Women business leaders in the North Bay continue to blaze new trails for others, despite obstacles.
With so many accomplished women in the business world, you’d think their ability to assume leadership roles and perform well would be old news. On the contrary, even the most successful female executives still face assumptions about their abilities based on gender. To be sure, women have come a long way since the Women’s Liberation Movement emerged in the 1960s and now have greater opportunities to fulfill their potential than ever before, but deeply rooted beliefs about a woman’s place still persist.
Peterson Institute for International Economics, a private nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., conducted a global survey of 22,000 firms in 2014 and released a study in February 2016. Among the findings in Firms with More Women in the C-Suite Are More Profitable, Harvard Business Review: Almost 60 percent of companies surveyed had no female board members; over half had no female C-suite executives; and fewer than 5 percent had a female CEO.
The study also reported that, in the United States, almost 40 percent of MBA graduates and 40 percent of managers are female, but it’s rare to find women in corporate boardrooms or senior executive positions. Firms that went from having no women in corporate leadership spots to a 30 percent female share, however, showed an increase in profitability, suggesting that female advancement is good for business.
“Our study found that women’s success in corporate advancement correlates with some basic building blocks: high math scores, high rates of concentration in degree programs associated with management and liberal parental-leave policies (including paternal leave). Success is also correlated with the relative absence of discriminatory attitudes toward female executives,” say authors Marcus Noland and Tyler Moran. But despite research to substantiate their worth, many businesswomen still encounter sexism (sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle).
Kim Kaselionis recalls attending a banking industry conference with her mother, Kit Cole, and having a man approach them during breakfast to direct them to the wives’ program down the hall—even though they were both bank CEOs. Melissa Bradley had male counterparts tell her she’d fail when she struck out on her own, despite her strong organizational skills and performance as a top real estate agent. And Marlene Soiland remembers visiting a site where she had a building under construction and hearing a male worker call out that someone’s wife was delivering lunch. Although it’s been 52 years since Title VII of the Equal Rights Act made sex discrimination in employment illegal, women are still fighting for recognition as business leaders and, while they’re up to the challenge and the misperceptions they encounter don’t hold them back, they still have to deal with them.
Marlene Soiland, head of Soiland Management Company in Santa Rosa, never expected to have a career in construction. She’d worked in her father’s underground pipeline construction business, Soiland Co., Inc., as a teenager, but even so, it was man’s world—so much so that her father, the late Marv Soiland, considered the company and the construction industry off limits to the women in the family. “I had a home economics degree. I thought I’d be a teacher,” says Soiland. And yet, when she was fresh out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, her father offered her a job. “Being invited into the construction field was an interesting turn for me,” she says. “I’ve always been a little baffled that he let me in.”
She had no illusions about the hurdles women faced—her senior thesis in college looked at women’s creditproblems during the time of the Equal Rights Amendment—but she accepted the offer and embarked on a learning experience that was life-changing.
The plan was for Marlene to work aside her father’s officer manager, a former military officer who was planning to retire in five years, become knowledgeable about administration and then take over. She learned a great deal about running the business, but she also recognized that the man whose shoes she would be filling had great ideas but delivered them in a way that didn’t reach anyone. “It was a big life lesson,” she says.
Soiland set about finding ways to say things so people would actually hear them. She developed similar skills in dealing with her father. “I couldn’t get into ithead-on with him, but I could kind of work it in a more gentle, soft way,” she explains. So she learned the importance of finding common ground and building agreement.
She was a capable manager, but her father still had firm convictions about a woman’s role. In the mid-1980s, he was ready to leave the contracting business and hired a consultant to interview everyone in the company to determine who was the most qualified to take over. The consultant identified Marlene but, by that time, she was married and had a baby; the elder Soiland thought she should be at home taking care of her family, so he scaled down the construction company and went in the direction of land development.
