Women Leaders from the Top 25 Best Companies for Women

Garrett McDonnell

Want to know just how the women leaders behind our list of 25 Best Companies got to where they are today? We did too — and that’s why we asked 10 of the standouts to tell us how they did it.

Their stories are inspiring. While each took a different route to the top, they all agreed on one thing: Being women actually gave them an edge because they stood out in fields dominated by men. They succeeded because of, not in spite of, their gender. Read on to find out how these women rose to the top of their game.

Advice From 10 Powerful Women

Advice From 10 Powerful Women

Want to know just how the women leaders behind our list of 25 Best Companies got to where they are today? We did too — and that’s why we asked 10 of the standouts to tell us how they did it.

Their stories are inspiring. While each took a different route to the top, they all agreed on one thing: Being women actually gave them an edge because they stood out in fields dominated by men. They succeeded because of, not in spite of, their gender. Read on to find out how these women rose to the top of their game.

Care.com’s Sheila Lirio Marcelo

Care.com’s Sheila Lirio Marcelo

If necessity is the mother of invention, then Sheila Lirio Marcelo’s reason for founding Care.com fits the bill. When she was a new mother with two small children at home and two aging parents, she had trouble finding quality care for both sets of needs. So Lirio Marcelo developed Care.com in 2006. Today, the company is the world’s largest online destination for finding caretakers to hire, with more than 11.8 million members across 16 countries.

She has also shown a proven dedication to fostering other women’s careers. In 2012, she founded WomenUp.org to increase women’s roles in the global economy by providing leadership training, mentorship and support to girls and women through every stage of their lives and careers. For Lirio Marcelo, caring goes beyond her job description.

DailyWorth: What would you tell someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Sheila Lirio Marcelo: As women, we often get caught up in what I call the three Ps: Perception, Passivity and Perfection. How others perceive you and your choices is something I worried about a lot when I was starting Care.com. So many women, myself included, are so worried about being judged that we think we have to have perfected every skill before we move up to the next level. At each step of my career, I never thought I was ready for each promotion or to be part of a senior management team or even CEO but I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have mentors to guide me and push me out of my comfort zone because they knew I was ready and that I didn’t have to be “perfect.”

Passivity is the enemy of progression and there’s no place for it in an entrepreneurial endeavor. And finally there’s the quest for perfection, for the ever unattainable “work/life balance.” The reality is the 50/50 balance is a myth and chasing it sets you up to feel like a failure. I’ve embraced that there will be days where I’m fully present as a mother or CEO, but perhaps not able to devote myself as sister or friend.  I’m not perfect and I’m OK with that.

How much do you think the gender difference has played into (or against) your success story?

I’ve become very accustomed to being the only woman in the room at a conference or event. There have been occasions when I’ve been mistaken for being an assistant, not the CEO, but I use those moments to help change people’s perceptions. I don’t get angry or embarrass them, I just carry on.

Gender has perhaps come up the most, conceptually that is, when fundraising with VCs and still now, when talking to investors. VCs are overwhelmingly male, but care decisions are made primarily by women, so when talking to them about Care.com, there was a level of education that needed to happen. In midst of my investor presentations, I’d go around the room and ask who was responsible for hiring a caregiver in their household. None of the men raised their hands.

I still have those conversations with investors and analysts today now that we’re a public company but again, if those interactions help change their perceptions of female CEOs for the positive, then I’m happy to play that role.

Looking back on your early years in business, what do you wish you could tell your younger self?

To relax. I was very intense in the early part of my career. I saw things as black and white and there was a right way to do everything. That intensity intimidated people working with me. Two mentors pulled me aside and said I was getting in my own way…that I had to relax or I would burn out.  I started to listen more and realized that people process information in different ways, have different styles and approaches and that being open to that not only led to better relationships but also led to better results.  I’ve learned to appreciate the greys; to be intense on outcomes but chill with people.

Duke Energy’s Jennifer Weber

Duke Energy’s Jennifer Weber

To say Jennifer Weber’s new position as executive vice president of external affairs and strategic policy for Duke Energy, keeps her busy is more than an understatement. Since taking the position in August 2014, Weber has lead the $12.7 billion utility company’s federal affairs, public affairs, environmental and energy policy, corporate communications and sustainability functions.

