and brilliance will stand out more readily when you are distant from office politics and working on zero, especially in comparison to those salaried workers unable to match your chutzpah.

Full-time obligations won’t let you? Work virtually, work nights – but make sure that you are weekly interacting with those who can give you an official position, or investment, in the field you are seeking to dominate. Volunteering isn’t the same as slavery. Be available and helpful, but don’t be a 1940’s housewife. Be smarter than your obstacles.

Takeaway: Redefine your opportunities according to your needs by outsmarting the rules of the game.

Lesson #3 – Exercise Your Muscles

Muscles grow from pain. For entrepreneurs or would-be CEOs, pain is rejection. Court rejection – safely. Talk to your mentor about your ideas – and ask for a brutal critique. Listen, don’t whimper, and assimilate their wisdom into your business model or your career approach. Listen to your colleagues, especially the ones after your job if you’ve made it to employees. Like wolves after the scent of blood, they will attack your weaknesses and kindly help you see the spots where you need a patch job.

If your mentor ridicules your ideas as grandiose, ask how he or she thinks it actually could work. If they’ve got nothing, come back with your proof of concept – humbly. Let them “discover” how smart you are. Look at the pain of critique as the only path to growth, because it is the quickest and the least crowded.

Thank your critics – sincerely. They are helping you to succeed. What you don’t want to do is abandon your ideas or remodel your soul to something that is socially acceptable because you are swallowing every criticism whole. You need a filter, to discern between the snarkiness of colleagues who are embittered and the full-on attacks of those who sense your potential. If you receive a volley from a colleague who has let it be known that you are an enemy of sorts, then take it to heart and remember to give them zero material to attack.

Having a work enemy doesn’t mean you are a bad person or you did something wrong. It means you are someone worth attacking, and that is a compliment. Bulk up on courage and realize that this is the space where most talented, ambitious women drop out. Understanding the importance of criticism is the original, and swiftest fast track.

Takeaway: Accept criticism as a method of building growing your personal brand, quickly.

Lesson #4 – Enter Without Doubts

This is a toughie. Stop asking yourself if you “belong” at the top. You don’t. No one does. Harvard only has so many spots in its MBA class. There are only so many CEOs of major companies. There are only so may billion-dollar IPOs. The kid who is brilliant and hardworking but missed the deadline or couldn’t afford to go to New York University doesn’t automatically become unworthy because of the luck of the draw. No one is native to power or success. There are only so many opportunities and no one has a natural right to be there. So it could be you – and there is also only one you.

You deserve the chance just as much as everyone else and you simply can’t come up with a logical reason why you shouldn’t try. Part of the success formula is fortune, part is hard work. We don’t know what percentage matches which element so we are going to pretend it is 99% hard work.

So stop asking if you belong. Start acting if you do. You belong because you are trying. You belong because you will go there and define success according to your own lexicon. The old ways are over – there is nothing stopping you from redefining an industry or your workplace. It doesn’t matter if the so-called “powers that be” hate women or are driven to distraction by them. It doesn’t matter what color you are or how young or old you are. Business is an animal that feeds on success – if that success is driven by someone who is new to the arena, it doesn’t care who feeds it.

You are gender-less and race-less in terms of your potential. You belong as the director of your own vision. It is up to you to create that vision through taking the right steps towards success. How do you get rid of doubts – through learning how others have developed winning strategies.

Through arming yourself with education. MIT and other venerable institutions now offer course outlines and more online. Avail yourself of these priceless tools. Teach yourself how to achieve the same level of expertise and social advantage as the privileged without having to be born to it. Education will ease your self-doubt and daily work on your social and communication skills – in the real world – will grant you the same organic confidence that legendary leaders have.

Takeaway: Stop asking for permission to lead.

Excise the Excess

It sounds trite, but drop your emotional baggage. By baggage I mean not the family personal stuff, I mean the sting that comes when someone overlooks your ideas, or you altogether, because your last name doesn’t ring any bells or you didn’t graduate from the right school with the right G.P.A. Those are heavy bags that someone, or an entire slice of society handed you. And they want you to carry it. But carrying heavy loads keeps you from getting to the front of the line at the airport, and forget about moving ahead in a competitive race. Yes, you are female. Heck, someone may even call you a “girl” even though you might be 30. And yes, it’s meant to demean your standing and ruffle your confidence – it’s usually not meant in the “one of the boys” sense.

Rich, powerful, well-educated people – and their kids – don’t carry these bags. It’s not because no one ever picks on them or questions their legitimacy in whatever role that they may take on. It’s because they have been socialized not to accept the idea that they don’t belong on top. They don’t have a chorus of voices claiming that the mystical “they” have success all sewn up in their pockets. They haven’t been indoctrinated with the idea that difficulty or a struggle on a learning curve is indicative of their not deserving social or economic ascent.

The idea that you have to prove yourself is one from the days when humans where taught that kings and queens, by some divine right, deserved wealth, unlimited privilege, and boundless opportunity. That idea that you have to earn a shot at greatness is toxic. You simply have to grasp for it. You have to stop holding on the what you have been handed if it is holding you down. The opinions of those who regard you with suspicion or disdain because of your gender? You won’t win them over with your brilliance or willingness to tolerate their ignorance. Stop caring. Stop listening.

Give the “I’m a woman in a man’s world” bag back to the 1950’s. Yes there is, for some, a glass ceiling. It’s delusional, and perhaps slightly sinister, to tell a generation of talented, ambitious, hard-working women that if they are not reaching gender parity in income and executive hiring then it is probably their fault. The ceiling might not exist for everyone, but it is out there. The ceiling however, is not the issue. If you are hoping to ascend to the executive suite in a building run by people who’ve built an invisible force field to prevent your ascent, the ceiling is not your only problem. Drop the bag of wanting to be liked, or approved.

If there is a concerted effort to keep you out of the head office, then you need to evaluate the way you are trying to get there. Look at the ceiling – is it glass – or is it concrete? If it’s glass, then it can be shattered. You may have to boldly address what’s going on by delineating your talents, achievements and progress to someone with the onus to enforce the rules of fairly. If it is a concrete ceiling then you may need to use the company’s refusal to acknowledge your work as a stepping stone to better opportunities.

Takeaway: Don’t allow yourself to be defined by the obstacles put in your way.
Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
Photo credit: Sherry Li on TwitPic.
About the guest blogger: Carla Rover is a freelance programmer and web developer, specializing in social media platforms. She studied international relations at NYU and law and political economy at The University of Oxford, St. Catherine’s College. Follow her on Twitter at @carlarover.