Inspiring the Future: 10 Women Leaders Discuss Their Role Models’ Impact

“Do not disengage, but set your own terms,” and other valuable lessons that women have learned from mentors throughout their careers.
Written by Tyler Holmes
March 10, 2022Updated: March 10, 2022

 When it comes to inspirational figureheads both personal and professional, women frequently decorate the list. Sisters, bosses, teachers, coaches, colleagues and even historical trail blazers all impact us in various ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as receiving a small piece of advice that sticks with you, and sometimes it’s a monumental action that can alter the course of your life.

While experiencing this type of inspiration isn’t limited to any gender,  women finding mentors in other women is perhaps a side effect of the tech industry’s male-dominated leadership representation. According to a 2019 Fortune report, women still only made up 6.7 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs. 

For M-Files’ Chief People Officer Petra Rosvall, seeing her mother build a career as an entrepreneur in multiple countries helped her build a professional blueprint to never stop pushing herself. 

“Throughout my life, I have always tried to model my mother’s courage in every situation,” Rosvall said. “No matter what I do, she always lets me know that I can do more, which has always helped me develop and driven me to look for the next big challenge.”

For Agnes Hong, CIO and head of advisory services at Vestmark, it wasn’t until she embarked on her career that she found her inspiration in a managing partner at Price Waterhouse. 

“Dorothy Sanders had a lasting impact on my career,” she said. “She taught me many valuable lessons and shattered my image of what a successful executive should look like — that you can be feminine and a respected leader at the same time.”

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Built In Boston caught up with Rosvall, Hong and eight other industry leaders to learn more about the women who have inspired the trajectories of their careers. From best friends and mentors to innovators who have shattered the glass ceiling for others, the legacies of these women continue to shape and empower the future of what’s possible every day.

 

Agnes Hong
Chief Investment Officer and Head of Advisory Services for Vestmark Advisory Solutions • Vestmark, Inc.

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

Early in my career, I worked as a management consultant at Price Waterhouse’s Management Consulting practice in Asia. The managing partner of the Asia Pacific practice, Dorothy Sanders, had a lasting impact on my career and inspired me to become a leader with empathy and confidence.

She was a petite and soft-spoken lady with a sharp mind and often a smile on her face. She always dressed elegantly. As one of the very few females in senior ranks of consulting at the time, let alone a managing partner, Dorothy stood out among the male partners as well as the almost all-male C-suite clients she worked with. No matter how dire the situation seemed to be, she always remained calm, collected and confident. She was well respected by peers and clients alike, had a reputation for being tough, fair and effective, and led the consulting practice with competency and pragmatism.

She taught me many valuable lessons and shattered my image of what a successful executive should look like. I realized that executive presence comes in different forms, that you don’t have to be the biggest or the loudest person to command a room. You can be feminine and a respected leader at the same time, and being well prepared gives you a confidence that exudes from within.

Once, I was selected on a high-profile project among other consultants with seemingly more relevant experience. I felt unsure about my abilities and didn’t think I had much value to add. I asked her, “Why me”? She replied, “Why not you?” She told me that while the project was new to me, my background and knowledge of the industry would bring insights and perspectives that were different and valuable to the team.

Dorothy also taught me to tweak the rules if I didn’t like how the game was played. Business dinners with clients was prevalent in Asia, and they usually resulted in drinking large amounts of alcohol and later singing at a karaoke bar, both of which I dreaded. An important client dinner came up, I didn’t want to go but was torn about missing out on the business discussions and relationship building. Dorothy pulled me aside and said, “Instead of missing out, why don’t you set your own terms and boundaries? If you are firm about not drinking and stick with it, people will respect that. Perhaps you can learn to sing just one song well if you want to participate.” Figure out what works for you. Do not disengage, but set your own terms.

Dorothy taught me to tweak the rules if I didn’t like how the game was played.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

Dorothy retired many years ago. However, those early career and life lessons stayed with me. As a petite woman and an introvert, I developed my own style of leadership and executive presence, always showing up well-prepared and confident, and let my knowledge and insights speak for themselves.

Over the years, when I applied for the next dream job or the next promotion among a field of qualified candidates, instead of asking “Why me?” I reminded myself to ask, “Why not me?” When a career opportunity came up that required frequent time away from my young family, I was about to decline when I remembered Dorothy’s advice to, “Set your own terms.” I asked for a few accommodations in order to make it work and was pleasantly surprised to be met with an unhesitating “yes.”