Weber, a mother of three, has credited her success to attributes that usually go beyond her gender, or even, sometimes, because of it. “First, leave gender at home, but do maintain and nurture those attributes that many women bring to the workplace: relationship development skills, sensitivity to your audience and an innate ability to nurture. Those can be strengths in any work environment,” Weber has said to Cincinnati’s local news site, adding, “Finally, always remember why you are where you are, and let your talent do the talking.”

DailyWorth: What would you tell someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Jennifer Weber: My advice for younger women can be summed up in three words: enjoy the journey.  Don’t worry too much about what comes next; focus on developing strong skills and expertise and then let your capabilities and track record open up opportunities.

Be receptive to a broad range of next steps for your career and always listen with an open mind to opportunities that may not appear appealing right away. Soak in as much as you can from good mentors. Then thank those who have made a positive impact on your development and pay it forward by helping others be successful.

How much do you think the gender difference has played into (or against) your success story?

Gender differences and some of the perceptions related to them have certainly played a role in my career. I have worked hard to make sure that my professional strengths and leadership capabilities stand on their own to combat the perception that sometimes exists that female executives only get the senior roles for diversity reasons.

I think women tend to approach most business issues with a greater focus on using interpersonal and relationship skills to accomplish outcomes.  Additionally, women tend to be more critical of themselves. Self-reflection and self-awareness are key attributes of women and as such, they often judge themselves much more harshly when it comes to evaluating their performance or identifying areas for improvement. This positions them well to incorporate lessons learned into their next assignment.

Looking back on your early years in business, what do you wish you could tell your younger self?

Looking back, I would encourage my “younger self” to not self-impose any limitations on what you can do and the leader you can become. Recognize that there are no career “mistakes” — only great opportunities to learn what you will do differently next time — and continue forward boldly. At the same time, don’t get so focused on work that you lose balance in your life, lose your edge and miss out on some of the experiences along the way that can shape you.

Health Net’s Juanell Hefner

Health Net’s Juanell Hefner

Juanell Hefner chose well more than 30 years ago when she first entered the health care industry. While plenty of success stories come from people who alter their focus as they move up the ladder, Hefner’s stands out because she has stayed the course for decades in an industry she loves.

Her latest iteration? As Chief Compliance and Administration Officer for Health Net, Inc. since February 2014. But even before Health Net, Hefner knew her way around managing a health care business, including holding various executive positions with Vision Service Plan/VSP, a nonprofit billion dollar health care organization specializing in eye care. But always, Hefner focused on learning key components of duties related to operations roles, from Claims Administration, Membership Accounting and Eligibility, Call Center operations, Quality and Training, Systems Configuration and Business Transformation.

While the list of her accomplishments may sound dry to the unfamiliar, in the day-to-day needs of patients seeking health specialists, her seamless organization and management style means one less thing to worry about.

DailyWorth: What would you tell someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Juanell Hefner: First, it’s about people. I have found that if you care for the people around you, they will take care of the work, each other, and you. A nurturing environment produces extraordinary achievements.

Second, don’t let go of the people or things outside of work that you love or care about. Leading a successful, meaningful and happy life is about so much more than just your job.

How much do you think the gender difference has played into (or against) your success story?

At the risk of generalizing, I think women can be the more effective storytellers. By that, I mean they tend to share stories about themselves and those around them, and then tie the lesson to something relevant in the business environment. It’s an effective communication skill.

Looking back on your early years in business, what do you wish you could tell your younger self?

Always keep a stable of mentors, coaches and confidants in your corner — preferably outside your company. It’s easy to get confused or conflicted when consumed by the day-to-day environment. That’s when objective, third-party feedback can help you maintain perspective, rise above the confusion and enhance both your personal development and career advancement. You don’t have to face the challenges alone. Many others have walked through the fires before you, and they’re happy to share their experiences and lend a helping hand.

Key Bank’s Veena Khanna

Key Bank’s Veena Khanna

For the last 13 years, Veena Khanna has been in the business of giving serious advice, the kind you want to bank on in your ripe old age. That’s because Khanna has the impressive position as senior vice president and director wealth advisory services for Key Private Bank (KPB). Leading a national team of experts in financial, estate, retirement and tax planning for $24 billion in assets, Khanna’s responsibilities are a cornerstone for KeyCorp’s overall $87 billion in assets.

