The Meaning of Crackers, or What Painful Memory Holds You Back?

2013-06-24 18.50.38Stefi materialized like a sea sprite during our first breakfast at the Dubrovnik estate overlooking placid turquoise Adriatic waters. In an uncharacteristically impulsive act, I had purchased four nights for four people in this Croatian paradise at a charity auction. And here we were, absorbing the wonders of this gorgeous place, complete with Nada the amazing chef, a driver—and Stefi.

Until that moment, the four of us–my husband Alex and me and our friends Eileen and Bill–had been giving our full attention to Nada’s spread. There were succulent strawberries, salacious green figs, and juicy peaches that really tasted like the pure, unadulterated produce Croatians speak proudly of maintaining, local yogurts and cheeses, healthy whole grain cereal, and freshly baked sesame bread served with bottomless cups of steaming strong coffee.

Stefi’s appearance roused us from our breakfast bliss.

She skimmed across the garden patio in child-sized yellow Crocs, and planted herself between our table and the kitchen. With a cheery, “Good morning!” she began to weave a captivating narrative.

2013-06-25 19.17.38Unlike the lovely but reserved Nada (whom we later learned from Stefi had once been the national women’s judo champion—appearances can be deceiving), Stefi bubbled. Her full name is Stefica, but the diminutive fits her perfectly. She described herself as “a tiny person” in comparison to typical tall Croatians, suggesting her shortness was one reason why despite her master’s degree in marketing and economics, at age 31 she was still unable to find professional work.

“So I’m mopping floors,” she allowed, with more irony than bitterness. “But,” she quickly continued, “I’m lucky to have this job to support myself. And bit by bit, day by day, I am going forward.  You have to be patient and not become discouraged.”

Who could not love this energetic miniature woman in her Disney themed t-shirt? We peppered her with questions: Where did you learn your English? (in school) Are you married? (No) What job would you like to have? (anything where I could use my marketing skills) Have you tried approaching online marketing services? (I just yesterday applied to Elance! How amazing that you ask me that question today!)

2013-06-26 14.18.29Typical Americans, we began to solve her problems, whether she wanted our help or not. She responded to each word of advice with delight, as though it was a sparkling gem she had never before imagined.

And yet: there was always a “yet.” A reason she could name that made her success unlikely.

Like many of the Croatians we’d met during the first three days of our visit before coming to the villa, Stefi expressed a constricted view of life’s potential.

The country’s long history of avoiding subjugation by paying tributes to stronger forces had been recounted to us by tour guides and books.

But fresher wounds of war stem from the 1990’s Croatian War of Independence that formed the country’s present borders. This personal experience of terror and deprivation remains raw, defining many Croatians’ worldview. It scars most adults’ memories, just as its physical scars remain visible in buildings pock marked or reduced to rubble.

Stefi described her wartime hunger in painful detail, speculating that lack of food during a crucial developmental period had stunted her growth.

“We had nothing to eat but crackers,” she told us.

2013-06-23 14.17.31Crackers came to symbolize the trauma of war. Years later, she recounted, when the villa owner served her a cracker and cheese appetizer. “I saw the crackers and couldn’t breathe,” she said, fanning her face with her hands as if to ward off a fainting spell.

And there was the conundrum. Could she break out of her traumatic victimhood to achieve her stated life goals? Could she change the paradigm of her life view?  Was she wishing for a fairy godmother to transform her struggles with the wave if a wand? Or, having been defined by wartime’s limitations, was she now more comfortable staying put within her own real or perceived barriers?

Could she face down those crackers and move on?

During our short stay at the villa, we became like old friends. Stefi continued to talk with us about many things, while seamlessly making our beds, helping Nada cook and serve, and offering advice on hikes around the area.

But I realized, on the last day when I encouraged her to start a blog in order to build her profile with prospective employers and she quietly replied “Oh, good idea,” with furrowed brow, that she probably would not take action on any of our suggestions.

