She fights for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion with Gumption & Resilience
Equal pay, rising from adversity, fighting for diversity and inclusion, going to school late in life, loss, and massive joy, that’s what this woman has fought, and fought for her entire life.
In our first ever video interview, we spoke with Dr. Penny Larsen, a true fighter who runs WomenManage.com The title doesn’t say just how great what she’s doing is! But this is what’s been needed for women in business. Dr. Larsen teaches women the tools to advance their careers. She does what women haven’t been able to do in a business environment: she’s mentoring you and helping you to get ahead!
We need all of her advice and expertise. Men help each other grow. We, as women in business, need to stop competing with one another, and help each other grow.
Read on to see how.
The Business Magazine for Women (TBM4W): Dr. Penny Larsen! I don’t even know where to start! That’s how impressive your resumé is!
Dr. Penny Larsen: I would like to start with my earlier years, so you can see where I’m coming from. I’m from the world of Education. I started many years ago as a classroom teacher and over time worked up into administration. I have since retired from that field (quote on quote), but over that journey – and I do look at life as a journey – I learned a lot about myself and my students. I discovered that I really enjoy working with marginalized populations and those underserved. Now, in public schools, that typically means students and their families. I found that I was able to work with those students much better than many of my peers. So, I would always get an overload in the classroom of all these kids, with all the baggage, and I loved it! Absolutely loved it. And I’ll tell you what, back in my school days, I even had a truant officer. Not many people know that about me; of course I don’t think they have truant officers anymore. But I cut classes, I pushed the envelope – I was just bored to tears. I had different kinds of baggage at that time, so I can relate better to students who are underserved and who have issues.
Over time I became the Achievement Coordinator for students like that. How to motivate them, how to get them going and be semi-successful. As you and I know, that doesn’t work for everybody, but it worked for a lot of students. I’m very proud of that actually, and that is part of my journey. I think that really set me up for what I was to do many years later.
I later got my doctorate degree. That was an interesting experience because at that time I was a little bit older than everybody else. I was like “the grandma” in the classroom. So I tell women, “Go for it, girl! Don’t be afraid of that. Live your dream. And you will have challenges. If you are the grandma in the classroom, so what?”
I’ve always had a passion for working with women. Even when I was in the education field, I would talk to women. Summers off, I would work non-profits, talking with women. But I never had time during the year because I was so busy with my job. So now that I have sort of left that, I am working exclusively with women, if I can. And that’s not to say I don’t work with men, because yes, I do. But most of them [clients] are women. Women from various walks of life with different struggles; we all have our story. I try to strategize with them in their field of work and tell them what they need to do to get ahead. Women need to be promoted and they have lots of talents. They need to understand they can do this! But, in our country, in our culture, women were socialized differently than boys growing up.
And it’s never the woman’s fault that she feels insecure or she doesn’t want to make waves at the office. That’s how we were trained, growing up from our birth families, and our schools, and so on. So, that can be an issue for a lot of women; they need to find that they have talents, that they do have passions, and they can do this!
Dr. P.L.: Now, it’s a whole mindset thing. So, that’s kind of what I’m doing right now. I’m getting involved in my area, because I’m new to this location. To move to a new location, it takes a little bit of time to figure out who the players are. Really, I have the time, first of all, to help women because I don’t have another job. This is my passion and I’m walking my path. It’s my journey.
TBM4W: Before that, you were working on diversity and inclusion. Please talk a little bit about that. Tell us about a couple of experiences from your days as Diversity and Inclusion Manager with the American Association of University Women.
Dr. P.L.: By the way, if you’re not familiar with that organization, every state has a unit with branches underneath them. I already had the background in working with diverse populations; that was natural for me. Because I’m Caucasian, I did things a little bit differently in my life, so I had some struggles there. But white privilege helped me and I recognize it. I’d love to think any woman of color would have the same opportunities and chances and all the opened doors that I did, but I know that’s not true, sadly. That’s something that needs to change, and it’s going to take a long time. So I had the passion for this, I had the research training for this, and I was a member of the American Association for University Women (AAUW). So when the Manager position opened up, I applied for it! I think that it would have been better to have had a woman of color, but as it often happens, not many women of color want to get involved with certain organizations for a variety of reasons. I was and still am sensitive over that issue and I try to help where I can help, but it’s going to take a long time to change this. That doesn’t mean we stop trying.
