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Hearing the Voices of Women Leaders in Business and Finance

Tillie Lewis sits at an office desk. She is surrounded by men in suits.

Tillie Lewis and brokers, 1945, Courtesy of Haggin Museum.

Out of Fortune magazine's 500 highest-revenue companies in the U.S., only 37 have women CEOs. In order to increase the number of women in these leadership positions, other women who have blazed trails in business and finance must push the door open for more women to follow. On October 20, 2020, the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative and Bloomberg's New Voices collaborated to present The Women in the Room. This program explored the topic of women in business and finance—past, present, and future.


Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III welcomed viewers by sharing the story of an object that represents the long legacy of American women in business. This badge is in the collection of our National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Three-tiered gold metal pin, with tiers connected by chains. Tier one has two people shaking hands, tier two is a piece of paper with "Alice Gause" written on it, and tier three is a portrait of Madame C.J. Walker.
Badge from Madam C.J. Walker convention. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston.

Badges like these, with Madam C. J. Walker's image on them, were given to the members of her sales force at conferences. The daughter of enslaved people, Walker launched a thriving business in women's cosmetics and hair products in the early 20th century. She became the wealthiest self-made Black woman in the country. She saw an opportunity and built an empire, revolutionizing the industry. "To me, Walker proves that women have always belonged in the room," said Bunch.

The program also included an exploration of the The Only One in the Room, which goes on view on November 20 in the New Perspectives case in the American Enterprise exhibition at our National Museum of American History. The temporary showcase shares the stories of eight women who paved the way for progress in business. Curator, Division of Work and Industry at our National Museum of American History, Crystal Moten shared the story of Maggie Lena Walker, the only Black woman bank president in the nation. Living in the segregated South, she started St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and dedicated her life to African American advancement.

Maggie Lena Walker. She wears pearls and has a small cross pinned to her dress.
Maggie Lena Walker, about 1920. National Museum of American History, Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center.

Hosted by Bloomberg news anchor Alix Steel, The Woman the Room included a panel with leaders of today, including Dina Powell McCormick, Goldman Sachs, Management Committee member; Michelle Peluso, SVP digital sales and chief marketing officer at IBM; and Mellody Hobson, president and co-CEO of Ariel Investments. 

Hobson shared her unique approach to the challenge of being the only African American woman in the room early in her career. When attending investment conferences, other attendees already knew her name when they approached her to chat. Hobson realized, "I stand out so much that they actually know me before I know them." Recognizing that she was memorable, she decided to use this to her advantage. She made sure to always arrive extremely prepared with an original idea to share.

To close the program, audiences had an opportunity to learn about efforts to train and tell the stories of future women business leaders. Speakers included Laura Zelenko, senior executive editor at Bloomberg News; Sherry Paul, managing director, senior portfolio manager, UBS Private Wealth Management; and Julissa Marenco, assistant secretary for communications and external affairs and chief marketing officer at the Smithsonian. Zelenko talked about Bloomberg's New Voices initiative, a program to increase women sources in news stories about finance and business. Paul spoke about Girls Take Wall Street, a program inspiring high school girls to become the next generation of leaders in finance. Finally, Marenco related how the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative preserves and shares stories of women leaders in business who have come before.

Marenco spoke of our work at the Smithsonian with The Only One in the Room, as well as online efforts to make Wikipedia more inclusive. Marenco said, "With our partnership with Wikipedia, we learned that the representation of women on Wikipedia was quite thin. Less than 18% of Wikipedia biographies in English are about women...It matters especially because no one likes half of the story."

Graphic with photo of Lena Richard and text: Women in Finance Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. Join us to learn how to contribute to Wikipedia to tell the stories of entrepreneurs and other women trailblazers in business and finance.
Lena Richard was an African American chef who built a culinary empire in New Orleans during the Jim Crow era. Image courtesy of Newcomb Archives and Vorhoff Library Special Collections, Newcomb College Institute, Tulane University.

You can help increase the number of women who are recognized as leaders in business. Join our Women in Finance Wikipedia Edit-a-thon co-hosted by Wikimedia DC on Thursday, October 29, 2020 from 1–3 p.m., where we will add and update Wikipedia listings for women trailblazers in science. Beginners are welcome.

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