And I wondered, how often do we all limit ourselves by staying within our mental boundaries because breaking out seems even more painful?

When does the risk of changing what has become our “normal” in life keep us set in psychic stone even when our behavior pattern no longer serves us? How can we become aware when we are so shaped by past struggles that we fail to see today’s opportunity staring us in the face?

What “cracker memories” are holding you back?

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Adventures of Gloria Feldt, Co-founder and President Take The Lead

gloria-talkingAfi Ofori of Zars Media invited me to write about my career journey (originally published here) and kindly let me repost it here for you.

“Women are leaders everywhere you look, from a CEO to a house wife that holds together a home. Our country was built by women who stand alone.” (Denise Clark)

Hi everyone, I’m Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a new nonprofit organization whose mission is to prepare, develop, inspire and propel women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025. I’m also an author and public speaker, and former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

I got into this role out of my passion for equality for all, and in particular for women to get a fair shake. That passion has taken several forms. Take The Lead is the most recent incarnation. It began in 2008, when I discovered while researching an article on women in politics for Elle Magazine that the barriers to women in leadership — whether in the workplace, in civic life and politics, or in personal life — now have as much to do with our own ambivalence toward power as with external barriers.

I know from my own life that this can be a painful issue, so I wanted to inspire, not blame women, and to give them practical tools and tips to help them on their journey forward. You see, I was a teen mom, married my high school sweetheart and had three children by just after my 20th birthday. Climbing out of that situation where I had no education or employable skills took some doing. So I got started in the workplace later than most young women today, and I had to compensate for that by working hard and taking on lots of responsibility.

But they say you write the book you need to read, and confronting my own power demons as I explored women’s lack of leadership progress became my latest of four books, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Then people started asking me to teach and conduct workshops to share the practical tips and leadership “power tools” I created to help women deal with difficult issues such as conflict, chaos and controversy that might be holding them back. When I realized that I could never reach enough people with my message in small groups, I joined with a colleague, former investment banker Amy Litzenberger, to start this new initiative.

I am absolutely certain this is the moment for women to Take The Lead! And I am excited beyond words to be launching our first fully online women’s leadership certificate course starting October 2. Anyone can take this 6-week course to uptick her career and embrace her power in fulfilling ways, creating a personal action plan proven to take her to her goal.

I feel like the goddess with 18 hands right now. I am the CEO, the spokesperson, the curriculum designer, the marketer, the social media manager, the fundraiser, you name it. We are a start up nonprofit but we think like an entrepreneurial start up, always looking for strategic alliances and partnerships that can benefit both parties.

As for my work routine……..Can you hear me laughing? Every day is different. But generally I keep mornings (after I exercise — for me this is a requirement to keep my energy high and also I am vain J) open for the most important tasks, whether phoning a potential funder, writing a workshop proposal, catching up my cofounder and board chair, or talking with the few staff and many interns and volunteers we are blessed to have. I work from my home office. I spend about half an hour on social media most mornings, and try not to do more because I am a bit of an addict. I try to take face to face meetings either at afternoon tea time or have walking meetings, both of which I find delightful. Working at home, I have too few boundaries — for example, I am writing this at night on a holiday.

Though I attribute much of my success to the willingness to say “yes” when offered a new opportunity, I do wish I had been more intentional about where I wanted to be and how I wanted to make my mark.  Who knows, I might be president of a large company I started now, or maybe governor of a state.

Do I have any regrets or careers I would have liked to explore? One can never go backward, only forward. And as Diana Nyad has shown, it is never too late to do something you want to do! Now the biggest obstacle is that many people identify me still with Planned Parenthood since it was such a high public profile position, rather than recognizing that I have always been about the big picture of women’s equality and leadership. But that’s not a bad place to be, is it?

How would I rate my success in my current role? You’ll have to ask me that in five years when Take The Lead is thriving — or not! I am very good at setting a vision and goals. I do not love managing the many moving parts of daily tasks that must be done to make the vision happen.