I have been mentoring young women for many years now and try to pass on the same lessons to them. There is no one single mold of a leader. You may be valued more for being different, and instead of disengaging, try setting your own terms. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

 

 

Petra Rosvall
Chief People Officer • M-Files

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

My mother Mimma Silvennoinen is a successful entrepreneur and someone who has always followed her own path. She has a master’s degree in business, has lived in several countries including France, Germany, and the U.S., and speaks several languages fluently. She has created all of that herself, coming from a working-class home in a small city in eastern Finland.

I have learned from her that life is an exciting journey, and we should try to make the most of it. She has always trusted me completely and let me find my own way. Throughout my life, I have tried to model my mother’s courage in every situation. This confidence has allowed me to try new things even when they can seem daunting. For example, when I was younger, I started at a Swedish-speaking high school, even though I didn’t speak Swedish. I learned quickly, and within three months I was able to speak with my classmates. By the end of the first year, I earned a B in Swedish. 

It still amazes me how much she believes in me. No matter what I do, she always lets me know that I can do more, which has helped me develop and driven me to look for the next big challenge.

I think my role comes naturally because I have watched how my mother grew her own business.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

My mother’s entrepreneurial spirit has resonated with me throughout my personal and professional life, but especially in my current role at M-Files. Specifically, the elements of being both humble by always willing to learn and improve, and ambitious by reaching high and setting challenging goals have been key. At M-Files, we actually coined the term “humbitious” to describe that specific combination of attitudes and mindset that is widely shared by M-Filers across the globe.

This mindset also plays into our guiding principles — “make it happen,” “help others” and “love customers.” I love that I can bring the lessons I have learned from my mother to my role in supporting M-Filers and improving our culture to ensure that it helps others thrive. I also feel very connected to the overall mission of the company. When I am doing my job well, we are working together to improve how our customers do business in the digital, work-from-anywhere world. I think my role comes naturally because I have watched how my mother grew her own business. She never lost sight of the importance of working with others to create value for her customers. And she always knows how to have some fun while she’s at it.

 

 

 

Kayla Williams
Acting CISO/VP GRC • Devo

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

My best friend, Olga Sorens, has consistently inspired me throughout my career. She has been a force to reckon with in a predominantly-male engineering industry working in a predominantly-male line of work: operations. She has proven herself by delivering on critical projects under extreme amounts of pressure and operationalizing and automating processes throughout her organization, all while maintaining her poise and professionalism, and raising her two daughters. She is an excellent role model and I am honored to call her a friend.

Through tenacity and the willingness to do what is right, women are getting more seats at the table.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

As women executives, there are many sources that say we need to present ourselves in a certain light — to always be positive and accommodating. However, in our line of work, that approach does not always result in what we need. My takeaways from career discussions with Olga mainly revolve around how to conduct productive meetings that result in the outcomes I am setting out to achieve through the careful selection of my words, my body language, and overall representation of the facts.

Not all meetings are about bringing people together to agree; oftentimes it is providing direction and instruction, and having command of the room is important. Olga has demonstrated that through tenacity and the willingness to do what is right, women are getting more seats at the table and our voices are being heard.

 

 

Radha Patel
Vice President, Retail • WHOOP

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you?

I am continually inspired by Sowmya Pelluru, founder of manakii, a social impact-focused underwear company that donates one pair for each pair purchased. I first met Sowmya at Wayfair. Off the bat, I knew she was bright, compassionate and driven. Imagine being a woman pitching underwear. Not easy. Now imagine being a woman pitching underwear to mostly men. Definitely not easy. But Sowmya is steadfast, running on grit and wit coupled with humility and honesty.

Not only is Sowmya a female founder, but also an academic director at Georgetown University teaching an intensive on entrepreneurship. She is a board member to a nonprofit investment fund deploying capital to low-income entrepreneurs, and a freelance consultant — all at the age of 28. For many of us first generation Indian-American women, we continually ask ourselves, “Am I really here?” “Here” being a career our parents could have only hoped we’d achieve. Despite our respective accomplishments, Sowmya and I talk about how to overcome imposter syndrome. This is why Sowmya is my rock. She is genuine, vulnerable and aware. She is just real.

My motivation and curiosity to be a strong leader and team member should not be discounted.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

Sowmya and her career achievements have taught me lessons of self-worth and balance that I reflect on daily. Both of us are on generalist paths. We are eager to learn and try many things in our careers, but the consequences of not having a specialty are incredibly nerve-racking. At times, I doubt my choice to pursue a generalist path, especially as an individual who has worked at several technology companies guiding product vision and development without knowing how to write one line of code. 

In several conversations, Sowmya has reinforced that my motivation and curiosity to be a strong leader and team member should not be discounted, and how my generalist nature gives me the opportunity to bring a different and valued viewpoint. Could I learn to code to assuage my doubt? Yes. But we’ve discussed how that would require trade-offs in how I spend my time, meaning less time for family and exercise, which I don’t want to sacrifice. Sowmya knows all too well as a founder that time is finite and to use it wisely. In many ways, Sowmya is equally my mentor as I am hers.

