Warren Buffett’s Advice to YoPro Millennial Women

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The gender conversation within the professional world has heated up again in recent months with the release of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial new book Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead. In the book, Sandberg asserts that women unintentionally hold themselves back in the workplace and urges her female readers to “sit at the table,” volunteer for challenging opportunities — scary as they may seem — and chase their professional goals.

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The conversation continues today with Warren Buffet, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and second richest man in America, as he sits down with Caroline Ghosn, co-founder and CEO of Levo League, to discuss his recently penned essay for the May 2013 issue of Fortune Magazine on the same topic and his views on challenges that plague women in the workforce.

In many regards, Buffett echoes Sandberg’s sentiments both in his interview and in his essay. In the interview, he talks about the silent self-doubt that haunts businesswomen and not men, he discusses the importance of strong mentors and teachers, and he talks about how “many seemingly self-assured males…have more than a bit of Wizard of Oz in them.” In fact, Buffett reveals that originally wrote his Fortune piece as a potential foreword to Sandberg’s book after finding many shared sentiments.

Sandberg even writes in her book:

Legendary investor Warren Buffett stated generously that one of the reasons for his great success was that he was only competing with half of the population.

Buffett reiterates this claim in his Fortune essay, stating:

America has forged this success while utilizing, in large part, only half of the country’s talent. For most of our history, women — whatever their abilities — have been relegated to the sidelines. Only in recent years have we begun to correct that problem.

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The conversation with Ghosn also reveals Buffett’s experiences with gender roles and politics throughout his personal and professional life, and his advice to young women finding their way in the workforce. And while Buffett does admit that there is still a long way to go in equalizing the playing field for women, he sees himself an “unqualified optimist” when he considers America’s future as we unleash the full potential of women in business.

Below are some excerpts from the interview. The full interview can be viewed on Levo League’s website, www.LevoLeague.com.

ON WOMEN THEN & NOW:

I was born in 1930, I had an older sister Doris, a few years older; a younger sister Bertie, a few years younger. Absolutely as smart as I am—probably a little smarter—and much more personable. They got along better in the world and all of that. 

My parents—our parents—loved us all equally, they never told my sisters “you can’t do this” or “you can’t do that”—verbally—but every message they got from society, from their teachers in every way was that their job was to marry well and that if they insisted on working that they could be a secretary, or a nurse or a teacher.

And essentially they were telling me, again silently in many ways, that the sky was the limit. So we would go to school, we would get similar grades, they had everything going for them—except that they were women.

Society just said if you want to be a teacher, fine. If you want to be a nurse, fine. If you want to be a secretary, fine. But forget everything else. So, I have seen that change in my lifetime, although change was slow…It has changed a lot for the better. There’s still important ways to go.

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ON SILENCING SELF-DOUBT:

I’ve seen very, very bright women. I use the example of Katherine Graham, who was outstanding. While she was CEO of the Washington Post the stock went up 40 for 1, she won a Pulitzer Prize, but she had been told by her mother, she’d been told by her husband, she’d been told by lots of people that women weren’t as good as men in business. It was nonsense. I kept telling her, “Quit looking in that fun house mirror. You know, here’s a real mirror. You’re something.” And as smart as she was, as high grade as she was, you know, as famous as she became, right to her dying day she had that little voice inside her that kept repeating what her mother told her a long time ago. 

Everybody should get a chance to live up to their potential. Women should not hold themselves back and nobody should hold them back. And that’s my message. 

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