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Want to Bridge the Gender Gap? Mentorship & Strong Role Models Work, A 1st Person Success Story

The first crack that widens to a gender gap begins long before women enter the workplace. Mine began opening when I was 11, a girl from Tehran, enjoying a two-week visit to see my older brothers in Los Angeles.

Seemingly overnight, I went from delighted tourist to startled refugee. On television, we watched the footage of familiar buildings of my home city being set ablaze. It was December 1978, and the Iranian Revolution was gathering momentum. With the worsening political situation, my parents decided my siblings and I should remain in the U.S. and study.

Initially I was entranced, taking in the sheer plentitude of California. Six months passed, and the shock of adjustment set in. It would take five and half years until my parents escaped Iran to join us. I began navigating this new culture, one that seemed in constant collision with the one I had left.

I admired the women in my family for their resilient spirit and their orientation toward keeping a strong, tight-knit family, but it was always at the cost of not having a viable outlet for their own personal ambitions. Around me, few women in good financial standing worked outside of the house.

I had always assumed that I shouldn’t entertain too lofty goals for myself, fearing that I was veering out of my restrictive cultural mandate; however, I was shocked and strangely fascinated by how the American girls who had become my friends were mapping out their target universities and career plans. These girls were direct. They articulated their goals with confidence and enthusiasm.

I grappled with a feeling of “doubleness”–not fully belonging to any culture. Could I build a life in America while retaining my Iranian values? Would I be deemed too self-centered by my family if I chose to work?

Looking back, I see that I longed for a mentor to help me navigate this rocky terrain. I remember casting about for role models, but none were readily available. So, I found my mentors by reading biographies of bold people who challenged the status quo. Their journeys, their stories, opened a larger framework of purposeful and meaningful possibilities for me.

Today, young women in every country are in need of mentors to spark their first visions of wider options. They need help creating personal connections with inspiring women, for support, motivation and encouragement. We need to build access to achievement.

The World Bank Group’s report “Women, Business and the Law 2016,” released in early September, studied 173 world economies and found that 90% of them had at least one law that discriminated against women, limiting their individual—and by extrapolation—their countries’ economic prospects. This is sobering news, especially coming 20 years after countries pledged to work toward gender equality at a United Nations conference in China.

Although a growing number of organizations such as Best Buddies International, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and MENTOR have formal mentoring programs and networks, the playing field remains far from level.

According to National Mentoring Partnership, 17.6 million young Americans today are in special need of mentors. Of that number, only 2.5 million are in mentoring relationships, while the remaining 15.1 million are left in a mentoring “gap.” Surveys of upper-level American managers find that almost half of women of color and close to a third of white women cite a lack of influential mentors as a major barrier to advancement.

Emerging research shows that girls’ social and emotional learning is most impacted through group mentorship. Developing more formalized links with girls’ associations and girls’ groups and enrolling young women in an afterschool peer and mentorship groups is one way of making quality mentorship scalable and available to a larger population. Those enrolled can then participate in skill-building programs, corporate visits, be introduced to women leaders in various industries and take part in internships and conferences, to pass the invisible boundaries set by narrowly conceived possibilities.

At most conferences that I attend, women leaders are usually addressing other well-established women. When do we ask young women, or disadvantaged youth to join the conversation?

Given my personal story, when I organize a salon, I provide a bus for inner city high-potential girls, who might feel like “outsiders” themselves, to attend. My colleagues and I have found that some of the most interesting questions and memorable interactions have come from this group. Many of our panelists and speakers make themselves available to offer guidance to these girls through email, a phone conversation, or one-on-one chats.

We might close the country’s mentorship gap effectively and avoid duplication of systems by bringing together public and private sector organizations and leaders across each state. Such collaborations can facilitate statewide, centralized mentoring services.

In Canada, for example, the Alberta Mentoring Partnership launched the #8000Mentors recruitment campaign in 2014. The Partnership is a coalition of government, business and community groups whose mission is to provide a mentor for every youth in care in Alberta. Certainly this campaign has brought mentorship to the forefront of priorities.

Women “lean in” in different ways, one of which is becoming a champion for other women and girls. Anyone who has had a success has had people, programs and personal experiences that bridged the gap between their present and future selves. Our young girls and women, especially those of minority and lower-income backgrounds, deserve the opportunities that mentorship can provide.

Visionary Women Book Launch: Celebrating Sisterhood

October 6th will go down as one of the most memorable days of my life.  My dearest friend, Lili Bosse had warned me ahead of time, “You better be prepared.  It will be a big celebration. Mark my words.”   She was obviously imaging the day in her mind’s eye as she was the one who was hosting the book launch.