TBM4W: There’s no reason to just stop trying if the possibility presents itself, so you always continue to work at it.
Dr. P.L.: Yes, absolutely!
TBM4W: Who influenced you in your career?
Dr. P.L.: Eleanor Roosevelt. As a young girl, she left a huge impression on me. I admired her spunkiness. I admired the fact that she worked with underprivileged children and adults. I just admire her. And quite frankly, I admire her, but not so much her husband. She just stood out to me and she really became my role model. In my basement I have this huge poster of her on my wall, so she’s still an influence in my life. When I was a college freshman in Philadelphia they asked who wanted to go into the inner city to work with students, doing reading, math, and other basic skills. Well, of course, my hand went right up. That’s Eleanor; she really believed in that. She’s really the force that made me go in the direction I ultimately went in.
TBM4W: She was/is influential and not that many people attribute all of this work to her, so it’s good that somebody remembers her for the amazing stuff that she did. But, staying on the same path, how do we bring more women of color into business?
Dr. P.L.: That’s a really good question, but also one that’s tricky and complicated. I think you need to have a trust factor. I’m a person who likes people and builds on relationships, that’s just kind of how I do it. So I think you need to have those conversations and they have to be courageous conversations, but that doesn’t happen until people trust each other to some degree. Once that is established, we need a lot more mentors as well as sponsors, but they are different.
TBM4W: What are the differences between the two?
Dr. P.L.: A mentor is someone who is going to hold your hand through your job or your position and make sure you understand the skills that go with it. A sponsor doesn’t do that, but they are watching you and they can actually promote you from the inside. You don’t have to have that one-on-one relationship. That’s what happened to me. I had a sponsor who suddenly said nice things about me and really brought my name up. ‘Oh she would be great for that, let’s try her.’ That kind of thing. But we did not have that one-on-one relationship, so I think there has to be both.
TBM4W: You see the sponsors and mentors as men and women, not necessarily just women, correct? To me it’s a massive issue having men involved in the change, because if we are all involved in this and the men are not subscribing to this and if they don’t understand what’s going on with their daughters, wives, or moms at work, the conversation is never going to change. Having men as active participants in the change to the business world is vital for any systemic change.
Dr. P.L.: I totally agree. And believe it or not, as outspoken as I can be, I actually have some men friends. Luckily for me, I’m really very fortunate that the men in my life tell me how it is, and they give me a different perspective, but they understand mine as well. So you are absolutely correct.
TBM4W: Going back to the workplace, there’s this new movement, #MeToo, that came out. How do you see that affecting, not just the workplace, but any sort of relationship?
Dr. P.L.: I think it’s about time, quite frankly. I’m sad for all the women who had to come out and tell their stories. They’re horrific. I mean, the situation in Michigan with Larry Nassar just about turns my stomach. It’s time for women to stand up and say, ‘Hey, this is what happened to me and it’s wrong.’ These women and girls are role models for the rest of us. Our society needs to know this has got to stop. This is wrong and we can’t do this anymore. So I’m on board. This sickens me, and it’s time.
TBM4W: It’s letting women speak about what’s happening. What saddens me is that, as a victim, you’re not believed, you’re not encouraged to talk about it, and then you’re criticized even more by those that are supposed to protect you. So this movement is fantastic because it empowers women to finally speak up, and through it, hopefully, put an end to this despicable practice of using women as objects in business situations. What I’m seeing lately with the backlash against the #metoo movement, I don’t understand where it’s coming from. I mean, I do understand where it’s coming from because some men are kind of freaking out about what’s happening.
Dr. P.L.: There are so many massive stars who have been doing this forever!
