Ladies, you’re not the chief-cook-and-bottlewasher. You’re the damn CEO.

Why are women so uncomfortable at acknowledging that they have power and authority?

I went to Founder Friday on the 15th of November here in Seattle. It’s an event put on in multiple cities by the amazing people at Women 2.0. The goal is to network women in technology by creating a friendly space and relaxed atmosphere with notable speakers. The amazing Mary Jesse, CEO of Ivytalk, and inspiring Nadia Mahmud, co-founder of Jolkona Foundation, were the keynote speakers.

It was a networking event, so I clutched my better-than-usual-grade Riesling (thanks for the hospitality, Facebook Seattle!) and started the business-card-shuffle in the pregaming part of the evening. There were maybe 25 women there.

“Hi! I’m Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, and I’m the CEO of Fizzmint, an HR automation company. What do you do?”

“I am part of a cool startup that does X.”

“Oh really?” I say. “What do you do there?”

She blushes. “I do the business stuff. My co-founder, he does all the technical stuff.”

“Wow, that’s awesome! What do you call yourself there?”

“Sorry,” she says. “I’m just the chief cook and bottlewasher. My co-founder, he’s an awesome CTO.”

You have a technical co-founder, and you handle all the business, marketing, hiring, and tax matters. What the devil do you THINK your title is, woman??

I move on to the next person, thinking that this might be an aberration. It’s really, really not. Out of 25 women at the event, I met two people who had the audacity to put a CXO title on their business cards. Yet, every one of them was a co-founder of an up-and-coming startup.

We know the insidious, vicious effects of impostor syndrome. I won’t pretend that I don’t feel the impulse to soften my speech, to not intimidate the people to whom I’m speaking every once in a while. When you do an image search for “CEO” on Google, the first seventy images have only 3 women in them–and one of them is CEO Barbie.

However, if you’re creating a startup, and you’re handling the business end of your company, have the respect for yourself and your employees to call yourself the CEO. No one starts out as a CEO. It’s an unnatural job title. You still have to learn. I am the CEO of a 9-person startup, and I am constantly learning. I am never NOT taking a class to improve my communication, to better my listening, to increase my business financial savvy, and to add to my human resources skills. It’s uncomfortable–even unpleasant–to grow personally and emotionally this rapidly. I am in a class now that is intended to improve my listening skills, not only for Fizzmint, but also for Hack The People, the mentoring charity that I and my CTO Liz Dahlstrom co-founded. I have a wonderful coach who is working with me on how to handle the very different style of communication that men in business use from my usual compatriots in the hacking world.

Did you think you could become a CEO without acknowledging that you are imperfect? That you would simply start out by looking and acting like a CEO? Don’t make me laugh. The job of CEO is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it means confronting my own weaknesses every day. CEOs are made, not born. You can be the CEO of your startup, but it means acknowledging your weaknesses, and it means acting to compensate for them or eliminate them. You already have the responsibility for your people, whether your “people” are your family, or your employees.

Don’t push your authority and power away. It doesn’t “soften your image.” It makes you powerless and ineffectual. Have the respect for the people you lead, like it or not, by accepting that they trust you, and that it is your obligation and joy to learn as much as you can to serve them as best you can.

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