Is there a secret to success…… J. Paul Getty used to answer this question by saying, “Get up early, work hard, find oil.” I haven’t found oil yet, so I rely on getting up early and working hard.

I think the concept of balance borders on absurd. Let’s face it, Life is a series of choices. Every day you have do decide what that 24 hours is going to mean.  So I don’t look for balance so much as asking am I getting my exercise so I feel good physically, have I talked with my kids, and did I have fun in my work. If it’s not fun, stop and go do something else.

Here’s what’s so exciting today: Women are transforming the power paradigm. I have a concept I call “Sister Courage.”  It has three parts:

  1. Be a sister. Reach out to another woman to offer help. Ask for help when you need it. Don’t let yourself be isolated or try to solve all problems by yourself.
  2. Have the courage to raise the issues that concern you. Do you think there is a better way to solve a problem or design a product? Do you want to negotiate flex time so you can see your children more?
  3. Put the two together with a strategic plan to lead to the change you want to see in your workplace.

That’s Sister Courage. And with it, you can change your workplace, your life, your world.

I am inspired to do my work because it is a big, bold vision to change the world for the better. I think we all need to be inspired to do something bigger than ourselves. The time is right for women to reach leadership parity much faster than the 70-year trajectory we have been on. Besides, I get calls and letters like one from Valerie, who took my workshop. A year later called to tell me she had achieved the goal she set for herself using the power tools I taught her — she had just been promoted to vice president.  And there was the young woman who asked for and got $10,000 more in salary than she was initially offered after she read my book. That’s the real payoff — to know I have helped an individual person.

For young people thinking of entering this field, I say, if it is your passion, go for it. But don’t let yourself get lost in a cause — have a plan and a vision of where you want to be in five or ten years.

All things are possible, so go big, and know your worth when you do. Network purposefully, for the world turns on human connections.  Take risks because you can always “unchoose” a path taken, especially when you are young. And in the end, honesty and courage are the most important values, so be true to your own integrity even if it means leaving behind something you thought you wanted.

I want to leave a legacy where women will take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025.

And now as my story draws to a close, I would like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes. I collect quotes. I have hundreds of them so choosing just one is hard. However, here’s one I recently learned by the late Muriel Siebert, the first woman to buy a seat on the NY Stock exchange: “If you can’t play with the big boys, start your own game.”

If you’d like to get more of my favorite inspirational quotes, learn my Leadership Power Tools and how to use them to advance your career, I invite you to join up for my online certificate course.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

The Difference Between Christmas and Hanukkah (With Bonus Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Video)

Here’s a holiday message courtesy of Madge Stein Woods that explains the differences between Christmas and Chanukah. Or Hanukkah.

Hope you enjoy as much as I did! Feel free to embellish and add your observations about these two holidays, as well as our other great December days, Kwanzaa and the Winter Solstice.

Just in case anyone asks you what the difference is between Christmas and
Chanukah, you will know what and how to answer.

1. Christmas is one day, same day every year, December 25. Jews also love
December 25th. It’s another paid day off work. We go to the movies and out
for Chinese food and Israeli dancing. Chanukah is 8 days. It starts the
evening of the 24th of Kislev, whenever that falls. No one is ever sure.
Jews never know until a non-Jewish friend asks when Chanukah starts, forcing
us to consult a calendar so we don’t look like idiots. We all have the same
calendar, provided free with a donation from the World Jewish Congress, the
kosher butcher or the local Sinai Memorial Chapel (especially in Florida )
or other Jewish funeral homes.

2. Christmas is a major holiday. Chanukah is a minor holiday with the same
theme as most Jewish holidays. They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s

3. Christians get wonderful presents such as jewelry, perfume, stereos, etc.
Jews get practical presents such as underwear, socks or the collected works
of the Rambam, which looks impressive on the bookshelf.

