This first appeared in Power Women by Ming Zhao. (https://medium.com/authority-magazine/power-women-dr-arin-reeves-of-nextions-on-how-to-successfully-navigate-work-love-and-life-as-a-d3d02139c7d0)
Stop doing stuff that is making you miserable. You don’t have to do anything that makes you miserable. Seriously, you don’t have to. I remember when I — an intense introvert — realized that I don’t have to attend networking events to stay connected to and grow my network. More importantly, this realization came with the bonus realization that I wasn’t fooling anyone — I looked as miserable as I felt. But if I connect with people 1 on 1, I’m so there for the connection. This changed my life. The goal is not to attend networking events. The goal is to create a strong network. And everyone does that differently.
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Arin N. Reeves.
Dr. Reeves is the founder and Managing Director of the research and advisory firm Nextions, which specializes in workplace culture change. Arin has designed and led comprehensive research projects on topics including gender equity, generational diversity, LGBTQI diversity, racial/ethnic, diversity, cultural integration, implicit bias, transformational leadership, and working through generational differences. As a researcher, author, and leading advisor to many top global organizations and executives, Arin is committed to her mission of making workplaces work better for everyone. Arin is a best-selling author of three books: The Next IQ, One Size Never Fits All, and Smarter Than A Lie. Her latest book, In Charge: The Energy Management Guide for Badass Women Who Are Tired of Being Tired was just released in March 2022. Arin began her career as a practicing attorney. She then earned her doctorate in sociology at Northwestern University, where she has served as an Adjunct Professor teaching classes on law and society.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I was born in India, and grew up in India, Libya, and Tanzania, before coming to the United States, and becoming an adopted native of Chicago. I learned, forgot, and sort of remember multiple languages and attended pretty much every type of school you can think of from elite boarding schools to a Catholic convent before arriving in the US. (Yes, I was raised by nuns in a convent for a year. No, it didn’t work out well for anyone involved.) I grew up navigating so many cultures, languages, nationalities, religions, educational environments, living situations, etc. that I feel like I’ve been preparing for a career in justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) my whole life.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
I don’t think there was any one story. When I look back on my life — professionally and personally — I realize that I am a collector of experiences. I love experiencing new things and I try to make sure that I learn something new from each new experience. And, every time I learn something new, I ask myself how I will integrate that lesson into whatever I do next. I have always been deeply passionate about justice and inclusion, and I have also always been passionate about entrepreneurship. I focused on business and pre-law in college and went to law school believing that I would be a lawyer for many years. In law school and while practicing law, I realized how limiting legal systems were in creating change without reliable social science. The legal system is rooted in precedence, and you can’t argue the past to change the future. You have to argue that we now know things that make what we did in the past outmoded, and you need solid science to make that argument. That led me to my doctoral studies. I loved researching, writing, and teaching, but I realized that academia wasn’t exactly the right place for me either. I founded this firm in 1999, and the great thing about being an entrepreneur is that I have been able to lead the firm to evolve as the world changed. So, lawyer, entrepreneur, consultant, teacher, writer, researcher, advocate…they are all a part of who I am and what I bring to my work every day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Interesting is a funny word! My career feels like it has never been anything other than interesting. The work that I do is so connected to global and political cultural, and other dynamics that sometimes I fantasize about what being bored at work would feel like. I can honestly say that I have never been bored doing this work. I think one of the most interesting parts of my professional journey has been the experience of doing all the above while being an engaged mom to two very high energy kids. My daughter is in college, and my son is almost in college, and navigating my career as a mom has been more interesting than anything else because that adds to things never being boring.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Honesty. Be honest with yourself, with clients, with issues, with everything. Of course, you aren’t telling all the truths to everyone, and you should be strategic about what you share and with whom, but telling the truth frees you from worry more than anything else. I was pitching a multinational company for business in 2020, and as I was preparing for the pitch, I realized that if I was in their shoes, I may not want to take the risk with a smaller firm like mine. I started down the path of trying to smooth over what I perceived as weakness but that “just f’ing tell the truth” voice spoke up in my head, and I leaned into it. I started the pitch by saying that I probably would have the same doubts about us if I was in their shoes. I leaned into the fact that we were small, and I told them why I really wanted to work with them and some of the ideas I had for them. It was honest and raw…and true. They picked us, but even if they had not picked us, I would have been okay because you don’t second guess yourself when you tell the truth.