Marv was comfortable having his daughter work with him in real estate development and property management, however, and Marlene eventually became a partner. It wasn’t always easy though, and she admits that getting past the perception that women have different abilities was a challenge. “I think in a lot of ways I expected resistance, so I was afraid to say what I stood for,” she observes. Now she’s not so concerned. She listens to people, asks questions and says, “I don’t see those obstacles as much any more. I think that’s going away.” She speculates that’s the result of proving herself.
Melissa Bradley, chairman of the board and owner of Bradley Real Estate, got her first experience in real estate while she was a high school student working as an assistant to her grandmother, realtor Florence “Sue” Bradley. She learned numerous business skills from her grandmother, who also taught her she could do anything she set her mind to. Bradley got her realtor’s license in 1993, when she was 22, and landed her first salesperson position with Frank Howard Allen Real Estate in Novato. (Her grandmother had passed away by then, so they never got to work together.)
She didn’t find gender issues much of an issue in residential real estate sales, where women are prominent, but four years later, when she got her broker’s license and decided to open her own office, it was a different story. Her manager at Prudential Real Estate in Kentfield told her she’d never make it on her own—but if discouraging her was his intention, his comments had the opposite effect. “Honestly, it spurred me on to feel more strongly that I was going to make it on my own,” she says.
She opened a storefront office in Redhill Shopping Center in San Anselmo with the help of her mother, Sherry Bradley. She had no intention to expand at first, but was given unexpected inspiration by serendipity. “Coldwell Banker’s parent corporation, NRT out of Parsippany, N.J. had made an offer to buy me out, as my office of about 10 agents was doing about 40 percent of the business in San Anselmo at the time. At first, I was kind of flattered by the attention they were giving me,” she explains. At that time, her mother was helping her run the office, as Bradley had recently become a new mom. When a representative from the mergers and acquisitions department of Coldwell Banker paid a visit to see the office, he pointed out that if they moved the the baby gear out of the office and put in additional desks, “they” could make more money.
Bradley figured if they could do it, so could she. She turned down Coldwell Banker’s offer to buy her out and decided to expand. She took out a lease on a more than 4,000-square-foot office space in central San Rafael, where she quickly recruited 50 additional agents and opened the second Bradley Real Estate office.
After that, she created a business plan with her husband, Robert Bradley, that focused onrecruiting and expansion, leading to their current 14 offices. This included an office for their commercial real estate team’s headquarters, which Robert operates.
Giving her acquisitions a touch of irony, when recession hit in 2008 and the real estate market took a steep downturn, she took over the two of the Prudential offices previously owned by the manager who’d told her that she wouldn’t be successful on her own. When she first became a broker, she discovered that dealing with the other managers in the area, who were men, was difficult. She attributes that partly to her youth, although she believes gender also was an issue. Diane Wagner in Mill Valley and the late Catherine Munson of San Rafael were successful women brokers, but they’d been in the business for a long time, were older and weren’t thinking of expanding. In contrast, Bradley was ambitious and only 26. At one point, she was forced to close an office in Larkspur when the building was sold; the new landlord didn’t renew her lease, as he had plans to open more retail stores in the space. Rumors from competitors began to circulate that she was having financial difficulty. The reality was that she was working on buying a building in Sonoma County and also opening a new office in Petaluma.
“There were times when I really felt I was being kicked in the gut,” she says, observing that, at times, managers of other brokerages got together to talk about the business but excluded her. It was as if she’d come out of nowhere, and they couldn’t believe her success was possible. She found it difficult for the first few years, but finally concluded that she’d always find people who would be “jealous or feel threatened.” So she put on the blinders and continued to move forward.
Kim Kaselionis, founder of Breakaway Funding and former CEO of Circle Bank, found a strong role model in her mother, Kit Cole, who was one of California’s first female stockbrokers and the head of Circle Bancorp, the parent of Circle Bank before its sale to Umpqua Bank in 2012.
