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For goal-oriented women, breaking into the C-suite means speaking up, taking on challenges outside your comfort zone, and building key relationships to create your own career opportunities.

That was the message heard by 300 women at NJBIA’s recent Women Business Leaders Forum panel discussion, “Unlocking the C-Suite,” moderated by Emmy-Award winning TV anchor Steve Adubato.

Studies show people gravitate toward those who look and sound as they do, and nowhere is that more evident than at the highest levels of Corporate America, where 94 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are men. The male and female business executives on the NJBIA panel weighed in on the unique obstacles women face in their careers and discussed practical strategies for overcoming those challenges.

“There’s a difference because (women) don’t have that access, you’re not always invited to the meetings, you’re not part of those conversations,” said Lillian Rodriguez Lopez, vice president for Stakeholder Relations and Customer PAC Support at Coca-Cola North America.

(L-R) Michellene Davis, executive vice president of Corporate Affairs at RWJ Barnabas Health, and Lillian Rodriguez Lopez, vice president of Stakeholder Relations and Customer PAC Support, Coca-Cola North America, at the Women Business Leaders Forum.

The first step, therefore, is to focus on “gaining access and sponsorships so you can build the relationships, so that you can be in the room” where you can show your talents and value, Lopez said.

“We have to take responsibility for our careers and find a mentor,” agreed Kevin Cummings, president and CEO of Investors Bank.  “When I was going up through the ranks… I made sure I knew the top five partners. You have to look at where you want be … and get on that track.”

Once you’re in those high-level meetings you must be assertive, said Michellene Davis, executive vice president of Corporate Affairs for RWJBarnabas Health. To illustrate her point, Davis asked how many women in the audience had ever proposed an idea during a meeting that was ignored by everyone until it was repeated by a man. Hands were up all over room.

Lopez said when that same thing happened to her, she later took each participant in the meeting aside privately to remind them that the idea had been originally hers.

“I didn’t see (his) mouth moving when I was talking,” Lopez said she told each person in that meeting afterward.

“You have to demand respect for yourself,” she told the audience, which erupted in applause.

When Adubato asked if women who speak up run the risk of being viewed as too “aggressive” by men, the businessmen on the panel said women needed to speak up anyway.

“If you’re passive and remain silent, people will doubt your value,” said Vince Maione, Region President of Atlantic City Electric.

Lopez and Davis also stressed it was important for women to take risks by tackling projects outside their own comfort zone because staying where you are comfortable, means you will stay where you are.

“The best and worst thing to do is tell me you don’t ‘like’ to do something,” Lopez said, “because that is the very next thing I will have you do.”