Laura Conwell-O’Brien of the Atlanta Shoe Market on Working Women Having Faith in Their Talents and Abilities

Every day in June, FN is showcasing female leaders across the industry for our Women in Power series.

For decades, Laura Conwell-O’Brien’s job as the executive director of the Atlanta Shoe Market has been a juggling act, serving the needs of designers, vendors and retailers in the competitive shoe industry. However, one of her biggest challenges has been making her voice heard as she came up against a male-dominated board of directors in steering the organization in new directions.

However, Conwell-O’Brien did not give up on her initiatives, and by consequence, has helped pave the way for the next generation of women in the business community.

Here, she discusses the challenges female leaders face when eyeing the executive suite, and how she’s managed to navigate the stumbling blocks in her career path.

What is the most significant barrier to female leadership in the fashion and footwear industries?

“Women in the fashion industry are hitting a mid-career wall. It’s not that women are any less ambitious than men; on the contrary, they’re more likely than men to aspire to be a top executive. Once a woman reaches a position such as VP, she’s eager to continue her career.“

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?  

“Women will continue to struggle finding ways to balance their responsibilities — often the result of inadequate support systems. Most have to work their way up in a masculine world while facing gender inequalities and discrimination. It’s important to empower all women to believe in themselves on a personal and business level. Empowerment stems from a successful life and work balance.”

Have you encountered resistance when working under — or leading — men? How did you overcome that?

“During the early stages of my career, in the 1980s and 1990s, I felt a lot of resistance to change. As the years passed, I felt I was able to prove myself in many ways. I always believed in myself and my goals.”

What is a powerful leadership moment you’ve experienced?

“Convincing my mostly male-driven Atlanta Shoe Market board of directors to relocate our show and shift directions, which consequently recognized our show as one of the top national shoe trade shows in the world, as opposed to a regional show.”

What advice do you have for women negotiating a salary increase or promotion?

“Women should continue to better themselves by continuing their education, obtaining additional certification and staying on top of industry trends. Focusing on their career not only shows their investment with the company and its future, but also defines their willingness to take the next step to ensure lifelong success.”

What is the best — and worst — career decision you’ve made?  

“[The best was to] always believe in myself, remain trustworthy and never waver from my beliefs and morals. The worst decision I ever made was passing up several opportunities to move forward in the industry. These were a direct result of timing. Women, then, were not in those positions, which resulted in my being cautious when making changes and moving forward.”

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