TBM4W: Yes, but now they’re losing their jobs and they’re going to jail. It’s good that it’s happening, but it’s not good that it’s happened. And if we could find that balance where we can respect each other as humans, I don’t think there’s going to be any issues in the workforce or any sort of environment. [laugh]
Dr. P.L.: Yes, and I can’t speak for men, but some men feel threatened by this. It’s good that this is coming out because there are a lot of women who would not even believe that this is going on. I can tell you from my personal experience, it’s been going on for a long time, because it happened to me at my first job, and this was way back. I’m not the only one because I’ve met other women who are middle-aged and a little bit older and they remember how it was. So we are very excited that things are changing. Now again, it’s going to take time, but the awareness factor is huge.
TBM4W: It is. It happens today. It happened yesterday. It’s happening every day. So it didn’t stop and it doesn’t matter who you are. As a woman you learn to deal with that, you learn to navigate that, but we shouldn’t have to learn how to protect ourselves from physical and sexual abuse from our colleagues and bosses.
Dr. P.L.: I think it’s very timely and I’m glad to see it, because we need to stop silencing women. Then again, our society teaches women not to make waves and to suck it up, and that’s wrong.
TBM4W: Grin and bear it, right?
Dr. P.L.: Oh yeah. Now there’s a phrase from my past life. Holy smokes! Thanks for that memory. [laughs]
TBM4W: On a lighter note, let’s talk about what made you switch from education to consulting.
Dr. P.L.: I know my passions and I’m very passionate about women’s causes and I knew I had to be in that. With my other job – I don’t know what you know about an administrator in a public school, but that job never quits, right? So time was a factor. I was also married and raising children, and that’s a whole work/life balance trick. So I didn’t have a lot of time to work with women in the other job. I recognize that, and quite frankly, none of us are getting any younger so for me it was now or never. No one ever knew me well enough, but I had enough grit to do this. If I can help even one woman succeed in her field, I would be massively happy. And that’s happened, so I’m massively happy!
TBM4W: What was your ‘aha’ moment about starting Women’s Manage? What was your motivation to do so?
Dr. P.L.: The other part of me is that I am kind of spiritual, so for me, it’s an intuitive feeling. I know when I’m someplace I shouldn’t be and I know I’m in the right spot when I’m there. And I feel, as I said earlier, life is a journey. You learn lessons along the way and you continue along your path, whatever your path is, and we all have paths. So it felt good to me, it felt right and so I said, ‘Ok, let’s run with it.’ Just do what you can do. I was very trusting in my spiritual beliefs and I said, ‘Ok, let’s see where this goes.’ So that one was the ‘aha,’ because it felt right. I knew that this was what I was supposed to do at this point in my life.
TBM4W: To me, life is about doing what you are drawn to; doing what feels right to you and finding that joy. If you’re doing what’s right and what you’re drawn to, you’re innately happy because you’re already there. Instead of searching for happiness, you pursue something that draws you in, and happiness comes along with it.
Dr. P.L.: It does! Because you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing!
TBM4W: If you do what you love to do, you get up in the morning with a different passion. There’s no Monday morning dread, there’s no worry about anything because everything has happened the way it was supposed to. That’s always worked for me. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing right now because I know this is resonating with me and every woman and man I speak with, so I’m passionate about doing this every day.
Dr. P.L.: Yes, and I applaud you for what you’re doing. We have to get our voices heard and say, ‘Lady, you’re not by yourself. We’re here to help you network and support you. We’re going to do it together.’
TBM4W: It’s building a community, seeing that there are other women like you going through what you’re going through and experiencing what you’ve experienced. Like what you were talking about earlier, sponsoring and mentoring the younger generation, and not necessarily just the younger generation, but every woman who has never had any sort of support. It doesn’t matter how old you are if you can find your tribe, and my tribe is women.
Dr. P.L.: Yes. For the younger women who are just starting their career, they have to realize that you do change over time, and your tribe does as well. Nothing stays the same, it’s always in flux, it always changes. And that’s good.
TBM4W: There is a saying, ‘Change is the only constant.’ Things are moving so quickly with technology and with new generations bringing in a whole new awareness and zeitgeist that changes everything else. What do you think women bring to the business world?