 

 

Elle Kowal
Chief Operating Officer • MineralTree, a Global Payments Company

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

So many women inspire me every day and help me continue to push myself further. One woman in my life who has always inspired and amazed me is my grandmother, Sylvia (Meltzer) Simes. She is an icon and inspiration for me. She embodies bravery and courage. During WWII she took classes and worked in careers that women were not typically accepted in at the time. She started in a lab at MIT, working on experimental radar technologies. From there she went to Raytheon to work on radio technologies. She  also volunteered for the civil air patrol after taking flying lessons, and helped fight forest fires. Even at 96 years old, she is still a spitfire, making me laugh and giving me words of encouragement every time I see her.

She would just pull up her own seat and make room.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

My grandmother took risks. She put herself out there, was willing to learn new things, challenge the status quo and push boundaries. It paid off with a lifetime of stories and experiences that have shaped her and the rest of the women in our family. It’s helped give me the strength and comfort in knowing that I come from a history of women who are constantly moving forward and looking to grow and succeed.

My grandmother would say that there wasn’t always a seat available for women at that time, so she would just pull up her own and make room. That has truly stuck with me over the years. In business, women often wait to be asked to join the table, to be given the opportunity. Her words have always encouraged me to find a way forward and show everyone that I have earned a seat at the table, and that I’m taking it!

 

 

NeighborSchools team outside
NeighborSchools

 

Bridget Garsh
Co-Founder and COO • NeighborSchools

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you?

I remember taking the bus every day after school to a nursing home where my mother worked. I would sit in the break room and complete my homework, while occasionally peeking out to watch my mom care for her patients. As a nurse, she showed me you are not just what you are able to accomplish, but how you are able to accomplish it. She was a team player; she would volunteer to care for the most challenging patient at the nursing home with compassion and empathy.

The core traits of my leadership style — empathy and care — are traced back to observing my mom care for patients. There have been many points in my career where I have felt pressured to change my leadership style to be more “authoritative.” I believe that leading with empathy and care is my greatest strength.

Watching my mom work full time, I never questioned whether I would work.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

Watching my mom work full time, I never questioned whether I would work. My mom inspired me to take a risk; leave a stable job with an eight-month-old baby to work on solving the childcare crisis.

She brought her whole family to work, and put the responsibilities she was juggling on full display for her team. She paved the way for me to be open and transparent. From sick kids to parent-teacher conferences to daycare pickup, I share with my team the responsibilities I am juggling. I’m influencing the culture to make it OK to be a working parent.

 

 

Maureen Plowman
SVP, Brand & Corporate Communications • SmartBear

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you?

My paternal grandmother led by example, teaching me that I could do anything or be anyone. She shared stories of women with bold careers. She played a role in her city’s resident group, standing for the opinions of others and taking on leaders with careers more distinguished than hers. She was focused on sustainability and giving back to her community before it was trendy. She composted her food and turned the vacant lot next to her house into a beautiful garden. She would give her harvest away, while teaching others how to garden so they could grow their own food.

My maternal grandmother was the kindest and most empathetic person. She had a difficult, challenging childhood. Yet, she used her experiences to help others — from taking in children to helping people recover from addiction. She approached situations with an eye toward meeting people where they were, and taught that if we listen without judging, we learn from different perspectives. She listened, motivated and helped people become better versions of themselves. She believed in an empathetic approach, reminding us that we are human, deserving of respect and understanding.

My paternal grandmother shared books with me of stories of women with bold careers.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

As an executive in tech, on many occasions I have found myself to be the only woman at the table. I often think of and use the lessons I learned from my grandmothers. Lead with empathy and humility by listening and understanding diverse points of view; give back and share what you have learned by bringing others along with you; don’t be afraid to take risks.

My grandmothers both surrounded themselves with supportive environments — family, colleagues and friends. I’ve been in supportive environments career-wise, and it makes a huge difference. 

 

 

Teikametrics team having an all hands meeting in the office
Teikametrics

 

Marian Spurrier
Chief People Officer • Teikametrics

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you?

Sheryl Sandberg is significant to me as a woman who not only has been successful but also lifted so many others up. As she’s reached her own success, she’s opened the doors for others’ success. Sandberg has had an amazing career in tech, and with all her years at Facebook she continues her work with Lean In, helping other women globally find their voice, connect about their challenges and empower them to embrace opportunities, be brave and break through the glass ceiling.