- Inspiration. You can’t work your ass off if you aren’t inspired by something bigger than yourself, and you won’t enjoy any of it if you can’t inspire other people. One of the older definitions of inspiration is to “breathe or put life into the human body.” Inspiration animates you. 2020 and 2021 were really tough years for me personally, and I started off 2022 needing a couple of surgeries. As I struggled with the aftermath of the surgeries, I started falling behind at work. I had a few days in early March when it felt like I couldn’t make anything work. I started making a list of everything and everyone that inspired me — that breathed life back into me — that animated me. I watched videos of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings. She was breathtakingly inspiring, and when she started crying — I started crying — and I felt how much those tears needed to come out. I put my son and daughter on that list and thought about how ridiculously funny they both are even in the middle of sadness or chaos. I put some of my favorite songs, a few quotes, some great art on that list, and soon I was vibing with what an awesome world we live in.
- Kaizen. Constant improvement. I ask myself every day what is one thing I could do better tomorrow. How can I get fractionally better at something? The focus on small but consistent improvement is what keeps you sharp and paying attention to little things. All big things are made up of little things. If you pay attention to the little things, you keep moving forward.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
Humans like predictability. We don’t like change. Historically, we (and by we, I mean the people who could get their voices heard: men) have defined men as strong and women as nurturing. Historically, we have defined tradition as that which aligns with history, and we have defined disruption as what strays from or challenges these historical narratives (which women did not get to vote on by the way). So, men being strong is traditional. It is predictable. Women being strong is disruptive. It is change. It is scary.
Things are changing, but they are changing so very slowly. Strong women still feel disruptive to people; strong women bring vibes of instability to people who seek stability from traditional narratives. Strong women are chastised at home, work, in their communities and everywhere else in a multitude of ways for daring to disrupt the traditions that work so well for some men and have never really worked for most women.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
I define strength as the ability to be true to who you are despite the pressures exerted on you to change what you look like, what you say, or what you do because it would make other people’s lives easier if you would just “act right.” Sometimes we have to push back on the pressures, and sometimes we have to absorb them and use them as fuel to survive and thrive. I was in a meeting in March 2020 when people were just figuring out how to work Zoom. I had been working with a company whose Board of Directors had brought me in because of several gender-based complaints filed against the CEO. It was my first time meeting him. He was talking to the General Counsel and didn’t realize that his audio was on even though his video was off. He said, “Just tell me what I have to say to the feminist b*tch so that we can wrap this up?” I’m assuming I was the feminist b*tch in question since it was just the three of us on the call.
When he turned his video on, he smirked at me and said, “You have my full attention. What would you like to discuss?” I told him that I would love to know a little more about him and the General Counsel. “What’s your favorite movie? Or perhaps a favorite quote?” They stared me without saying anything. I responded with, “Okay, I’ll go first. I love the movie Dolores Claiborne. One my favorite quotes is actually from that movie. ‘Sometimes you have to be a high-riding bitch to survive. Sometimes being a b*tch is all a woman has to hold onto.’ Have you ever seen that movie?”
We never did see eye to eye, and he is no longer the CEO at that company.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
Every woman has to do what works best for her given her unique set of circumstances, leverages, and constraints. That said, a powerful woman most likely did not become powerful overnight, and she probably didn’t have an easy road to becoming powerful. So, first, remember that you are powerful because you have earned it and you deserve it just as much as anyone else in power. Then, remind yourself that you are not responsible for other people’s feelings of uneasiness or anything else. You are responsible for fully living up to the potential that you can express in that position. Stay focused on the job that needs to get done and refocus everyone else’s attention on the job that needs to get done.
If you are an empath and highly tuned into other people’s feelings, remind yourself that just because you see the emotion, it’s not yours to manage or fix. Think of all those feelings you see in everyone as all of the things that are available for you to purchase in a department store. You don’t have the resources to buy everything. You only have the resources to buy what’s most important to you, what you really need. So, notice, and move on to what you really need.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
Step into our power. Lean into our power. We cannot internalize it as our problem that other people are uneasy. They will get over it, or they won’t. But, we will suffer unnecessarily if we take on the responsibility of soothing other people’s — other grown folks’ — emotions.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
Every woman has at least one story, right? The situation that I used to face that used to irritate the crap out of me is that senior men would constantly ask me who took care of my kids when I traveled. I’ve asked men — dads — if they ever get that question, and they don’t.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The three things that I’ve seen really bother women are:
- Women have to be seen as both good at what they do and nice.
