Just the Assistant: Creative Engineering
Our brains and workdays couldn’t be more different. I think that’s why the first time I met my husband’s boss, the boss saw something in me he couldn’t get from the other engineers. It was at a Rockets game, and I talked non-stop through the four quarters. At some point in the night, that engineering boss had a revelation . . . this girl will talk to anybody. I bet she’d even talk to that garbage can. She…she…can hold a conversation! And that’s how it has come to pass that over and over again my husband’s boss has invited me to tag along on engineering business trips.
See, my husband and his co-workers know the correct way to load a dishwasher and design petrochemical facilities. Me? I can make folks laugh.
It’s a treat for me to attend these engineering conferences and dinners. I’ve always wanted to go on flashy business trips, but since no one has yet to invite me on a grand Alpine adventure to write about hiking with mountain goats, I’ve embraced the engineering excursions as a nice consolation prize. While the engineers attend meetings during the day, I try on the hotel bathrobe and sample the miniature shampoos. At night I chatter and banter and talk up my husband and his company to their clients, and then we all go home feeling swell.
At least until I blow it.
A few months ago on one of these trips, I sat at a large table surrounded by eight male engineers consisting of my husband, his boss and six potential clients. I carried the weight of that conversation right on my tanned shoulders (I had lain out at the hotel pool all day while they attended oil and gas lectures). I shot out my charm so fast it near whipped into a froth. I was on a roll. But then, I wasn’t.
There’s always one. One sourpuss in the bunch. And I just couldn’t help it. My next joke? It made fun of him – the client. I know! I shouldn’t make fun of anyone, yet alone a potential client. My mother raised me better than this.
The boss looked at me in dread. My husband nervously laughed and sipped his drink.
I covered my tracks, “Ha hee! Totally kidding! Ha…ha.” I then made an immediate departure into friendly apology mode. “I’m sorry and please don’t take your business from this company and I don’t even work here. Really, I don’t. I was at the pool all day.”
I stayed rather quiet for the rest of the dinner, and any words I did utter were pleasant remarks about how thoroughly I was enjoying my pasta.
Since that trip I’ve had to rethink and rework my conversation skills. I’ve made a personal vow (much to the satisfaction of my husband and his boss) that I won’t make any jokes at someone else’s expense, and I make it my goal to make others feel generally good about themselves.
Maybe I shouldn’t have ventured over into the left brain working world in the first place. I’m much too loose of a cannon for that environment. But until I get the call about that hiking expedition, watch for me at upcoming oil conferences. I’ll be the right-brained jabber mouth in the corner charming the argyle socks off those engineering geniuses.
Christina Ledbetter is a free-lance writer in Houston and regular columnist for Houston Woman Magazine. She also writes at JustTheAssistant.com. Add a comment Add a comment
Pinterest: Social site piques more than interest
Apparently, I am not alone. The fledgling social media site that launched in 2010 now has intrigued more than 11 million other pinners worldwide. In fact, its numbers jumped dramatically from 1.68 million unique visitors in September, 2011 to seven million in December.
I guess that makes me part of the wave. I started getting very Pinterest-ed in late October when I was introduced to the site by my daughter, 26, who falls squarely into the site’s key demographic of trendy, college-educated women in the 18-34 age bracket (34 percent of all users).
“OMG! Cute!” she wrote me in her e-mail about the aforementioned headbands, and declared her new Pinterest addiction.
“What the heck is Pinterest?” I wondered, and started clicking. Little did I know Time magazine had already named it one of the “50 Best Web Sites of 2011” just two months earlier.
For me, discovering the visually driven pinboard site was like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Indeed, now I even have a Pinterest board called “Go Ask Alice” and 49 others that showcase my diverse interests: movies, quilts, pottery, stained glass, gardening, home decor, fashion, teddy bears, buttons, country primitives. There’s even a pin on my “Yummm” board that links to a recipe for thin mint cookies (yet another addiction — thank you, Girl Scouts). Pins can be pretty pictures that catch your eye, but link back to the original source online. Or, you can pin your own original photos. Both options make marketers take notice.
I’ve been averaging about 28 pins per day, which may mean I need to go to pinning rehab. It seemed to happen overnight, and now I’ve exceeded 3,000 pins. The beauty and the addicting allure of Pinterest is you can follow cool things your friends find online — ideas and products and pictures that just make you smile — and complete strangers can also follow your boards, all or individually. I’d like to think it’s a shortcut to all these great finds that would normally take hours of 'net surfing. Pin boards can define your style and personal brand or serve as a bulletin board for ideas and resources.
