Mistakes Make Success: Stories and Advice from Female Leaders in Business
Updated: May 15
While we know risks must be taken in order to reap rewards and success, the looming threat of failure sometimes towers so greatly before us that it seems unconquerable. The space that exists before failure, the comfort zone, promises safety, but it also ensures stagnance. Therefore, professionals will tell you that growth, both personal and career-based, only occurs when one dares to push past their comfort zone and make mistakes.
The American Armed Forces often put their soldiers-in-training through drills designed to induce failure. Like a rigged carnival ring toss, the failure-filled drills ensure that soldiers make mistakes so they may later revisit and rectify their errors. This helps the trainees learn the correct approach to potentially life-or-death situations. Similarly, psychology experts like Dr. Janet Metcalfe, who teaches and researches psychology at Columbia University, believe that “errorful learning followed by corrective feedback is beneficial to learning.” As explained in her 2016 Publication titled, Learning from Errors, when students feel empowered to freely make and learn from mistakes, their learning environment is far more consive to enriched learning than an environment in which “mess-ups” are discouraged. So, while it may seem like accomplishments only occur when the road to achieve them is embellished with successes, mistakes actually play an essential part in reaching future triumphs.
Wendy and Husband in their store, Sundaze
Wendy Gallen opened Sundaze Frozen Yogurt 18 years ago in Tucson, Arizona. Prior to opening Sundaze, Wendy worked as a school teacher with no prior experience in business. Since opening her business, she hasn’t looked back, surviving through recession and worldwide pandemic alike. However, Wendy admits, “I can’t say that I’ve never shed tears in my store, because I have.” Although the store-owner takes pride in her product and the customer service that has kept her store open and thriving through the years, her story is not one without bumps. In an email interview, Wendy explained what she describes as her biggest mistake since becoming a small business owner.
Just two years after I bought the store, my husband and I opened a second store just like it in a town north of us. Unfortunately, my husband became ill shortly thereafter with a chronic ailment that kept him in and out of the hospital over the following three years. I did my best to run two stores, take care of him, and raise our two children, but it proved to be too much, and something had to go by the wayside. We closed our second store only three years after it had opened. We lost an enormous amount of money in the process.
Sundaze During Quarantine
No stranger to both the rewards, and downfalls that can result from taking career risks, Wendy Gallen knows how to keep pushing through adversity. When asked what advice she’d offer to those hoping to open a business of their own, she replied “you have to brush yourself off, stand back up, and get to work. I think trying to be flexible has always helped. When something doesn’t go quite the way you expected, if you can see around things to make adjustments, you will be resilient and succeed.”
Anne Cortez, Conspec International
Resilience and self-compassion are necessary traits when it comes to conquering obstacles in our competitive world. Successes, like owning a thriving local business with no prior experience, don’t come without accompanying trials. One’s response to failure, however, is the most important determinant of future success. Just ask legal consultant and entrepreneur, Anne Cortez. Today, Anne Cortez acts as the CEO of Conspec International, providing spectrum management and legal consulting to clients like Raytheon, and managing a company that brokers mining equipment and provides technology safety products to the mining industry. Anne works alongside technology innovators, business owners, and government officials alike, but her career began in a law firm. At her firm, female partners were often seen as “token” employees, which bred intense competition and an attitude among women described by Cortez as “if they're gonna let one women in [to a position of power] I want it to be me.” Anne had to quickly learn to navigate the “man’s world” she found herself immersed in.
Conspec International HQ
When asked what she thinks the biggest mistake of her career was, Cortez instantly thought back to her work in the law firm, remembering the “weeks spent collecting evidence and claims” preceding the sexual harassment complaint she filed against her boss. When he was pulled from managing Cortez and her fellow female coworkers, Anne felt she was seen thereafter as a traitor, who had “overreacted because the boss simply had a crush” on her or “wasn’t a team player.” After taking the risk to stand up for herself and the other women in the office who’d faced harassment, Anne faced the reality that the morally right decision wasn’t necessarily the best decision for her career.
After working at the legal firm, for the Federal Communications Commission, and finally for a business of her own, Anne now looks back on the decision she once considered a mistake as an important step towards self-growth and opening a company of her own. Even leaving her former job to create her company posed a huge risk, but today, Anne enjoys leading a company she herself built and uses her prior experience to foster a safe, supportive work environment for her employees.
According to professor and inaugural director of the Entrepreneurial Learning Institute at Hollins University, Karen Messer-Bourgoin, “setbacks are learning experiences that enlighten one’s path with redirection.” Professor Messer-Bourgoin began her career on Wall Street, working in male-dominated fields until her current position as a professor at an all-women's college. From this experience, Professor Messer-Bourgaoin garnered the insight that “gaining and maintaining respect seems to be at the onus of what women do in a man’s world.” With this pressure to gain and maintain respect, mistakes may seem all the more catastrophic. However, when asked what advice she gives her students, and any student hoping to excel in their future career, Professor Burgoin responded, “I constantly remind myself that no one is perfect, and that as long as I am doing my best, then that is all I can do. I believe it is very important to be reflective and try to understand where things could have gone differently, and then assess how I might approach things differently the next time.”
Professor Karen Messer-Bourgoin (third from right) with students in her Entrepreneurial Learning Institute
Across fields in business and entrepreneurship, professionals typically share one piece of advice: don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Whether you are male or female, interested in business or another career or passion, learning from failure is something to be embraced, not feared.
- Chloe Goorman