The Cleveland, OH-based Khanna juggles the demands of her job with public service. She is a frequent speaker at various estate and tax planning events, for example, and is an active participant in a variety of local organizations that support women. “It is important to network with other women executives early in your career,” explains Khanna. “Active networking will help you find leaders who can teach you and connect you with individuals who can help you progress up the career ladder.”

DailyWorth: What would you tell someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Veena Khanna: Be curious early in your career. Expose yourself to a variety of functions and duties and assess the ones that you enjoy the most. Once you find what gets you jazzed, focus your career on it. Continually offer to work on those tasks or projects that excite you, even if it is not directly in your job description. These types of projects will get you noticed because you truly enjoy and excel at them.

Look above you and find a woman executive who embodies the type of professional you want to be. Ask her the difficult, direct questions that, in your mind, are inhibitors to your career path. Ask for her advice on how to deal with them.

How much do you think the gender difference has played into (or against) your success story?

It would be naïve to think that gender doesn’t play a role in the workplace. Making it a central issue, however, can be detrimental. There are certain traits that are attributed to women. If any of these are true for you, then use that strength as a way to move ahead.

For example, women are often considered to be more empathetic than men.  Being empathetic demonstrates emotional intelligence, which is considered a good leadership trait.  However, showing empathy in abundance could lead to the perception that you can’t make tough decisions. The best practice here is to use common sense — a trait that displays no gender bias.

Looking back on your early years in business, what do you wish you could tell your younger self?

I would tell my younger self to get broader exposure to the business side of the industry as early as possible. I would encourage myself to not get too comfortable in a job that doesn’t challenge me every day. I would also tell myself to seek out roles with dynamic leaders. Perhaps nothing has a greater impact on professional development than working for leaders who inspire you to learn and grow.

The final bit of advice I would give my younger self is to take more chances. Taking risks early in your career means there is less to lose. As your career and life progresses, you tend to become increasingly accountable and responsible and the margin for error decreases proportionally. So, I would encourage my younger self to take risks early and often, and make changes if they don’t pan out.

Piper Jaffray’s Debbra Schoneman

Piper Jaffray’s Debbra Schoneman

Debbra L. Schoneman stands out. She joined Piper Jaffray in 1990 in the accounting department. Proving her capabilities, Schoneman has climbed the ranks, from holding several senior finance management positions, including finance director of both equity and fixed income capital markets to, more recently, treasurer.

Schoneman believes that, in part, her positive attitude has been critical to her success. “Choose to have a positive attitude. I do believe that is a choice. I love the quote from Chuck Swindoll, ‘I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.  And so it is with you, we are in charge of our attitudes,’” says the Minnesota-based CFO. “The attitude with which you approach your work is highly contagious and people want to work with others who have a positive attitude.”

DailyWorth: What would you tell someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Debbra Schoneman:  Find a balance between personal humility and professional will.  In other words, be ambitious, but be ambitious first and foremost for the company and not for yourself.

Choose to be accountable. This is more than just being responsible for what is being asked of you. Accountability is the act of choosing to take personal ownership for something. It is the way you approach what you are doing. It is a frame of mind.

Build relationships based on trust. To do that you need to focus on being sincere, capable and reliable.

How much do you think the gender difference has played into (or against) your success story?

While I try to stay away from stereotyping individuals broadly, as I look at what aspects of my success might be attributed to the fact that I am a female, I believe that my desire to collaborate and my natural tendency to be empathetic have played a role in my success.

Looking back on your early years in business, what do you wish you could tell your younger self?

That is an easy one for me… BE CONFIDENT and BE AUTHENTIC! I believe these are key attributes for success and they tend to be more challenging for women.

You don’t need to be 100 percent ready to take that next step — go for that promotion, take on that project.  Any studies have been done that show that women will miss out on opportunities because they just don’t feel ready, when at the same time a man will say “I know 60 percent of what I need to know and I can learn the rest” and then go for it.

Another quote I love from Neale Donald Walsch is “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” I have found great satisfaction and energy from pushing myself out of my comfort zone and into my “learning zone.”

Neustar’s Lisa Joy Rosner

Neustar’s Lisa Joy Rosner

Lisa Joy Rosner has been running marketing departments in Silicon Valley since she was 29. But how she broke into her first high-tech job is also notable. “After a year in New Zealand, I moved to the Bay Area. I ended up in an apartment right by Oracle, so I sent my resume to them because they were a hot company,” recalled Rosner recently. “A manager in HR who was about to go to New Zealand saw that I’d lived there and brought me in for an interview — and to ask me about New Zealand. I think back on this as an example of the role serendipity plays in everyone’s career.”