I am no newcomer to book launches, after all “Visionary Women” was my third book, and I have gone to support numerous other book parties.  But somehow, when Lili and I were planning this event, we wanted it not only to be a book launch but a celebration of sisterhood, of women coming to support other women, and most importantly, a celebration of women’s voices.

It seemed as if all who joined us that day had instinctively understood the purpose of the event and the reasoning behind writing the book. I was quite taken when guests started arriving half an hour earlier than expected and shortly thereafter a long line of cars started forming.   Lili and I had invited our friends from our elementary school years, and high school years. We had friends from work and the nonprofits that we are involved in.  We also had invited some new friends and family members.  An hour into the event, close to 500 enthusiastic friends were mingling in the garden, listening to an all-women band, and taking up the festive atmosphere.

But it wasn’t the sheer number of people that made an impression on me. Quite frankly I was so moved by the show of love and support by all those who were there. Friends and family gave me warm embraces and congratulated me and so many people bought multiple copies of the book to gift to their nieces, friends, and sister. I was truly touched.

When the two years that I was engrossed in learning, researching, and writing about the lives of 20 trailblazing women in the world, I felt as if I had formed my own interior world of fearless tribe of women.  That day at the book launch, I looked around myself and saw that so many of them were in reality gathered there in the garden.

I hope we always find ourselves in tribes of women who are generous in spirit and encourage others to greater heights.

Empowering the Next Generation of Female Leaders

My husband David and I, through our Social Innovators in Residence program at Wharton, were so pleased to have had a stellar woman — Diana Ayton-Shenker come and speak. Named one of “25 Leading Women Changing the World” by Good Business New York, this social-impact strategist came to inspire the next generation with her insights. This is one of the other ways to empower female leaders and reach the next generation. I hope you will read and enjoy her article:
Big Ideas That Matter: Reframing Philanthropy in 2015

Visionary Women’s “Women at the Forefront of Technology” Salon

Victor Hugo once said, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” I wholeheartedly agree.

An idea, a focus, and an energy to build a community of visionary and empowered women is something that has been stirring in me for many years now.  I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of women who have broken ground in their fields – and shared a passion to know and educate others on what is it exactly that gives some that spark to create change.

For me, February 26, 2015, marks a special moment in my life. Together with the help of my talented co-founders and executive board members: Mayor Lili Bosse, Veronica Smiley, and Ambassador Nicole Avant, and committee, we launched Visionary Women into the stratosphere with the “Women at the Forefront of Technology” Salon.

Three hundred and twenty inspired women leaders and fifteen girls from Communities in Schools Los Angeles’ Ladies First program joined us for a panel discussion at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills to hear some of the top women leading technology today. Our panel lineup featured Dawn Ostroff, President of Condé Nast Entertainment (CNÉ), Pauline Fischer, Vice President, Original Content at Netflix, Julie Uhrman, Founder and CEO of OUYA and Doris Kim Sung, Founder of do| SU Studio Architecture.  Five-time Emmy Award winning journalist, Giselle Fernandez moderated the discussion and the attention from the audience was palpable.

Here are two of my favorite quotes from the day – although there were many:

“Listen to your inner voice. Trust your intuition. It’s important to have the courage to trust yourself.” - Dawn Ostroff

“Understand yourself enough to know what you are most passionate about. Don’t compromise on that because you are going to have to work hard no matter what.” – Julie Uhrman

I know that Visionary Women is an idea whose time has come, and I’m so grateful to have the support of so many friends, family and community members.

It’s an incredible feeling to be doing the work that you love with others whose heartbeat echoes your own.

I’m also grateful to our event sponsor NET-A-PORTER.COM, whose passion for empowering women mirrors our own.

Thank you to those of you who have supported me on all the twists and turns of this exciting journey.


A Wonderful Time with the Women of YPO Quebec

It must have been a few month back when I was in the midst of writing one of my chapters for my upcoming book that I answered the phone. A woman by the name of Marie-Christine had contacted me from Quebec, inviting me to their YPO Chapter there for a talk. We finally decided that I would coordinate my trip around my upcoming visit to New York so my travel time won’t be as long.

Well, I never thought about weather conditions or storms when I booked the speaking engagement, but the week before my scheduled arrival, Quebec had a big storm. Just days before leaving I had checked the weather there and I surprised to see that it was 5 degrees Fahrenheit!

The last time I was in that kind of weather was when I was stuck on a ski lift at age 21!