Apparently, the queen mother of all pinboards is Jane Wang, an Iowa ophthalmologist with 97 boards and 2.5 million followers, according to ZoomSphere, a site that tracks social media usage. Wang is also the mother of Ben Silbermann, 29, who co-founded the Palo Alto start-up along with pals Paul Sciarra and Evan Sharp- — and the $37 million in venture funding they obtained. Industry experts say Pinterest’s monetization plan is not fully formed. In other words, they haven’t figured out yet how to make a profit from the site directly.
Meanwhile, others have. In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed a considerable uptick in the number of retailers, media and other businesses that have suddenly snapped to the idea that they should start pinning their own content to drive traffic to their web sites. Top retailers like Norton Ditto and Macy’s are already on board. ZoomSphere lists Whole Foods, West Elm, Kate Spade, HGTV and Real Simple magazine among the top 10 brands with a presence on the site.
“It’s the fastest growing, hottest new social network,” said Shelley Roth of Springboard Works, a Houston-based social media training and consulting firm. “I just started promoting it the last 30 days. It’s fantastic for any business that wants to show some type of information visually. Pinterest has just taken me and my clients by storm,” said Roth.
“The other thing many people don’t realize is that you can actually post videos,” Roth added. “All the videos you have that you might be posting on You Tube, you can post to Pinterest. All of this enhances your search engine optimization.”
For now, Pinterest is still a decidedly “girly” social site, where the ratio of women to men on Pinterest is about four to one. It should be noted the guys also have their own unrelated version called Gentlemint. I've looked at it, and I don’t get it — because I’m not supposed to.
But “girls” spend money online. More than half of all Pinterest users have a median household income greater than $50,000, and they spend an average of about 15 minutes per day on the site. It’s not nearly as much time as they spend on Facebook, but it’s a sign retailers should heed. Pinners are not just collecting photos of cute kittens; they're also clicking through on other links to see where to buy great shoes. Pinterest is clearly building a community of shoppers, as well as thought leaders and influencers.
As for me, I’ll never catch up to Jane Wang, but my own 100+ followers consist of close friends and a lot of creative strangers whose excellent taste I value. My fellow pinners hail from California to Cape Town, South Africa and from Iowa to the Isle of Man.
Speaking of man, one of the few men following my boards is a guy named “Pirate Bill” from California who apparently shares my off-the-wall interest in gargoyles. Frankly, I don’t see how anyone is making money from photos of gargoyles hanging off the buttresses of Notre Dame Cathedral, but who knows? Maybe one of these pins is actually driving traffic to a travel site that offers tours of Paris.
Deborah Quinn Hensel is a free-lance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine. Add a comment Add a comment
Chambers: Women presidents talk about their roles
The success of one’s business is always linked to the success of the community in which it is located. And, no organization knows that better than our city’s many chambers of commerce. And, unlike many years ago, many of them are being led by women executives who advocate for businesses and the growth of their communities.
Ann Hodge, president of the Katy Area Chamber of Commerce, said, “The Chamber acts as the spokesperson for the business and professional community and translates into action the cumulative vision of our members. We deliver specific services to enhance the quality of life and business development opportunities for both our members and the community as a whole.”
Hodge became president of the Katy Chamber in 1999. Prior to joining the Chamber, she served as divisional vice president of external affairs for BFI. The board of the Katy Chamber was looking to develop a growth strategy. Hodge says her experience at BFI gave her “an outstanding background to assume the challenges of growing the Katy Area Chamber of Commerce into a viable, strong business organization.”
The Katy Chamber is dedicated to maintaining and strengthening a sound and healthy business climate in the Katy community and provides assistance for businesses at all stages of growth.
“We are mindful of the importance of delivering quality services for the entire community and we always strive to exceed expectations,” said Hodge.
Katy is a rapid growth community and was recently named the “Number One Growth Community in the United States” by the Gadberry Group. Because of the various challenges that come with growth, Hodge says the Chamber is critical to insuring the community secures the resources and services both its residents and businesses need. Working with the Katy Independent School District, Katy Area Economic Development Council, City of Katy and its three “home” counties, “the Katy Chamber advocates and pursues infrastructure, mobility, healthcare and education projects for the community.”
While counting it a privilege to tell the advantages of living and working in Katy, Hodge says her greatest challenge is carefully managing limited resources and telling the chamber’s story.
Dependent on the community for support (the Katy Chamber does not receive any government funding to support its programs), she recognizes the importance of telling how the chamber is making a positive impact on the community and the importance of gaining support from the community.