Today, she is the chief marketing officer for Neustar, a neutral provider of real-time information and analytics, where she runs corporate and brand marketing across Neustar’s entire product and services portfolio. Throughout her career, Rosner has successfully re-branded four companies and launched three companies, carving recognition for herself for her educational and creative approach to B2B marketing, with a focus on marketing to both CMOs and CIOs. The mother of four also currently sits on the board of The Big Flip and is a marketing advisor to PLAE shoes.

DailyWorth: What would you tell someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Lisa Joy Rosner: You don’t get what you don’t ask for. So the best piece of advice I can offer is to decide what you want or need and ask for it, no matter how big or how bold, or from whom. You will be surprised at how many more yeses you will get rather than nos.

How much do you think the gender difference has played into (or against) your success story?

I am used to being the only woman in a room with 20+ men. The one thing I have noticed is that since my voice is different, when I talk, people listen. I just have to make sure that what I say is clever.

I do not really think that gender makes a difference. People are people and I have worked with both men and women who can be jerks in business and others who are a joy.

Looking back on your early years in business, what do you wish you could tell your younger self?

Being a “Type-A perfectionist,” I used to push for 100 percent quality on every deliverable. The best lesson I learned was the 80/20 rule. That said, I will never accept 79. Embracing 80/20 will actually free up some time for fun, which is important for maintaining balance, and in the end leads to improved productivity.

HealthSouth’s Cheryl Levy

HealthSouth’s Cheryl Levy

For Cheryl Levy, chief human resources officer for HealthSouth, HR was never just about paychecks. Even before she joined the company in 2007, she worked in human resources for various industries, like retail and an auditing firm, because she has said she always found the work intriguing.

HealthSouth has received some public notice due to some of the employee perks that involve Levy. For example, at their Birmingham, AL headquarters, three “Walkstations” were reportedly installed for staff to exercise on while they work. Basically a treadmill with a computer, internet service and telephone attached, up to 400 workers have used them while doing simple tasks like email reading.

“A number of our employees spend a great amount of time working on computers and engaging in conference calls and Web conferences with our 97 inpatient hospitals spread across 26 states,” Levy has said about this novel work perk. “We have all experienced after-lunch drowsiness and the Walkstation helps eliminate that and gives employees a way to get moving and work at the same time.” Considering HealthSouth is in the business of health, taking a proactive approach to disease prevention seems fitting.

DailyWorth: What would you tell someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Cheryl Levy: The two steps I would recommend to a young professional woman are:

1) Take advantage of any opportunity, special project, seminar, discussion or extra responsibility.  Demonstrating that you are dependable, enthusiastic and eager can help define how others see you and keep you at the forefront of consideration when new opportunities arise.

2) Continuous learning — this is not limited to formal education. Read about your profession, your company and changes in the industry. Ask questions of those professionals you respect and learn from their experiences. Knowledge is power.

How much do you think the gender difference has played into (or against) your success story?

I have been fortunate in my career to work with men who understand and appreciate the importance of women in business. However, each mentor has challenged me to work as hard, or harder, than my male peers to achieve my “seat at the table.” I believe there are differences in how a male and a female professional view business issues and those differences are what make a business successful.

Looking back on your early years in business, what do you wish you could tell your younger self?

I would tell my “younger self” to be more self-confident and take more risks. It was a very special mentor that convinced me I was prepared to take on a new, very challenging promotion. That mentor convinced me I had all the competencies for the role, but I needed to be more self-confident. Once I changed my mindset, the new opportunities were endless.

Facebook’s Janelle Gale

Facebook’s Janelle Gale

Chances are, not many “Drs” are reviewing your resume if you’re not in the healthcare profession. Then again, you may not have yet sought employment at Facebook. There sits Janelle Gale, global head of Human Resources Business Partner team. Before going into the corporate sphere, Gale earned her Ph.D. in organization psychology — a degree that entails a deep understanding of the workplace from a scientific approach. She leads the HR team with a mission to grow and engage Facebook employees, help to evolve the organization in fast-paced times, and design and implement innovative internal programs, all the while making sure the core Facebook culture is maintained.

