“Someday a woman should run this company.”
When Andrea Jung — long before she became the CEO of the beauty products giant Avon — heard the company’s then-CEO utter those words during her mid-level job interview, she was looking at a plaque on the wall in front of her.
It depicted four footprints, starting with a barefoot ape’s and ending with that of a high-heel pump, and it read “The Evolution of Leadership.”
She asked him if he believed that.
Addressing a crowd of about 1,000 women at the 17th annual United Way Women United Breakfast at the University of Miami, Jung shared her secrets for success, and marveled at the progress in recent months in raising awareness about workplace gender inequality.
Her best advice, she told the crowd:
“Fail forward.” (compliments of Steve Jobs): Making mistakes is important and necessary. But you don’t want to make the same mistake twice.
“Follow your compass, not your clock.” Stay true to your passions; don’t let titles and expectations get in the way. (This, after she initially was passed over for Avon CEO and had the option of going to another company. She stayed at Avon.)
She also bypassed a CEO dinner with then-U.S. president George W. Bush to attend an important event for her 7-year-old daughter.
As Avon CEO from 1999-2012, Jung said she was often the first — and only — female in the boardroom. But “what good is that if you’re the last?” she asked the crowd. “You gotta break the way for others.”
As poor Chinese immigrants in Toronto, her grandmother — “not my grandfather,” she stressed — received an informal loan that changed the course of her family’s history. With that money, Jung’s grandmother started up a hair salon. One generation later, her father attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two generations later, Jung attended Princeton and worked her way up to eventually being named one of Forbes Magazine’s “Most Powerful Women in the World.”
“I saw myself firsthand growing up — the power of a woman who could actually change our family trajectory up and out of poverty,” she said.
Today, she is continuing the tradition as president and CEO of Grameen America, a nationwide organization that offers microloans to low-income women seeking to start businesses of their own. The U.S. operation grew out of the original Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, a microlending effort founded in 1976 by Muhammad Yunus that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Last month, Jung opened a branch of Grameen America in Miami — the organization’s 13th city in the U.S. — in Little Havana. It has already given out 25 loans of no more than $1,500 each.
“We believe Miami is going to be one of the biggest opportunities that we have,” she said. Nearly 60 percent of Miami’s population lives in or just above poverty; a disproportionate number are women. Grameen hopes to help; the agency already has invested more than $760 million in the U.S.
The event gave attendees an opportunity to reflect on the progress of the gender equality movement and highlight local, philanthropic efforts to empower underserved communities — all while learning from speakers whose cracks in the proverbial glass ceiling serve as beacons.
In 2015, it was Chelsea Clinton. Last year, Martha Stewart.
But Thursday’s breakfast came on the heels of a pivotal year for women, noted event founder Leslie Miller Saiontz, referring to the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and Oprah Winfrey’s recent speech at the Golden Globe Awards.
Like many actresses at the awards show, both Saiontz and Jung donned black Thursday.
“It’s an extraordinary moment,” Jung said. “For me it’s kind of like the reformation. I mean you cannot put this genie back in the bottle now.”