Question everything. Question why our laws are what they are, question why your company has certain procedures in place, question why you connected with that person but not that other one. Question your biases. Question and then see what answers you find.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Luann Abrams. Luann Abrams is the founder of CEOX, an organization whose mission is to elevate women into leadership positions by matching highly qualified women to CEO roles. She has worked in male-dominated industries her entire career from aviation to venture capital and has become a fierce advocate for women because she sees gender parity is not just a social imperative, but an economic one. When she isn’t working and living the Bend, OR outdoor life with her husband and two sons, you will find her curled up with a good book and a hot cup of coffee.

Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up the middle of three girls in Reno, NV. I was lucky enough to have loving parents and a safe neighborhood with lots of friends whose houses we would run in and out of at will. I got my work ethic from my parents who seemed never to rest. We did not have a lot of extra money, but we were never lacking for the basics. My mom took great pleasure in picking me up from school in my Dad’s beater work truck instead of our family car, which was embarrassing at the time, but instilled in me what was really important. It wasn’t until I was going away to college to be an engineer and pilot and people started sounding surprised that a girl was doing that, that I realized my parents clearly instilled a great amount of confidence in me. I never thought I couldn’t do something because of my gender. My dad had us girls out working at his construction site at an early age, and although my family subscribed to traditional gender roles (my dad had the paying job and my mom had the non-paying job), neither thought we were limited.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

“Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” by Caroline Criado Perez is the book I read that was the tipping point for me to start CEOX. I realized how much in our world that we take for granted from snow plowing to car design to emojis was created to solve issues for men, and women were often left out of the mix. It made clear to me that gender parity is a life or death issue and with more women leading we could solve for major problems that affect over 50% of our population. After finally finishing that book, I knew that I had to actively solve for the dearth of women in leadership if I wanted to accelerate change.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I was born and raised in Reno, NV a town not often known as the place where Greg LeMond, three-time Tour de France winner, grew up. Legend has it that he almost didn’t graduate high school because he was failing PE. He would always cut class to ride his bike up Mt. Rose Highway, the road from Reno to Lake Tahoe, where only the most driven and athletically superior cyclists would ever want to ride. As a cyclist myself (who will never climb Mt. Rose Highway), I often repeated Greg’s words during my hardest rides: “It never gets easier, you just go faster.” But now as I’m working on CEOX, I find myself repeating that same phrase as I am going very far out of my comfort zone to make a difference. To me it is a reminder that I should keep doing hard things and that as I get better, I must continue to push myself while realizing that it may feel just as hard, but I’m actually making a lot of progress.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me leadership may sound like a lot of contradictions, but it is the opposite of what traditionally has been seen as leadership that makes one effective. A leader must be a great follower. A leader must make sure they are never the smartest one in the room. It is about being humble yet strong. It is being able to serve. The best leaders empower others to lead.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I know the importance of exercise, eating well and taking down time and that has been a part of my life since I was a young woman. I never could get into yoga or meditation though, so I started doing power poses before I start work each morning, especially mornings where I have a lot of meetings, which is difficult for an introvert like myself. I stand the way I imagine a superhero stands right before flight: Legs in a wide stance, head up and chin pointed, chest puffed out. I take some deep breaths like that for about a minute and I feel much more capable of taking on the day.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

I think many of us took a pause after we saw progress. There were women on the Supreme Court! We elected our first Black President! But in reality, there was still a lot of bias and systemic issues in place and forward movement stalled and maybe even went backwards. With social media, we could see how much hate and prejudice was surrounding us. But it also gave way to movements such as #metoo and #BLM and a way to galvanize. Now we are making up for lost time.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

One of my earlier projects was creating a mentorship program for women in STEM in my community. I ended up matching a CEO with a young woman who was working in the same industry and had very similar interests. They hit it off and ultimately, the CEO helped the young woman research and negotiate for a significant pay raise. Knowing that happened had a profound impact on me and made me realize that I really could make a difference. So when I was working in VC and I saw over and over again founding CEOs replaced and always replaced by men, I knew I could do something to make sure that highly qualified women didn’t continue to be overlooked for these important roles, hence the beginning of CEOX.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

From a purely capitalist standpoint, diverse teams are shown to make more money, so there’s that! But ultimately, diverse teams are capable of solving problems for more people, which in turn is better for our society as a whole and our economy. Diverse teams not only identify more problems to solve, but they have significantly different life experiences that can help find the solutions.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

1. Question everything. Question why our laws are what they are, question why your company has certain procedures in place, question why you connected with that person but not that other one. Question your biases. Question and then see what answers you find.

2. Read, read, read. And by that I mean we must take it upon ourselves to learn by reading about history, reading about other’s life experiences, reading about how we can make a difference.

3. Listen. Listen to other people’s experiences, thoughts and opinions. And listen not to reply, but to truly soak up why they think and feel the way that they do.

4. Get uncomfortable. There is a time for living inside of your comfort zone in order to recharge and a time to get uncomfortable to learn and grow. This is definitely the time to be uncomfortable. It is a time for speaking up, even if you aren’t one to speak up. It’s a time for protesting, even if you aren’t one for protesting. It’s a time to listen, even when you want to bury your head.

5. Take action. Find something big or small that you can do that will make a positive impact in the world. Something that when you look back ten years from now, you can live without any regret of wondering what if I had done more. I will be honest that I struggled with starting CEOX because I knew how hard it would be, but when I thought about my life 10 years from now, I knew I would have deep regrets if I didn’t attempt to make significant changes.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

For gender parity, yes, I absolutely think it will be resolved, but I doubt it will be in my lifetime. Everything I see is slowly shifting in that direction, just not fast enough for my liking. I think racial bias will take even more time. There is simply too much entrenched, systemic racism that has really turned into economic disparity, which is going to be extremely hard to recover from quickly. One example is the gender pay gap. Women as a whole are paid 82 cents for every dollar that a man makes. But if you look at black women that pay gap is at 62 cents for every dollar. If that doesn’t make you question everything, I don’t know what will.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

The greatest part of my job is that I get to talk inspiring women every day. They may not be well-known CEOs yet, but many will be someday. But I do love following CEOs and world leaders who have had interesting or challenging careers such as Beth Ford, Paula Gold-Williams, Sally Krawcheck, Catherine LaGarde, Jacinda Ardern. Not only would I love to meet with them, I’d make sure they nominated CEO-ready women that they have worked with. And of course, Greg LeMond.

How can our readers follow you online?

I post regularly about gender issues, leadership and inspiring CEOs on the CEOX social media sites: LinkedIn Twitter and Facebook.