“The center of all of our programs is the importance of providing an exceptional quality of life for our residents and businesses,” Hodge said. “My hope is I have made a small contribution to ensure that quality of life for our entire community.”
Frances Castaneda Dyess
Frances Castaneda Dyess sees the results of business success right in her backyard. The president of the Houston East End Chamber of Commerce has called the East End home since childhood. Before taking this position in 2010, Dyess worked in the advertising world and later served as director of corporate services for the Houston Rockets.
“Being the neighborhood I grew up in, the neighborhood I moved back to when I returned to Houston and the neighborhood I currently live in, I knew this would be the perfect job,” she said.
The East End Chamber “represents business and community, offering a lifeline of opportunity during a challenging economy.”
Supporting business growth and workforce development, the EECOC provides its members opportunities to build relationships and partnerships with programs including monthly business luncheons, procurement lunches, breakfast exchanges, after hour mixers, an annual gala and a golf tournament to name a few.
“It is always a pleasure to talk to our members at different events, get to know their needs and help them make connections with other members,” Dyess said.
Her biggest challenge is deciding which of the many current and relevant suggestions she receives for programming and events will be most effective and having a limited time to execute them.
Equally committed to economic prosperity and education, the chamber is addressing the national shortage of engineering graduates and skilled technicians by developing engineering, petroleum and maritime academies at Chavez, Milby and Austin High Schools. It also sponsors a scholarship program for students who live in or attend a high school in the East End and provides computers for graduates of Chavez’s Engineering Academy.
In her short tenure, the EECOC has met its revenue goals, raising more money through its membership and fundraisers than in prior years.
Dyess said, “With a very small staff, we truly rely on our board, ambassadors and friends to help execute big programs, provide membership leads and provide financial support to keep us going.”
Jeannie Bollinger says her experience in non-profit management and fundraising are important to her position as president of the Houston West Chamber of Commerce. She served as the associate director of ESCAPE Family Resource Center where she was responsible for all fundraising, and later as manager of administration for AquaSource, Inc. before stepping into this role nearly 10 years ago.
“I learned about this job from a former volunteer who worked for me at the ESCAPE Resource Center, and she thought this would be the perfect job for me,” she said.
The Houston West Chamber strives to promote economic growth and superior quality of life in West Houston. Small business is just as important to economic growth as the next large employer. Sixty percent of HWCOC’s members are small business owners or micro businesses. Bollinger said many times they are overlooked because of the perception that they generate little in terms of jobs and dollars for the community’s economic engine, but these businesses actually provide common services that the community uses everyday.
“These ‘small micro’ businesses are the backbone of every community,” Bollinger said. “It is incumbent upon our chamber to provide services, help and support to our small businesses. As small businesses go, so goes our community.”
According to Bollinger, what she enjoys most and what challenges her most about this job is the variety of people she meets and works with.
“It takes a lot of finesse to get along with so many different types of people with their own issues, problems and expectations,” she said. “Managing expectations is the most difficult. I believe we should undersell and over deliver!”
Bollinger’s goal is to build an organization that members are proud enough to belong so that they will bring their clients and business prospects. Membership has grown from 285 to more than 650, and the chamber is well on its way toward the goal of 1001 members. Being a business resource for its members is a top priority, and the chamber’s activities, events and seminars are designed to support them.
Suzan Deison, founder and president of the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce, is no stranger to the work of chambers. She began her career at the Conroe Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, working her way to director of the Conroe Visitors and Convention Bureau.
Using her entrepreneurial skills, she opened a travel agency and later a women’s boutique. After selling the businesses, she was appointed president of the North Houston Greenspoint Chamber, then The Galleria Chamber.
In December 2008, Deison founded the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce. She hoped it would be “the” place for women to develop leadership skills, build business relationships and promote their businesses. She also wanted to give female entrepreneurs opportunities for training and funding.
“The chamber is a place where entrepreneurs and business executives can come together to promote commerce and to improve the quality of life for future generations,” Deison said. “Working together we have a much stronger voice in the community.”
The GHWCC has used its collective voice to become the premier women’s business organization in the greater Houston area. The chamber’s annual conference, coming up April 17, provides thousands of women with resources to develop leadership and team building skills, form business relationships and learn relevant business practices.
Reaching the next generation of businesswomen, STEM Town USA exposes girls to science, technology, engineering and math concepts and encourages them to pursue STEM careers. The chamber has hosted a job shadowing program for high school girls and provides scholarships for female students in area school districts.
The Corporate Board Initiative was formed to increase the visibility of women serving on corporate boards.