In addition to setting an example, Cole taught Kaselionis that a well-rounded education would give her choices when she went out into the world, and that developing skills that would make her employable was essential. Above all, Cole encouraged her daughter to believe in her own ability do whatever she wanted—and to go out and do it. “I’ll always be grateful for that,” says Kaselionis, who’s passed on similar lessons to her own daughter. She’s also passed on the wisdom that her daughter will have to deal with the challenges and roadblocks she encounters: “You have to work through uncomfortable and painful hiccups along the way,” she says.
She had an affinity for finance, and began studying accounting at California State University Hayward (now California State University East Bay), where she found herself in the minority. It was unusual for a woman to study accounting, and the school had a largely nonwhite student population, so she was in the position of being the rare white woman in finance. However, she says, “My mother was a pioneer and had taken the brunt of a lot of the gender inequities for me.”
After graduation in 1985, Kaselionis became controller and director of client services for Kit Cole’s Investment Advisory Services. She became Chairman/CEO of Circle Bank in 1996 and led it to 53 consecutive profitable quarters, demonstrating that a woman can indeed excel in what was long considered a man’s world. Despite her success, she affirms encountering preconceived notions about a woman’s abilities along the way.
In August 1991, Kaselionis became a member of the board of New West Thrift & Loan, representing a group of individual investors who comprised approximately one-third of the original capital base. The institution was insolvent, which meant she had to get permission from federal and state bank regulators before becoming the CEO. She recalls going to San Francisco with her attorney to meet with the regulators and having them express concern that her mother might control her.
She points out that, if it had been a father-son situation, they likely never would have raised the issue. “I’m a bank CEO, not a female bank CEO,” she says, observing that women have to see themselves as being equal to men. This steadfastness will help them achieve a greater level of acceptance. She advises women who are facing instances of gender bias to take a pause, ignore it and to introduce themselves as peers.
In 2014, Kaselionis launched Breakaway Funding, a community-based crowdfunding platform that matches entrepreneurs seeking funding with investors looking for opportunities for competitive returns. Her vision for Breakaway came from a two-pronged problem she encountered as the CEO of Circle Bank—problems that still exist today: lack of access to capital to fund innovation and job creation for small and midsize businesses (SMBs) and community banks’ struggle to lend. The solution? Breakaway leverages technology, via a fully integrated crowdfunding platform, to match individual investors with businesses that need capital to strengthen their balance sheets; these initial investments position those businesses for further funding down the road from traditional lending institutions.
She finds that men often view her differently in this position than they did when she was a bank CEO. They’re more willing to collaborate with women and recognize that the female approach to life is different. “We just have a different lens,” she says.
Kaselionis sees more women becoming bosses and reports that female entrepreneurs are starting businesses at one-and-a-half times the rate of men. “What we’re seeing is an emerging female tsunami,” she says. “We play a very important role in society."
And yet, she observes, some things still haven’t changed. “If we want to encourage women to aspire and contribute their talents in society, we need to look, at a minimum, at the pay inequity,” she says. “Why go to work and contribute when you’re not going to get paid the same as male counterparts?” she asks.
It’s something Marlene Soiland experienced first-hand, when both she and her husband started working in the family business, and her father informed her that he was going to pay them both the same amount, because it would be wrong for her to earn more than her husband. She didn’t understand why he couldn’t pay her more, when she had greater responsibility. “I hope those days are over,” she says, adding that she’s working to create a market-rate wage structure for her business.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “In 2014, female full-time workers made only 79 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 21 percent.”
Since agents work on commission in real estate, Bradley says income equality isn’t really an issue. In fact, women might even have an advantage, because part of the skill set in selling homes is being sympathetic and patient, which tend to be “feminine” qualities. “Hand-holding and nurturing is part of the business,” she says. She encourages women to embrace their feminine qualities whatever business they’re in. “Sometimes women feel as if, because they’re in business, they can’t show emotions and have to be very tough,” she says. She reveals that sometimes she’ll have a day with tears, but then she’s ready to go at it the next day. “It’s OK to be feminine in your business. Be proud of being a woman,” She says that her mother, realtor Sherry Bradley, who’s worked by her side in the business for the last 16 years, taught her the secret to her success: “Always be honest, give the highest quality effort and get up one more time than they knock you down. Women are resilient and can overcome the obstacles if they keep pushing forward and believing in themselves.”
