By Mei Xu, C200 member and the Founder of Chesapeake Bay Candle and Blissliving Home. Mei is a Trustee of the University of Maryland in Baltimore and a member of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women. She recently launched Yes She May, an online e-commerce site to support women-owned business around the world. Learn more about Mei and her new book, ‘Burn’ at meixu.com.
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly challenged the limitations of our world’s leaders; however, women such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Prime Minister of Finland Sanna Marin have guided their countries in a way few of their male counterparts could. They showed resiliency, decisiveness, and empathy in their leadership, helping them to perform better during the COVID crisis.
If you wonder if this is pure coincidence, you should think twice. As the “gentler” sex, women are often more compassionate, communicative, and agile. Studies show they are also more likely to work collaboratively, find agreement, and make strategic compromises for the common good.
While these qualities have proved to help women leaders navigate countries through crisis and chaos, it strikes me as particularly odd that the business world has not taken more notice. I believe in this time of disruption; the U.S. business community has an opportunity to engage a female perspective to lead companies through uncertainty.
My personal story is proof that women in charge of brands and companies can steer a team to success. In my recently launched book, “Burn: How Grit, Innovation and A Dash of Good Luck Ignited a Multi-million Dollar Success Story”, I detail my journey of coming to the U.S., and out of desperation for opportunities, created Chesapeake Bay Candle.
After earning my master’s degree, I struggled in NYC to find a job I was passionate about. My free time spent wandering through department stores led me to observe an unfolding trend in the early 1990’s: the rise of a more creative and contemporary design in home goods. I was inspired and jumped in!
I eventually succeeded in creating a lifestyle brand by partnering with the most innovative retailers in the US: Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom’s, Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond and Amazon – while building a global operation with factories in China, Vietnam and Baltimore, Maryland.
When my company was faced with increased shipping costs and expensive tariffs on our imported products, I worked to turn challenge into opportunity by shifting the company’s manufacturing operations to the United States. My decision to build a candle manufacturing facility in Glen Burnie, Maryland was seen as anything but innovative in 2009, but just a few years later I was invited to speak as a panelist at the “Insourcing American Jobs” forum hosted by President Obama.
Yet many well-established brands in the consumer industry have not enjoyed the same growth as Chesapeake Bay Candle due to the lack of resiliency, obsession with lower prices, and under appreciation of consumers’ needs. In other words, their singular drive to deliver profit means that they have lost touch with the very consumers they should be focusing on.
According to Harvard Business Review, women in the U.S. are making over 80% of household decisions – ranging from shopping, and leisure and travel expenses to buying homes, and making major health care choices. Yet Corporate America occupies less than 8 percent of its S&P 500 companies with women CEOs, according to the World Economic Forum. This represents a huge gap between those making decisions on behalf of companies that provide products and services and those who are shopping for these same things for their families.
In speaking with female CEOs and fellow C200 members, it is clear that when companies offer a seat at the table to women, they indubitably benefit from having a female point of view. Women provide a unique insight to issues their organizations face – designing sustainable solutions, building consensus, and delivering resolutions that ultimately unite shareholders and community members. This is underscored in research by Deloitte, which recognizes that companies with an inclusive leadership culture are six-times more likely to be innovative.
As we recover and rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. business community has a real opportunity to embrace the feminine perspective to create a more balanced, diverse, and ultimately resilient business landscape. After all, if women leaders can steer entire countries out of turmoil and disruption during a global health crisis, then we should trust them at the helm of businesses large and small in this moment of restructuring and change.