Dr. P.L.: They bring so much, my goodness. If you’ve done any reading on the difference between men and women, you know that we think entirely differently. We have skills that we can bring to the table, which is really important, and men need to understand that. We think differently, and we’re much better with networking and collaborating than they are, for instance.
I was talking to a woman a couple of days ago. She’s a younger woman, and she’s speaking her mind in her workplace, so when she’s brought to the table she says what she thinks. She made the comment to me, obviously because I’m older, and said, ‘The older women, they don’t say anything. They just sit there; they have nothing to say.’ She had trouble understanding it, so we had a conversation about why that might be. But yes, women bring a lot to the table, and we have to speak up. I would like to think that younger women coming into the workplace won’t have to put up with the crap that we always have.
TBM4W: Good luck with that!
Dr. P.L.: I now live in a very urban area, so I thought, let’s see what the answers are. They would say, generally across the board, that things haven’t changed a whole lot. These are women in their twenties and thirties, and I’m thinking, really?
TBM4W: In the business world, they have not. The status quo is the status quo and it takes it a whole generation to change it, so it might be another generation before we see a change to where older women are actually encouraged to speak out. I think they’re not speaking out because of the fear of being punished.
Dr. P.L.: Retaliation is huge. In the meantime, I’ve got a lot of work to do.
TBM4W: Yes you do! And we’ll talk about that later. In the meantime, what drives you? What or who is your motivation?
Dr. P.L.: There have been many struggles where I had to survive, which I’ve done and I’m resilient and so on. But I learned about thirty years ago that I have to rely on who I am. It’s an internal thing that may be genetic. I come from some outspoken people, but as I said, we all change over time and that’s a natural way things should go. My inner voice has gotten stronger and I recognize conflict when I see it. Believe it or not, there are people who don’t like me, but oh well.
TBM4W: [laugh] Well, life is not worth living without making a few enemies.
Dr. P.L.: Yes, I’m going to keep it up, too! People I thought were close to me and would be supportive of me were not. So I’ve had to look inward to find who I am as a person – my core values, etc. That’s what gets me through.
TBM4W: Your strength gets you through. Looking at your accomplishments should boost your ego at least a little bit!
Dr. P.L.: That’s the other thing though! As a woman, and especially in my birth family, you were taught not to brag or boast about your accomplishments. So I don’t really talk a lot about those kinds of things, because that was the way I was raised. But I know what my accomplishments are, so I’m ok.
TBM4W: Talk to us a little about what you do with Women’s Manage.
Dr. P.L.: I build relationships and trust; that’s where it all starts. Women typically don’t get promotions, they don’t get the choice assignments, and they don’t make more money because of that. I’ve seen that throughout my entire life, so with Women’s Manage, I teach them skills. It’s not about going to work from 9-5 and doing your job. That’s how the school systems works, so all of us, including men, were taught that you work hard and you get the rewards. Well, that doesn’t work for women. You have to know the strategies, the skills, of what you have to do as an individual to get those promotions to advance in your career. So that’s what I do. I also work with women on salary negotiation, which is a whole other sticky wicket.
TBM4W: Let’s talk about the differences between women and men in business. We know what the strengths are but we’re generalizing, so would you talk a little about what you’ve seen in how men and women do business?
Dr. P.L.: There’s a lot of research out there that you can always read. On a personal level, what I’ve seen from my experience is that women are really looking at other women as competitors. When I got my doctorate and I was the grandma, women were my worst enemy because they said, ‘What are you doing that for? Shouldn’t you be home taking care of your family?’
There was no support there, and during that particular period of time, men knew enough to keep their mouths shut. It was the women who became my enemies; the naysayers! It was pretty amazing. I see that also in the workforce; women are threatened by other women, and that should not be the case. Women need to support other women. Men do it all the time. Whether it’s on the golf course or wherever, they’re networking. Women need to recognize that while they’re beating up on their own sex, men are advancing. Women have to understand they can not be after the other women in the office, because it just doesn’t work.