- Disproportionate focus on physical appearance (and the general comfort men feel in commenting on women’s appearances…especially when they look disheveled as heck!)
- Women have to educate men about gender inequity even as they have to fight the inequity to ensure their own survival and success.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
I never tried to fit any part of my life into another part of my life, but I’ve had the privilege of being an entrepreneur most of my career. I believe that the idea of work-life balance is ridiculous. You have to integrate all these different parts of your life into a cohesive whole that makes sense to you. I’ve learned that you cannot be afraid to let your values drive your choices. It’s okay if your success doesn’t look like everyone else’s if that version of success makes you miserable!
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
I have never achieved equilibrium! But, I have achieved peace with my choices and joy in my day to day activities. The tipping point occurs when you finally realize that most people are full of sh*t and are just repeating idiotic things they have heard from other people. Look for people who are truly happy and ask them what they did to find that happiness. You will get lots of different answers that will help you figure out your own path.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
How much time do you have to dig into this? I am a woman of color whose appearance has been commented on consistently since I was 13 or 14. Beauty and contextual presentability are different things to me. I see beauty in fierce authenticity and powerful will. Contextual presentability is what makes me put on eyeliner and lipstick before every Zoom call because if I don’t, I get asked if I’m okay or if I’m tired. Fierce authenticity is what made me stop blow drying my hair and letting it be “wild and curly.” I had someone ask me if wearing my hair curly was a “woke statement.” I told him that it was a “nunya statement.” He looked confused. I didn’t explain. Hopefully, he has someone in his life who can explain that to him.
How is this similar or different for men?
Over the last two years, I’ve seen men in workout gear not hearing a single comment on appearance and women who are dressed professionally but don’t have on lipstick ask if they needed more time to be ready. The full weight of how much more women have to navigate their physical appearance in comparison to men is immeasurable. I hope that it changes for my daughter’s generation.
In the meantime, when I get questions in this vein, I give them my “nunya” answer.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Define success for yourself…in detail…before you set goals for yourself. In 2017, I experienced the maddening deflating reality of consistently not achieving the goals I had set for myself that year. No matter what I tried, how many coaches I hired, I kept falling short of what I had set out to do. I was talking to one of my friends about it one evening, and she said, “you have never failed at anything you really want to do.” (Insert face plant emoji.) Before you deem yourself a failure, ask yourself if a goal you have set for yourself is really your goal. Is it a “I should” or “I want?” It’s not failure to get something you don’t really want. I’m pretty sure that’s called good fortune!
- Trust yourself. Then, trust your girlfriends. Only listen to people who are aligned with the previous two sources of insight and guidance. That intuition of yours has been sharpened over the years. It has been sharpened on the honing steel of all that you have observed and experienced and absorbed. Trust yourself first. Then, trust the people who know you for real…for real for real. These are the people that help guide you to what will make you truly happy.
- Stop doing stuff that is making you miserable. You don’t have to do anything that makes you miserable. Seriously, you don’t have to. I remember when I — an intense introvert — realized that I don’t have to attend networking events to stay connected to and grow my network. More importantly, this realization came with the bonus realization that I wasn’t fooling anyone — I looked as miserable as I felt. But if I connect with people 1 on 1, I’m so there for the connection. This changed my life. The goal is not to attend networking events. The goal is to create a strong network. And everyone does that differently.
- Start doing stuff that brings you peace and joy. If you can’t name at least one thing at the end of every day that you really enjoyed or that made you laugh, you should “check yourself before your wreck yourself” as Ice Cube would say.
- Always, always, always remember that if you argue with an idiot, there are now two idiots. Don’t fall for the temptation to argue with an idiot. No idiot has ever stopped being an idiot because a non-idiot argued with them. You don’t have to engage where there is nothing to gain. I have an idiot in my life who tells me (every time I see them!) that if I “just stopped focusing on all this inclusion stuff,” I “could really make something of my life.” My answer (every time!) is “I hear you.” It can be a coworker at work, a boss, an uncle, or anyone else that you would avoid if you could, but you can’t; “I hear you” says just that. You heard them.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson: I would love to thank her personally for her grace in handling the confirmation hearings and her reminder that moms “don’t have to be perfect.”
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Thank you for reading this. I appreciated the opportunity to answer these questions. I reflected on some things in my life that I need to remind myself of more often. Grazie.