By CAL Entertainment Exclusive Speaker, Jill Belconis as seen on Lean In.
I’ve continually been presented with the opportunity to be the “first woman” throughout my career. When I graduated from college, I was the first woman hired to work in sales at IBM’S data processing division in my branch. Many skeptics didn’t believe that a 21-year-old woman could succeed in sales at a conservative technology firm. I didn’t aim to be the department’s first successful woman; my goal was simply to excel at my job. The work was brutal. Everyone tried to steer me away, especially the CIO. I accepted the challenge and, despite intimidation tactics from my customer, I learned how to lead.
After IBM I entered another competitive field – mortgage banking – eventually becoming company president. This position qualified me to join YPO Chicago, one of the oldest chapters in Young Presidents’ Organization, a global membership organization for chief executives under the age of 45 based in Dallas, Texas with chapters all over the world. When I joined, my chapter consisted of 180 men and only five women.
Never one to accept the status quo, I committed to do something about the lack of female members. I became a chapter officer. Later, I was YPO Chicago’s first and only female chapter chair, which led me to a spot on the YPO International Board after my peers elected me as international events chair.
When a few members asked if I would consider accepting a nomination for YPO international chairman, the highest position in this 20,000-member-led organization, I wasn’t sure I was ready. Although I was heavily involved with overseeing international events, I had little experience with the organization’s governance structure. I also was a single mother with two children in college, and one about to finish high school, and my career in mortgage banking was at a critical point due to the economy. It was difficult to imagine squeezing in the necessary time to dedicate a year of service, traveling the globe as the public face of YPO.
I thought that if I could just wait one more year, all three of my children would be away at college, and maybe the economy would be more stable. But one thing I learned when I worked at IBM is that there’s never a “right” time to leap out of my comfort zone.
I accepted the nomination and was elected as Chairman of the International Board in 2011 — the first female chairman in YPO’s 60-year history. When the news was announced in Barcelona at YPO’s annual Global Leadership Conference, members responded overwhelmingly. Female members immediately embraced me, but what was most amazing: Male members told me they couldn’t wait to go home and tell their daughters a woman had been elected as International Chairman of YPO.
I broke the glass ceiling when I became International Chairman at YPO and trust it won’t take another 60 years for the next woman to have that opportunity. If I need another reminder of what I’ve accomplished, I look at my daughter’s college application essay, which she shared with me after she submitted it. She wrote that I was her role model and had proven women can effectively be compassionate mothers while excelling at their careers. Her essay is all the validation I need.