TBM4W: It needs to stop. We’re a sisterhood; we’re supposed to help each other. We need to support each other without the feeling that we’re sacrificing ourselves. Showing any sort of leadership skills, you’re supporting the people on your team. If we’re a sisterhood, we should be supportive and encouraging of the women next to us, our sisters. So like you said, men do that and they know how to do that very well. So let’s take a page from their workbook and apply it, because we’re in business, too. And we’re doing business differently. We’re networking more; we’re making decisions based on our drives and gut instincts. We talk numbers too, but sometimes a business relationship is more than just numbers, and we’re good at building relationships. Men are very good at this too, but this is one of our strengths and we should really focus on that.
Now let’s get personal. What is your favorite book?
Dr. P.L.: Well, I’m a reader. I’m also a Medieval History buff. In fact, my undergraduate degree was in Medieval History and Early American History. So I gravitate toward those. Because I read what you call ‘professional books,’ I get away from them and read my history books, because it’s just a nice break. In my area, I’m also a Lean-in circle leader and I just recently received “Option B” by Sheryl Sandberg. I read her other books and I’m very curious about the progression of things, so that is going to be my next read. The other books are strictly history because I have to change things up. It’s good for my mental health and it gives me a different view on things.
TBM4W: All great books, and Sheryl Sandberg is kind of a superstar for many reasons. What’s a struggle that you’ve had that has put you on the path to where you’re at right now?
Dr. P.L.: My entire life to this point has been a struggle. Even though I’m Caucasian, I’m also female, so there have been some issues there. I had a husband and I am now a widow and my kids are off on their own, so there are struggles there. Back in my early days, having a truant officer for heaven’s sake, there’s the struggle there. So there had been many struggles, but I look at those struggles as my life lessons. I had to learn those. I had to learn to be resilient. I had to learn how to count on myself, because I was alone. I didn’t have the support, nor did anybody ever really want to listen to me. My whole journey has been a struggle, but it put me in a very good place. That’s how I view the whole thing.
TBM4W: That’s how you’ve got to view it, otherwise there’s no motivation to get up in the morning. There’s got to be a lesson. Every one of us has struggled to various degrees, but it affects us differently. Some people don’t know how to get past them. Life is always going to hit you, life is always going to come at you and it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s never going to be easy for anybody. So the biggest lesson is to get up and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
Dr. P.L.: Definitely, and not to give in. As you said, men and women have major issues with that because of life lessons, and it’s difficult.
TBM4W: Some lessons are tough to accept and get past, but again, resistance comes in and that’s a massive factor in both your personal life and in the business world.
Dr. P.L.: And if you don’t have it in your personal life, it affects everything else.
TBM4W: What is something that people would be surprised to know about you?
Dr. P.L.: Well one is the truant officer story. The other thing that would shock somebody who didn’t know me at all is that I love to repel off cliffs, which I’ve gotten into the past ten years. I love hanging off cliffs! Go figure, right? [laugh]
TBM4W: Wrapping it up, if you were to put up a billboard, what would it say and where would you put it?
Dr. P.L.: I’ve got to go with the saying, ‘You owe me twenty-one cents.’ It’s equal pay. I’m very involved in my state with equal pay and I am a big part in the lobby every year in Lansing, our capital in Michigan. There are so many people, women and men, who don’t even think it exists. So that would be what is on the billboard and where I would put it is right on the steps of my capital.
In closing: I have to admit you, speaking with Dr. Larson was inspirational! There is so much passion, so much gumption, so much dedication in this woman, that is impossible to really convert that to the written format. She exudes life! She’s alive like you rarely see. She’s living, she’s giving, and she’s passionate about women’s issues, about diversity, about inclusion, and she’s fought her entire life for all our rights. I salute you, Dr. Larsen, and THANK YOU!
You would be remiss not to check out her program, and make sure that you reach out to her. She’s a treasure trove of good ideas on how to balance out the business world by raising up women’s voices.
Interviewer: Monica Antohi
Editor: Adrienne Hanard
Photo: Dr. Penny Larsen
Cover photo: Photo by Simon Maage
Photo editing by The Business Magazine for Women