The GHWCC also created Smart Start for Women Entrepreneurs to provide training, education, start-up tools and micro loans. Building relationships and giving back to the community are what Deison enjoys most.
“Collectively many voices are louder than one, and by working together we can accomplish so much more,” Deison said.
Kim James is a free-lance journalist and long-time reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.
Sarah Weddington is a nationally known attorney and spokesperson on leadership and public issues. She gained worldwide fame when, at the age of 26, she represented “Jane Roe” in the landmark Roe v. Wade case in the U.S. Supreme Court. Her argument made her the youngest person ever to win a case there.Weddington’s experience and charisma make her a highly sought-after speaker. So, when I heard she would be presenting at The Junior League at the annual meeting of the Federation of Houston Professional Women, I jumped at the opportunity to go hear her speak. As it turned out, I was granted an exclusive, one-on-one interview with her just prior to the big event. Below are some of the things we talked about.
HOUSTON WOMAN: Most of our readers know you are a Texan but know little about your upbringing. Would you tell us about it?
SARAH WEDDINGTON: I was born and raised in Abilene, Texas. My father, Herbert Ragle, was a Methodist minister. From a very early age, I loved to talk. I was also someone who wanted to change things.
HW: Please tell us about your education.
WEDDINGTON: I graduated from McMurray University in my hometown of Abilene and then went on to Austin to earn a J.D. degree from The University of Texas School of Law.
HW: What attracted you to the legal profession?
WEDDINGTON: I think I was always interested in law, but the Dean at McMurray discouraged me. He said being a lawyer would be too tough for a woman.
HW: What exactly did he mean by that?
WEDDINGTON: He said he didn’t see how I would be able to work as a lawyer and still have enough time for a family - to take care of children, clean the house, cook meals, etc.
HW: You’re kidding, right?
WEDDINGTON: No, I’m not. It was the 1960s. Times were very different then.
HW: So, how did you end up in law school?
WEDDINGTON: I moved to Austin and went to work as a clerk typist in the Texas Legislature. The more I watched what was going on there, the more I thought, “I can do that.” So, I applied for law school. There were 125 students in my class. Only five were women. One of the five was U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.
HW: Was it difficult to land that first job after law school?
WEDDINGTON: It was difficult for a lot of women back then. At the time, law firms weren’t willing to pay travel expenses to and from interviews, as they did for the men. Law partners didn’t view the expenditures as wise investments. They just assumed all women lawyers would get married, have children and quit.
HW: So, what did you do?
WEDDINGTON: I went to the Placement Office at the law school and complained about it. The Dean was told, and he agreed “it wasn’t fair.” So, he started making calls to the law firms.
HW: What happened next?
WEDDINGTON: I was interviewed by a law firm in Dallas, and the travel expenses were paid. I wasn’t offered a job, however. The partner said he wasn’t sure the wives were ready for a female attorney in their midst.Thirteen years later, while I was working in the Carter Administration, that same partner was considered for an appointment as a federal judge. I was one of those asked to make recommendations for or against his appointment.
HW: May I assume that man did not get the appointment?
WEDDINGTON: Yes, but not for the reason you might think. He never called and asked me to help him. Instead, he had one of his assistants call for him. If he had called me himself, I would have given him the nod.
HW: A few years after the Roe v. Wade case was settled, you were elected to the Texas House of Representatives, the first woman ever elected to represent Austin. You served two terms, and I understand you had an administrative assistant of note.
WEDDINGTON: Yes, I did. An amazing young woman named Ann Richards. The same Ann Richards who later became our governor.
HW: The two of you were founding members of the Foundation for Women’s Resources. Would you tell our readers about that organization?
WEDDINGTON: I’m very proud of my involvement with the Foundation for Women’s Resources - as one of the first board members and helping with the creation of Leadership Texas and Leadership America. The founding members of the Foundation felt more women were needed at all levels of Texas life, both in business and politics. We wanted women to be able to meet more people and get a statewide perspective on things. The Foundation’s key programs accomplish that.
HW: You have been such a great leader and now you speak often on the subject of leadership. How do you define leadership?
WEDDINGTON: Always the same. Leadership is having the willingness and ability to leave your thumbprint. That often means stepping out, speaking up and taking risks.
HW: You will be retiring from your adjunct professor duties at The University of Texas in Austin at the end of this school year. What’s next for Sarah Weddington?
WEDDINGTON: I believe life is best lived when looking forward, but it’s best understood by looking backward. I think that’s why the rearview mirror in an automobile is smaller than the windshield. It’s what’s ahead that is most important; I know there will be new chapters in my life. I’d like to write a book on leadership, travel and speak more.