#86 Both Names Begin With An E

Back in the mid eighties in Pennsylvania, I was invited to sit on a panel as a successful woman in business, speaking to and advising other women in business. I declined at first because it struck me as ironic since the company I owned with two young partners (described in New Venture parts 1 and 2) was barely surviving only because we took no income. Hardly a success story.

A couple of years earlier, in New York, I had also been asked to serve on such a panel, and I remember feeling very much out of place for a different reason. I had no great advice to give because I didn’t understand the question. Since I was in a business that was dominated by men, my only plan was to be smart and work hard, exactly what I had always done. I was unable to contribute much to the panel. There was as much discussion over who brought the refreshments, as there was business. That put me off such gatherings I hoped permanently. My only advice to the women seeking wisdom was to show up every day working harder than anyone else. I wasn’t nominated as the woman with the best advice that day. But I should have been.

So when seated yet again a couple of years later, in front of a room full of women struggling to find a voice in their jobs or in their own companies, I saw little to add. I was in business with two very young men who treated me like I hadn’t a thought in my head. To them I was so very old and dim at thirty-five. But I had not earned the success yet in my own business to be advising that hotel meeting room full of women. Since that day I’ve been wary of all panelists on any subject in any venue based on my being asked to appear as an expert. They must have been desperate to include me, or our effort to appear successful worked.

Then a woman in the back of the room told her frustrating story. She ran a small business from her home. I don’t recall what business it was, but she was losing money because a supplier wasn’t doing their job in a timely way. She wasn’t receiving the supplies she needed to meet deadlines for her customers. It was so bad that she was going to lose her business. She liked the man she was complaining about and didn’t want to get him fired. She was asking the women on the panel for a solution.

I had little to contribute prior to this, but I heard myself say, “I can tell you the problem. You’re too nice. If you’re willing to lose your business rather than complain about that supplier, then you will.” That sparked applause, a livelier discussion and tears from the woman with the problem. She didn’t like what I said but thanked me for telling her something she hadn’t been willing to face.

Moving forward to around 2001, I was approached by a man in this area, an acquaintance who was part of a non-profit organization that ran studies and conferences about the region. It’s referred to here as “regionalism,” meant to bring counties together to solve problems such as light rail, or education or police assets. The “region” matches the size of the broadcast signals. He knew of my background and fervent interest in delivery of local news and information by radio and television. I had been well trained in the spirit of FCC regulations. During my hitch with a local public broadcasting corporation (Clueless Part 1, and Clueless: The End) I witnessed a startling lack of commitment to serving the community.

I was asked to attend a board meeting of the regional group to talk about a conference on broadcasting. They wanted to take a hard look at all broadcast corporations including the one that had clunked me on the head and dropped me at the curb. The last thing I wanted to be accused of though was a form of sour grapes.

At that meeting I was asked to organize a conference. They would give me full support helping to do leg work. I was to choose my own core group to make the plans and provide research and services needed. I wouldn’t be paid but that didn’t bother me. Though I needed to create an income, this was a vital subject to me so I agreed to head the conference without taking time to think about it, because you never know.

The group I asked to comprise the planning committee was mostly men, mostly older than I, and it turned out mostly unaccustomed to performing any task assigned by a woman, or at least assigned by me. We had chosen a date and I had negotiated a hotel for the conference when it became painfully clear that the committee wasn’t even semi-reliable. Delegating was not working so I hired an ex-step-granddaughter as an intern. She was home from school and I knew she’d be dependable. I paid her since I would be reimbursed out of the proceeds from the conference. The research required, mailings, arrangements with printers, the venue, and legal advice were all falling to me. Very close to the conference date the committee member who had volunteered to find a speaker emailed me that he didn’t have time to do that. I emailed back that yes he did. So he found a very good guy from public radio in Maine.

I was working day and night on research and arrangements. A printing company donated work. A lawyer donated his expertise. A friend took my research and created a power point presentation. We showed on pie charts actual local news and information compared to nationally provided material of all radio and television stations. The company I had worked for was the worst offender. Their locally created programming was only one percent of their week. We had to make it two percent so their little sliver of a pie would show up on the chart. The man who had replaced me at that company was attending the conference. The appearance of sour grapes was unavoidable and there was no turning back.

After nine months of my non-stop planning and research, the chairman of the regional organization who had not attended one planning meeting was there to open the conference. He introduced me. But he introduced me as Elaine Hainstock. I had just spent a chunk of my life creating the conference and he hadn’t bothered to learn my first name. I addressed the audience saying that I get that all the time since both names start with an E. I didn’t get that all the time and was trying to be slightly kind without ignoring his rude faux pas. I don’t remember his name now.

After a brief glitch in the power point, the conference went beautifully. A friend from publishing was there to immediately summarize all the notes from all the sessions so that everyone attending had a copy before leaving. I was flabbergasted by her skill.

I put together a summary letter for the board of the organization. The conference had gotten them out of the red and into the black probably for the first time in their existence. I submitted receipts and a bill for half of my expenses, donating the rest. I never heard from anyone about the conference. And I never heard back about my expenses. So I submitted again. Still I heard nothing. I was never reimbursed. I had spent about $2,500. I only wanted half of that back. I received nothing including any thanks, ever.

I saw the man who got me into this and his wife at social gatherings. But I never brought up the bill. It seemed demeaning, downright repulsive. Even though I had no income, I wasn’t willing to ask again.

If I attended a conference for women in business and told that story, I’m pretty sure instead of someone saying, “You’re too nice,” as I had said, they’d spit out, “You’re too stupid.”

But not any more.

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