I will have to say that my flight to Montreal was easy and uneventful. From up above the snow covered landscape was so beautiful that it reminded me of an abstract painting. Marie-Christine was awaiting my arrival at the airport and on our way to the airport we got a chance to talk. I say this with great sincerity, but one of the nicest experiences on all my work travels has been meeting interesting people and learning about their lives and what they do. Quebec did not disappoint. Marie-Christine, Nathalie, Ruby, along with the 60 other YPO spouses who had come for my talk were warm and welcoming. My talk about leadership took an hour but we spent the next three hours chatting, laughing and sharing our experiences. I learned about the great work of so many of these women and how each was striving to do something that was reflective of their character, talents, and interests.

You know you love what you do when you can’t keep track of time. What was supposed to be a two hour event became four hours— the evening ended with laughter and many hugs and embraces. Somehow I hope to revisit Quebec. Who knows maybe for launch of my third book!

When Visions Come to Life

Marina Abramovic

There are moments in life when dreams and ambitions become realities, when we are thrust from the ordinary rhythms of life into the extraordinary. These moments serve as reminders that while the work may be long and hard, the journey is worthwhile. While writing my second book on women world changers titled, Visionary Women, I started to see one of my life-long dreams manifest.

Sandra Day O’Connor

Over the last several months, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some of my all-time favorite women leaders first hand (or those in their close inner circle) to round out my research. My interview list reads like the who’s who of the last century. For someone like me – interviewing these truly great individuals is a dream come true! So far, my list of interviewees includes: Katharine Graham, news magnate of the Washington Post, Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court Justice, Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, the niece of Carmen Amaya, the world’s most famous Flamenco, Asha Kowtal, General Secretary of the National Dalit Women’s Movement, Leymah Gbowee, Liberian peace activist and Nobel laureate, the grand daughter of Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire, and newest and youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai’s partner and co-founder of the Malala Fund, Shiza Shahid.

Malala Yousafzai

My adventure continues — in the coming weeks I am flying to New York and look forward to meeting and interviewing the world famous performance artist Marina Abramovic in her studio. There is so much to glean from these amazing women, and my new book will be full of new revelations, insights, personal stories and ideas to stimulate our own growth. I look forward to sharing this incredible journey with you! So, stay tuned…


Powerhouse Women Connect at the WITW Conference

Every year I look forward to going to NY to attend the Women in the World Conference. Tina Brown packs the two and a half days at the Lincoln Center with the most compelling stories and women change makers. For someone like me, who writes, lives, and breathes these topics, it is one of the most interesting venues to attend.

I want to share with you some of the highlights from the conference:

I had a chance to meet two Syrian women (Hiba Sawan and Rania Kisar) who are activists in their war torn country. Their story of saving victims of bombing and war was incredibly touching and I had a chance to sit next to them at lunch.

Who can forget the in-depth conversation between two of the most powerful women—Hillary Rodham Clinton and Christine Lagarde. The moment where they high-fived one another was caught on camera and was in the news the very next morning. Funny enough, I ran into Christine Lagarde at the Carlyle hotel and enthusiastically went over to congratulate her on her inspiring talk. She is not only brilliant and fearless, but chic and approachable.

The list of impressive presenters continued: Lorene Powell Jobs moderated a panel on education; Jimmy Carter made a passionate case on behalf of women and girls in his new book, “A Call to Action”; the comedian, Sara Silverman and her sister, Susan, who happens to be a rabbi talked about their shared spirit of activism (by the way, Susan is as funny as Sara); the list went on.

Of course, one of the highlights was listening to the experiences of Masha Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot. To think that for months we were following their trial and tribulations in Russia and they were onstage talking about their new NGO, Zona Pravda.

I came back to LA brimming with ideas and thinking about the women who I would like to write about in my next book. Stay tuned: I will have a surprise story of a brave-hearted “untouchable” woman that I want to showcase in the near future.


Jacqueline Novogratz: “I Want to Be Used up by Life”

Ever since I did my research on Jacqueline Novogratz four years ago for my book, Pioneers of the Possible, I knew I had come across a brilliant, world-changing woman.

Jacqueline Novogratz is the Founder and CEO of Acumen, a non-profit global venture capital fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to fight global poverty.

In 2011, Jacqueline and Acumen graced the cover of Forbes Magazine for her work in venture capitalism and social enterprise.

In her book, The Blue Sweater, Jacqueline shares her personal life story and how she found her life to be intertwined with the life of a child wearing her old blue sweater far away in the wilderness of Africa, and what this connection means for all of us. Her life story is so compelling that when she wrote her book it quickly became a bestseller.

Without exaggeration, it took me 2 years to have Jacqueline to come and speak to a group of women here in Los Angeles.  But, this comes to show that persistence pays off!  Last year, my partner, Beth and I, asked her to come and speak at the WOMEN A.R.E.  Summit. However, that first week of November she had to be Africa and India!

