Jill Belconis on Lean In

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.