Besides Facebook, Gale also devotes her time as an advisor for Sughar Empowerment Society, an organization that teaches life, business, and entrepreneurial skills to rural Pakistani women and girls, aiming to create gender equality within a society where it is still a very risky business for females to stand up for their rights.

DailyWorth: What would you tell someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Janelle Gale: A professor once told me that, no matter what, never go into HR because it’s a low ceiling job. Two decades later, he couldn’t be more wrong.  I invested heavily in becoming highly self-aware. Knowing what I was good and bad at early on gave me the confidence I needed to build skill in areas where I was best and had interest. A combination of confidence and capability in things that energize you will help you go far.

How much do you think the gender difference has played into (or against) your success story?

What has played the biggest role in my career success is building and sustaining strong, lasting relationships with all kinds of people — men and women — with different backgrounds and experiences.  I’ve drawn inspiration from a hugely diverse group of people who have taught me different things along the way.

Looking back on your early years in business, what do you wish you could tell your younger self?

The hardest career experiences you’ll have will also be the ones where you grow the most. Some of those will be huge successes and some will be failures.  Embrace both but remember that failures help you build resilience and go further faster.

The Gap’s Andi Owen

The Gap’s Andi Owen

Since joining the Gap brands (Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Piperlime, Intermix and Athleta) 23 years ago, Andi Owen has worn many (albeit, fashionable) hats at the company. Today, Owen, is executive vice president and general manager of Global Gap Outlet, carrying the responsibility of expressing the Gap Brand through a fleet of 350 stores across North America, Europe and Asia.

But perhaps Owen’s most notable success includes her passion for volunteering, giving back and mentoring. “Volunteering makes a difference in our community, but I have found that it has also made a difference in my life,” Owen has said. “It has opened my eyes to what is needed outside of my own day-to-day world, and it has made me a more tolerant and open person and helped me realize how hard life is for many people.”

DailyWorth: What would you tell someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Andi Owen: Be open to new experiences and be willing to fail — repeatedly. This is the best way to learn. Don’t be afraid of change, it’s good for you. You grow the most from experiences where you are challenged. Criticism is a gift. Network! Women can be their own best allies. Develop a network of mentors and confidantes to support each other’s career growth.

How much do you think the gender difference has played into (or against) your success story?

I believe great talent is gender neutral. Exceptional, inspiring leadership can come in a variety of packages.

Looking back on your early years in business, what do you wish you could tell your younger self?

Have confidence in yourself.  Recognize and accept that life is about choices. You have to know yourself well enough to make the right choices for you. No one else can do it for you.

JLL’s Christie Kelly

JLL’s Christie Kelly

Since July 2013, Christie Kelly has held the prestigious seat of Global Chief Financial Officer for JLL, the commercial real estate services firm, headquartered in Chicago, IL. Overseeing financial and business planning activities, directing investor and banking relations and providing leadership to drive growth, Kelly also oversees issues related to the global tax, internal audit, investor relations, controller and treasury operations.

Kelly is thriving in the commercial real estate field, but she has said in the past that it tends to be a male-dominated career path. But, it hasn’t stopped Kelly from achieving her successes. Her secret? “Throughout my career, I’ve learned that the most effective way to establish myself has been to keep learning and building a personal network. Extend [it] to all parts of a company or field and to individuals from all backgrounds,” she has said. “Your ability and your relationships form the foundation on which you build your entire career, so they are two of the most important investments you can make.”

DailyWorth: What would you tell someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Christie Kelly: Always, always step outside your comfort zone. Don’t be one-dimensional. Look for opportunities outside your everyday job that will broaden your relationships and skill set. Doing so makes you a stronger person — and a more prepared leader.

How much do you think the gender difference has played into (or against) your success story?

For any woman, it’s important to stay current and build her network to extend to all angles of a company or field, and to individuals from all backgrounds. Before her capabilities and skills, relationships are the foundation a woman builds her career upon, and therefore one of the most important investments young women need to make and maintain.

More often than men, a woman’s network and connectivity — both personally and professionally — give her a competitive edge for opportunities.

Looking back on your early years in business, what do you wish you could tell your younger self?

Don’t be afraid of failure. Taking risks is a scary thing, especially knowing you can fail. Yet, you learn that no one is perfect and we all make mistakes. By taking risks, owning your actions, and facing failure and learning from it, you grow and appreciate your successes and the successes of others.

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