Oftentimes I have thought about how many times she criss-crosses the globe in a given year.  Luckily, her travels this year brought her to Los Angeles on March 13th, where she addressed 170 WOMEN A.R.E. guests.

She shared with us her personal journey and amazing life’s work—from training future leaders in developing countries, to funding start-ups that serve the needs of the most marginalized people in the world. It is with a great deal of pride that I say that her vision has touched and affected over 40 million lives to date.

One of my favorite quotes that Jacqueline often shares is from none other than Martin Luther King: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its bests love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

She also made another powerful statement that had a deep impact on many of the women, “I want to be used up by life.” Her message highlighted humanity’s interconnectedness – that we are all intertwined not only socially, but economically and in many other ways. She talked about the importance of human dignity, and how much more important it is that wealth. Her core message was focused on how we can unleash the potential of the most marginalized people in the world and lead a life that is full of dignity.

May each one of us glean from the wealth of wisdom Jacqueline shared and make the world a better place because of it.

La Dama Del Cement: Amalia Fortabat

I just got back from an amazing trip from Argentina, and of course, one of the first things I do while I’m touring around a new country is ask the guides about the local history and the most notable women of the region.

Just imagine that one of the most powerful and successful executives in Argentina was a woman by the name of Amalia Fortabat. She caused quite a stir by divorcing her first husband and marrying a man 27 years her senior, who was the founder of a large and successful cement company. Their romance was the talk of Buenos Aires, where at the time, their relationship was anything but conventional.

It didn’t take long before she was immersed in his business. She was fluent in three languages, French, English and Spanish, and was the daughter of a prominent family (her mother’s family descended from Uraguay’s second president Manuel Oribe).

Following her husband’s death in 1976, she took charge of his business empire taking the company to greater heights, earning her the title “La dama del cement” or “The Cement Lady.” In addition to being a successful executive, Amalia Fortabat had a deep passion for the arts and philanthropy.

In the 70s, she created the Foundation Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, “an institution that donates millions of dollars to charity and provides grants to children’s homes, schools and cultural centres.” And, in 1992 she was appointed president of the National Art Foundation where she continued to contribute her services to the arts and philanthropy to the end of her life.

One of the highlights from my trip was visiting her private art collection.

Here is a photo of the piece Andy Warhol created for her.

My Adventures in Mexico City at the WOBI Conference

Poster Art by Twitter fan @CFMEDIUM

When I had accepted to speak at the WOBI conference in Mexico City, I had no idea how hectic my life would be that week. I was gearing up for the WOMEN ARE Summit that my partner, Beth and I, have been organizing for the past year, I was due to speak in New York at another women’s conference a few days later, and to add more excitement to my life, my husband and I had accepted to host a speaker from Stanford the night before.

But truth be told, that week was one of the highlights of my work. It isn’t easy to be in constant movement, and I for one, cherish the times that I have a set schedule of uninterrupted writing.   But, what I have realized is that what I love even more than the process of writing is connecting with people.

Needless to say, at the WOBI conference I got the opportunity to connect with 2,500 top leaders and executives from Latin America. The thought of walking into a big expo center and seeing rows and rows of seats and stage twice the size of anything I have ever seen made me chuckle. How did a girl from Iran ever end up coming to the conference and have the opportunity to do interviews with Forbes, Televisa, and Martha Debayle, and do a Vogue photo shoot for their “Power Women” feature?

Besides, at the conference I had the opportunity to listen to other truly exceptional speakers such as: RED BULL’s Stratos pilot, Felix Baumgarter (who jumped from the Stratosphere in free fall, breaking the sound barrier as well as many other records), Xavier Sala-I-Martin (the Spanish economist who is a leader in the field of economic growth), Magnus Scheving (the Icelandic writer, producer, entrepreneur, and athlete who is also the creator and co-star of the children’s television show LazyTown), and Lorenzo Servitje, the founder of Bimbo Corporation (the largest Mexican owned baking company, with brands in America, Asia, and Europe).

Each of these experiences were incredibly gratifying and exciting at the same time. The saying is true: when your work is your passion, it can really be the most fun of all and my time working in Mexico was a perfect example. What I truly sensed was the warmth and hospitality of the people I met—the wholehearted way they reached out to me.

Angella Nazarian with CNN Host


In the few hours I had free, I was able to visit the Tomaya Museum and Carlos Sims art collection.  The only thing that was on my mind as I was leaving for the airport was, I need to come back to Mexico—and very soon.  I guess Latin blood really runs through my veins.