BUTTE – There was a supercharged glut of ambition that flooded Butte at the 2013 Montana Economic Development Summit, and much of it was due to the young entrepreneurial women who attended.
The hype that the celebrity list of corporate luminaries generated in advance of the summit helped foster much of the excitement, but a rarefied air of optimism about the future of economic growth in Montana and the uptick in job opportunities for younger generations lent buoyancy to the two-day event.
It started when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg stormed the auditorium at Montana Tech of the University of Montana, drawing raucous applause before sending a ringing endorsement to Sarah Calhoun, founder and owner of Red Ants Pants, a Montana company that creates work wear for women.
“She noticed that pants were being designed for men and not women. I know it’s a shocking thing but men don’t run the world,” Sandberg said, having met Calhoun backstage before the keynote address.
In 2006, Calhoun founded Red Ants Pants in White Sulphur Springs to meet the needs of women who wanted functional, fitting work pants.
“Ever since the gold rush, women have been wearing men’s work clothes when we’ve needed to get serious work done … We thought it was about time to provide other options,” according to Calhoun’s website, RedAntsPants.com.
Calhoun, who grew up working on her family’s llama farm, has transformed her enterprising business idea into a nonprofit organization and a music festival.
She’s the textbook definition of what Sandberg is encouraging women to do in the professional world – “Lean in.”
That’s the title of Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” and was the focus of her speech on Sept. 16 at the summit in Butte as she talked about gender inequality in the business world. Sandberg said women in the workforce are underpaid and underrepresented in leadership roles, due in part to a lack of dialogue about the problem.
She wrote the book to spur on a national conversation, and said it needs to happen in the workplace, at home and in schools.
“Men are expected to be leaders and women are expected to be caretakers,” she said, calling for a show of hands of women who have been told they’re too aggressive when they express professional ambition. “When little girls lead we tell them they shouldn’t, we call them bossy. Women are told they are too aggressive at work. Instead of calling a girl bossy, she should be told that she has executive leadership skills.”
Calhoun, who attended the 2010 Economic Development Summit, said she noticed a palpable change in the tone of both the speakers and the attendees, and Sandberg’s message resonated with her and other women who attended the summit.
“She has really gotten a lot of women jazzed up across the state,” she said. “There was definitely a lot more energy and positivity from a big group of really excited, young women this year.”
Like other young professionals, Calhoun started her own company in part because she noticed a shortage of Montana jobs, but didn’t want to leave the state.
“Montana has the most entrepreneurs per capita, and when you look at some of the new businesses arriving it is an exciting time for sure,” she said.
Maggie Doherty, who co-owns Kalispell Brewing Company with her husband, Cole Schneider, said the summit in Butte was an opportunity to learn from other young business professionals as she works to open the new brewery in a 9,000-square-foot building in downtown Kalispell.
For Doherty, an added dose of encouragement came from the number of female attendees in their 20s and 30s.
“It was packed with young women from all across the state, business owners and leaders in nonprofits,” she said. “The energy throughout the whole conference centered on women taking the reins, and it got me really excited about promoting our business and women in the state. It just seems like people are really excited, like we are at a tipping point and poised for some good change.”
Diane Smith, of Whitefish, has been “leaning in” for years, and left her corporate job in Washington, D.C., in 2009 to launch several tech startups. At the economic summit, Smith was a speaker on a panel called “Growing Opportunities for Women Entrepreneurs Across Montana,” which focused on how to advance women in the workplace and close the gender gap.
In Montana, women earn 67 percent less than men working the same job, and account for less than 5 percent of the top positions in Fortune 500 companies.
But women frequently make the buying decisions at companies, Smith said, and echoed Sandberg’s clarion call for women to lead.
“I’ve been called bossy my whole life. I was thrilled to discover that means I’m an executive leader,” she said.
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