We were all beginners once
Firsts are always memorable moments.
Remember the excitement when your work was first published or when you were quoted by the reporter you admired? Remember that butterfly feeling when your expertise was first recognised and when you saw your name on the speaker list at a conference?
The fire. The passion.
You were on cloud nine.
Of course, you were already an expert before someone approached you. But it’s always nice that someone acknowledges it, isn’t it?
That very first chance.
There is always a first time for everything.
But getting that first chance is the hardest part.
Before that first time, you’re unproven. There is a risk. Some will ask, “Don’t you have someone more skilled or tested?”
I remember this experience vividly. After graduating college and paying my dues doing something somewhat related to my studies (I was a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering, in case you were wondering), I moved to the DC area. Back in the 90s, this region was filled with telecommunications providers from incumbents such as AT&T, MCI, and Verizon, to up and coming CLECs such as Teligent and Winstar. Opportunities abound.
Or so I thought.
Despite no lack of openings, I had a hard time getting hired because they were always looking for someone with prior telecom experience. Because no one wanted to place a bet on talent that was green and untested. Never mind that I did have the relevant skillsets running systems and tech, just not in the telecommunications industry.
To those in the industry, I was unproven and untested. I was simply an outsider.
Eventually, I was hired by a female manager who told me: We all start somewhere.
The first… of many
Her words stay with me to this date. And they resonate even more now than ever.
Time after time, women are told you haven’t done enough. You need to lean in. You need to put yourselves out there more often. You need to do more. You need to prove that you are worthy of the opportunity.
Yet, as my good friend Sonya Dreizler said, “When we cross the magical line from doing more to doing too much, we are shut down or shut out for being too much.”
That is, if you are lucky enough to not be presented with another magical milestone that you have to reach.
Do you still remember the first time you were asked to speak at an event?
Mine was in the late 90s at a colour measurement conference at Clemson University. My leadership team gave me the opportunity to present because they thought it would be important for me.
We all start somewhere, they said.
Simple yet powerful words. And I still remember that feeling when I was standing on the podium. I was mortified.
But I learned from it. I got a second chance. And a third chance.
The rest, as they say, is history.
There is always a first time for everything.
Just like how Dr Leda Glyptis was first invited to be on a panel, and some were surprised by how good she was. (Even to this date!)
Just like how Barb MacLean did her first podcast when 11:FS invited her to be on Fintech Insiders after years in the industry. A veteran, one would say.
Just like how Hessie Jones’ first public speaking opportunity came about when she was asked to fill in as a last-minute replacement while working in an ad agency.
Just like how Kat O’Brien was asked to go on ESPN News to talk about the Texas Rangers when she was already a brilliant writer covering the team.
Just like how Rawan Shawar got her first chance when Linda Saye invited her to a panel on working and leading in diverse workplaces. According to Rawan: “That first panel and all the feedback I got helped lay the foundational blocks that encouraged me to rethink my career trajectory and eventually move into product management and strategy.”
Talk about a life changing experience.
None of these amazing women need someone to give them a chance to speak in order to prove that they are brilliant — because they already are. But having that first chance with a wider audience opens the door to other opportunities — opportunities that are otherwise available only for those in the circle.
The little black book
When it comes to giving a voice to more people so they too can get their first chance, there is no silver bullet. Trust me, else we’d have fixed it already.
But here are a few thoughts.
First, let’s put aside our little black book and start a new one.
That proven list of people we always tap into? We all have it. And it’s time to let go of the security blanket and add new names. We need new voices to give new dimensions to our conversations.
But wait, shouldn’t we already know that?
And yet, when we dare to make demands, we also get told: “We can’t find women! We have tried so hard.” Or worse, we find ourselves being the token woman — held up as an example of the incredible effort that leads up to such a diverse event.
So we all respond in earnest, again and again, with an endless number of lists for easy reference.
Never mind that all of these diverse speakers existed way before there were lists made of them, if only someone bothered to look.
Never mind that we shouldn’t be the ones going the extra mile to do the work that someone else is paid to do.
But again. We all know that.
So we shrug and lament the fact nothing has changed. We are exhausted. Yet we keep soldiering on. We know that having a list will not magically add more diversity to our discussions. Been there, done that.
As we continue to see conferences where there are more giant backpacks than there are women, or panels where everyone looks alike and dresses alike, we can’t help but wonder, what more can we do? What more should we be doing?
I have once joked on stage that I am leaning in so much that I’m toppling over.
So what are we missing?
That’s the well-kept secret for all things that seem impossible. It’s the magic wand for change.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. But change will happen if we are intentional. Be intentional in finding new voices. Be intentional in elevating them in everything that you do. In a tweet. In a quote. In a podcast. In a video. In a conversation.
Do it, my friends, because it’s the right thing to do. Not because you are expecting something else in return.
The beautiful thing about the creator economy is that we can all be part of that change.
As long as we are intentional.
So remember, regardless of how good you are, no matter how much you think you deserve it, there was always someone out there who gave you that first chance, who placed their bet on you. Before you were proven. Before you were known.
To quote Michael Sandel: “The more we view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the less likely we are to care for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves.”
Think back to your first quote.
Your first interview.
Your first panel.
Your first keynote.
Your first op-ed.
We all start somewhere.
I remember my firsts, and I am immensely grateful for them.
And it’s our turn to give someone else that first chance.
Unconditionally. And intentionally.
We were all beginners once.
Be the change.
About the author
Theodora (Theo) Lau is the founder of Unconventional Ventures. She is the co-author of Beyond Good and co-host of One Vision, a podcast on fintech and innovation.
She is also a regular contributor for top industry events and publications, including Harvard Business Review and Nikkei Asian Review.