Another woman who has inspired me significantly is Malala Yousafzai. Her courage and bravery to push through her personal experience and then continue to champion women and girls — not just locally or nationally, but globally — is incredible. To me, it shows the breadth of impact that one person can truly have. There is still a lot of work to be done to support women, girls, the LGBTQIA+ community and other historically underrepresented people. But even the consistent work of one can truly change the world.

As a small and growing company with limited resources, I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

Both Sandberg and Yousafzai have taught me to be consistent with my voice. Prioritize the work that needs to be done and keep consistently working to forge forward. At Teikametrics, we founded a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) group a few weeks into my tenure, which now we call THRIVE. In the first few months, we did significant listening and learning to understand what the needs were and how to tackle them.

In the last 18 months we have started tracking data to propel change; implemented evolved values directly addressing DEI; implemented improved processes and procedures to increase inclusivity; and made a pointed effort in hiring to diversify within the organization. We also shared our first ever annual report in 2021 to ensure we are transparent about what we’re doing, what we’ve learned, and how we can make further impact. While there is so much more to learn and to do to make change in this area, as a small and growing company with limited resources, I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, and I have full confidence in our continued acceleration.

 

 

Holly McKenna
VP, Sales & Marketing • Soofa

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you?

I’ve been lucky enough to have many incredible women as mentors throughout my career thus far. It’s difficult to choose just one, and I’d like to mention all of them, but I’ll stick to three women who were there for me during important career milestones: Karen O’Connor, Melissa Tetreault, and Ashley (Krahn) Stallings.

Karen was my first manager in the corporate world and taught me everything I needed to know to kick off my sales career. She gave me the tools and the confidence I needed to tackle my first cold calls, close deals and manage integral partnerships.

Melissa gave me the biggest push to build and lead our company’s first inside sales team. I never even considered myself for the role but she didn’t think twice. Melissa is the reason I’ve built a career in sales leadership and why I am so passionate about developing the members of my team.

Ashley was such a pivotal manager, giving me insight and direction to further my career to senior leadership. She has continued to be a trusted mentor and advisor as I took a leap into the startup world, and I’m beyond grateful for how she has always looked out for and encouraged me to take risks.

They saw something in me that I didn’t see myself.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

Each of these women has taught me skills that have helped to further my career.  While I certainly don’t take any of these learnings for granted, it’s the practical lessons that I’ve implemented as the framework for my own career in leadership. Karen, Melissa and Ashley — as well as many other amazing women leaders that have made an impact on me — have all taken a vested interest in my development and growth. Despite how busy they may have been, they never hesitated to provide feedback, give me specific guidance, and push me a bit outside my comfort zone. They saw something in me that I didn’t see myself, and I’ve tried to mirror that style of leadership as I’ve built and led my own teams.

Especially in sales, it’s sometimes easy to fall into the trap of only seeing numbers. But if I’ve learned anything from these incredible female leaders and what has made the difference with my teams in the past, it’s recognizing that the people behind those numbers are making it happen. Invest, develop, encourage and challenge your people — I promise amazing results.

 

 

Keia Cole
Head of Digital Experience, MassMutual • MassMutual

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you?

My colleague Judy Hanson. Judy was a software engineer and technical lead at MassMutual for almost 25 years, the last three of which I was lucky enough to work with her. She passed away last year, to the great sadness of everyone who knew her.

The first thing I admired about Judy was her kindness. She was often the first person to welcome new people to our technology organization, virtually or in-person. Whether she was serving as the MC of a virtual event or thinking of new ways to engage us, she wanted everyone to feel included and have fun. She was a continuous learner. At a time in her career when she could have stayed in a role using her existing expertise or moved into management, she chose to embrace a new technology stack and dig into the details.

As a Black female engineer, Judy was also aware of the importance of inclusion and access in STEM fields. She was an active member of MassMutual’s Black and African American business resource group, as well as Junior Achievement and the National Society of Black Engineers. Judy persevered through her health struggles to remain the warm, brilliant and welcoming woman whom she always was. I will always admire and remember her.

Thanks to Judy, we all know the importance of valuing each other, not just as colleagues, but also as human beings.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

There are many ways in which Judy’s example lives on in my daily life and decisions. I try to keep things in perspective, especially when dealing with setbacks. I am also committed to learning new things and approaching each new opportunity with passion and curiosity. 

Perhaps most importantly, I try to give our team the flexibility to make our work environment as fun and fulfilling as possible. I do my best to make time to participate, whether that is competing in a game of Kahoot or collaborating on a virtual puzzle. In Judy’s memory, we are planning to hold a “Judy Fun Day” over the summer where we can come together, remember a dear colleague and enjoy time together. Thanks to Judy, we all know the importance of valuing each other, not just as colleagues, but also as human beings.

 

 

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