4. There is only one way to spell Christmas. No one can decide how to spell
Chanukah, Chanukkah, Chanukka, Channukah, Hanukah, Hannukah, etc.

5. Christmas is a time of great pressure for husbands and boyfriends. Their
partners expect special gifts. Jewish men are relieved of that burden. No
one expects a diamond ring on Hanukah.

6. Christmas brings enormous electric bills. Candles are used for Chanukah.
Not only are we spared enormous electric bills, but we get to feel good
about not contributing to the energy crisis.

7. Christmas carols are beautiful: Silent Night, Come All Ye Faithful.
Chanukah songs are about dreidels made from clay or having a party and
dancing the hora. Of course, we are secretly pleased that many of the
beautiful carols were composed and written by our tribal brethren. And don’t
Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond sing them beautifully?

8. A home preparing for Christmas smells wonderful – like the sweet smell of
cookies and cakes baking. Happy people are gathered around in festive moods.
A home preparing for Chanukah smells of oil, potatoes and onions. The home,
as always, is full of loud people all talking at once.

9. Christian women have fun baking Christmas cookies. Jewish women burn
their eyes and cut their hands grating potatoes and onions for latkes on
Chanukah. Another reminder of our suffering through the ages.

10. Parents deliver presents to their children during Christmas. Jewish
parents have no qualms about withholding a gift on any of the eight nights.

11. The players in the Christmas story have easy to pronounce names such as
Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The players in the Chanukah story are Antiochus,
Judah Maccabee and Matta whatever. No one can spell it or pronounce it. On
the plus side, we can tell our friends anything and they believe we are
wonderfully versed in our history.

12. Many Christians believe in the virgin birth. Jews think, “Yossela,
Bubela, snap out of it. Your woman is pregnant, you didn’t sleep with her,
and now you want to blame G-d? Here’s the number of my shrink.”

13. In recent years, Christmas has become more and more commercialized. The
same holds true for Chanukah, even though it is a minor holiday. It makes
sense. How could we market a major holiday such as Yom Kippur? Forget about
celebrating. Think observing. Come to synagogue, starve yourself for 27
hours, become one with your dehydrated soul, beat your chest, confess your
sins, a guaranteed good time for you and your family. Tickets a mere $200
per person. Better stick with Chanukah.

This explains a lot.

Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas.

(Merry Kwanzahukahmas)


Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

9/11 Victim Was Model for Ethic of Generosity

I received this inspiring letter ten years ago from a woman whose mother died on 9/11. America needs Valerie Hanna’s ethic of generosity today–read on:

On September 11, 2001, my mother, Valerie Joan Hanna, Senior Vice President, Technology, at Marsh and McLennan was killed on the 97th floor of tower One. She was a women’s right activist, who started as a single mom with two of her own, on adopted, and somewhere around 17 foster children over the years.

She worked her way up the corporate ladder, a key punch operator, hitting glass ceiling after glass ceiling, changing jobs often, moving on to companies with a higher glass ceiling, ending up as a Vice President of one of the largest multinational insurance firms.

We started with government cheese, but even as she earned more money, rather than living the “good life” she helped more people and children get out of poverty. She provided each of us with an education to each of our individual abilities.

She was a very staunch reproductive rights supporter. Thank you for the work you do.

In peace, Lydia J. Robertson

That Lydia took the time to write her letter to thank me took my breath away. So I called her to thank her.

She said she had written because she wanted to document how strongly her mother believed and passed along to her children that the ability to control one’s fertility and economic well being are inextricably linked. She very kindly allowed me to print her letter in the book I was writing at the time, Behind Every Choice Is a Story.

I’ve always been convinced of the power of story telling. Rereading Lydia’s description of her mother today, a few days after President Obama’s jobs speech, was especially moving. I’d like for the greedy opposition to “government cheese” or any kind of hand up to honor the memory of those who died on 9/11 by adopting Valerie Hanna’s spirit of responsibility and generosity.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.