"Supporting women is the recipe that can crack the world wide open," says Emily Perkins, class of 2005 and Owner and Founder of Love Living Holistics. And so continues a weeks-long discussion with Perkins, CeCe Bazar Aparo '07, and Kumba McGill '01 about their careers, the ways in which they challenge gendered roles and preconceptions, and the importance of female leadership and entrepreneurship.
Perkins not only runs Love Living Holistics, a wellness practice specializing in esthetics, life coaching, and reiki, but she is also the founder of Who Run the World, a network dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs. "The business I've created, so much of it has been my passion," Perkins says. "Coaching really resonates with me because it's very much about a human showing up for another human and supporting them in what they want, in what's right for them, in empowering who they genuinely are, rather than diagnosing or trying to guide. It's really holding someone's hand and walking with them."
Aparo is Vice President and GM of Corporate Training at Hoffman, a role that has her dividing time between sales and training, as well as working alongside the founder and CEO of the company. "Our founder and CEO really looks to me to make decisions about the strategic and future direction of the company, which is really exciting and motivating for me," Aparo says. "We're working hand in hand to build this business from a strategic standpoint and figure out how it's going to grow and evolve."
McGill is Corporate Relations Manager at the Center for Community Solutions, a position, she says, that is all about building relationships. "I set up a lot of partnerships with companies and corporations that help support nonprofits, either through services or through their corporate social responsibility wing to expand the work of the nonprofit." McGill is also the USA Program Manager for Save More Kids, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering young people in Liberia. "My work in West Africa is my heart, my soul, my passion," McGill says. "We've been able to do so much, especially right now in the middle of the pandemic."
While these three alumni have successful careers and leadership roles, they also acknowledge the obstacles that many women still navigate, themselves included. Addressing these obstacles, particularly from positions of leadership, requires them to honestly discuss and challenge gendered roles and preconceptions. They see this as an important part of driving conversations and actions towards positive change.
For Aparo, this involves speaking candidly about work-family balance, an intentional—and recent—decision. Becoming a mother in the male-dominated sales world, Aparo says, changed her perspective on gender equality. "The CeCe five years ago wouldn't have seen an issue," she says, "but that was before I had a family and competing priorities." Even telling their bosses they were expecting a second child was a vastly different experience for Aparo and her husband. While her husband was quickly congratulated, Aparo remembers how worried she was about having the conversation with her boss. "I was profusely sweating the entire drive to our meeting, thinking, 'How am I going to phrase this? I don't want him to think I'm out of the business.'"
Pushing back on assumptions that a woman with a family might want to quit her job, Aparo initiated an honest conversation with her boss about her intention to continue pursuing her career. And when Aparo runs training sessions now, she chooses to discuss her family. "I do this because I think there's nothing more empowering than normalizing what it means to be a working woman, to be in sales and have a family," Aparo says. This decision is proving to be an impactful one as women often approach Aparo after training sessions to thank her for the candid discussion about working while raising a family.
McGill also sees assumptions about women in her own work, mentioning that some individuals can be quick to assign gendered roles. "Oftentimes when I'm in committees or groups, they always want to relegate the girl to the secretary and I can't stand that," McGill says. Being honest about what you want is an important part of fighting against these gendered roles, she continues. "If you feel like you can run something, you can contribute to something, or you can help shape something, don't take the job that's the stereotypical role if it's not what you want."
Pushing back against gendered roles can also mean working from within them, however, and dismantling preconceived notions about these roles in the process. This issue arose in discussion with Perkins, who pointed out that the notion of some gendered roles being considered "better" or "worse" is itself problematic. "There are certain gendered labels that come with a level of denigration or preconceived notions," she says. "It's the difference between how we relate to a lawyer and how we relate to an esthetician."
An esthetician herself, Perkins has often felt pressure to prove herself to others, despite the fact that pursuing esthetics is the career she honestly wants for herself. In Perkin's case, she felt motivated to upend others' preconceived notions about estheticians by pursuing additional qualifications in life coaching and reiki.
Although Perkins has pushed back against any assumptions about her own work, she acknowledges that negative preconceptions about gendered roles can detrimentally affect not only career goals and feelings of personal worth, but women's roles in public policy and leadership. "Those messages can stop us from going for policy, from going for leadership roles, from gathering other women to start talking about these things that mean so much to us," Perkins says.
"But we are doing ourselves a disservice when we're not including the whole, whether that's in leadership or in our daily life," she continues. "It's better for humanity for all of us to have a voice in this, and the biggest reasons that including women matters are really mirrored in our world right now."
"Female leadership is so important, especially in the times we're living in now," McGill agrees. "I went to The Citadel, which is a bastion of leadership. It literally teaches you about how to be a leader in the military or in the private sector. From my personal experience and with women I've worked with, we analyze things thoroughly before we move forward. Our ability to look at all angles of an issue and make a decisive decision elevates the conversation. Women in positions of leadership help change the dynamics of companies, of businesses, of schools."
"It's so important to have a diverse perspective: gender, race, age," Aparo says. Besides equality, "which is obvious," diverse perspectives can also benefit a company's bottom line. "There are direct numbers that show the impact of having women on the team, in leadership positions in terms of the trajectory of a company," Aparo says. "Companies that have at least one female leader on their board have significant increase in percentage of year over year growth compared to companies that have an all male board."
So, what can be done to promote female leadership? Providing encouragement is key, says Aparo. "The best way we can support women is to remove ourselves from their decision making process, respect the decisions they do make, and give them all the confidence they need to follow through on those decisions," she says. This encouragement can start at school, Aparo says, where she remembers PCD teachers advocating for girls in her classes to have as much speaking time as boys—and creating more opportunities for girls to build confidence in the process.
Perkins was also influenced by her time at PCD, citing the deep connections and sense of support she received as something she carried forward into her own career and adult life. "There's something magical that happens when you tell a girl, especially a young girl, that she is powerful," Perkins says. "When we empower ourselves and other women, to me there's no limit to what that can lead to. Female leadership has a way of bringing everyone up, men and women. Feminism is about equality, about both, about all. It opens the door for everyone."
"The reason why I am where I am today is because I had amazing role models, especially within the PCD community," says McGill. "My advice to young girls is: your opinions matter, your voice matters, so take up space and do it boldly. Whether it's wearing your Afro," McGill laughs, gesturing to her hairstyle, "or protesting against injustices, be bold about it. You'll find there are so many people who will support you in your efforts. Don't ever feel like you're alone in this; don't ever be afraid to reach out. Young girls, take up space and do it boldly!"