As the business environment changes and becomes more welcoming to female executives, it’s a message that’s likely to resonate as women realize they can be themselves and choose their own paths. “I think we stop ourselves more than anyone stops us,” says Soiland, who encourages young women with leadership potential to figure out a way to do the things they’re passionate about. “You can do anything you want,” she says. “When you do something because you love it, it’s contagious.”
Kaselionis encourages women to dream big and tells them not to be afraid of making mistakes. “We are perfectly imperfect,” she says, and adds that the women who have come before will be willing and able to mentor and provide encouragement. She also emphasizes that women have to take responsibility for their own lives. “If you make mistakes, own it. If you’re too paralyzed by fear to move forward, seek support. We simply can’t and shouldn’t rely solely on others for our success,” she says. “Women can go to the next step,” she adds, but they need to decide what they want to do in life and do it—by networking, asking for introductions and being bolder. “If you can’t clearly see the path from here to there, just keep walking toward it,” she advises.
It’s a new direction for business, and women are on their way up.
The idea that girls have an aptitude for languages and the arts, while boys lean more toward science and math is fortunately becoming passé. These days, more girls are participating in academic competitions such as science fairs, mathletes and mock trials (which were once male-dominated) than ever before. Raquel Rose, assistant superintendent at Marin County Office of Education (MCOE), explains that today’s holistic approach to education exposes all children to a variety of disciplines, so they can move toward to the areas that interest them most early on, whether it’s engineering or performing arts, regardless of gender.
STEM education—an acronym for “science, technology, engineering and math”—takes kids are able to see the threads that link them. It’s beneficial because it gives all students the same opportunities. “It’s not targeting boys over girls,” says Rose. She adds that arts are now being added to the model to create STEAM.
“You have to equip kids with a variety of skill sets,” she says, and reports that Autodesk visited White Hill Middle School in Fairfax for a STEAM event in 2014 that gave girls a special night to explore engineering. “You just saw the girls blossoming,” says Rose, who watched as the girls interacted with tools and created things with the same ability as any other student.
MCOE also offered a code night, where kids could attend with their parents and learn how to create code. It was presented as a video game and attracted as many girls as boys. “It was great to see that we had a split of boys and girls,” says Rose. “We have to let kids be what they are if we really want to support their passions,” she adds, and advises, “If girls gravitate toward science, support that.
She recommends two documentary films that focus on gender: Miss Representation (2011), which shows how the media affect the perception of women and contribute to their underrepresentation in positions of power; and The Mask You Live In (2015), which looks at society’s beliefs about masculinity.Jennifer Seibel Newsom wrote, produced and directed both films. Find out more at www.therepresentationproject.org.
Although women make up approximately half the world’s population, they tend to be underrepresented in government. Exceptions in the North Bay region are the U.S. Senate and the Marin County Board of Supervisors, which have exceeded gender parity.
U.S. Senate: 2 of 2
Senator Diane Feinstein (Senior Senator)
Senator Barbara Boxer (Junior Senator)
U.S. Congress: 0 of 2
California Senate: 1 of 2
Senator Lois Wolk, 3rd District
California Assembly: 0 of 2
Marin County Board of Supervisors: 3 of 5
Katie Rice, District 1
Kate Sears, District 3
Judy Arnold, District 5
Sonoma County Board of Supervisors: 2 of 5
Susan Gorin, District 1
Shirlee Zane, District 3
Napa County Board of Supervisors: 1 of 5
Diane Dillon, District 3
Mayors: Two of the North Bay’s cities with populations or 50,000 or more have female mayors.
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