what would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?

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As Gloria Steinem observed, “Whoever has power takes over the noun–and the norm–while the less powerful get an adjective.” Since no one wants to be perceived as less powerful, a lot of women reject the gender identification and insist, “I don’t see myself as a woman; I see myself as a novelist/athlete/professional/fill-in-the-blank.” They are right to do so. No one wants her achievements modified. We all just want to be the noun. — Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Today I was reminded, albeit in a roundabout way, that I am a changed woman. Gone are the days of swallowing voice, of sitting on the fringe, of not settling for anything less than extraordinary.

In 1997, I was one of the very few women accepted into the Chase Global Bank program, an MBA in miniature. It was implicit that acceptance ensured you were recruited by the top investment banks –– Morgan, Goldman, Lehman. There were rumors on the Street that the Glass-Steagall Act would soon be repealed, and a merchant banking background was considered lucrative since future profitability was predicated on managing and understanding all phases of the deal process. While I found gender parity in college, where I majored in Finance and Marketing, the program was an old boys’ club –– you were rarely the girl they studied with; rather, you were the girl they slept with. This was a time when women had their choice of three colored suits: navy blue, black, or a very somber burgundy. Skirts always cut at the knee, hose were required, and makeup was kept to a minimum. One had to look the part of a lady without drawing too much attention to the fact that one was a lady.

All of these rules started to annoy me to no end.

From birth I was a woman who would never take no for an answer. A woman who would not bend to bias or bullshit. After the nine-month program came to a close, I graduated number three in a class of ninety, was recruited by Morgan Stanley, and won approval from the boys. Until I stepped into the WASP-y hallways of Morgan Stanley, where Managing Directors routinely slept with Associates and it was commonplace for a man to rest his hand on a woman’s thigh, inching up. Although I managed to artfully dodge sexual overtures (save the one time my belligerent, married boss asked for my virginity after a night of client entertainment), I felt protective of the women who didn’t want to make waves, who just wanted to blend in. Our generation of women banded together against the boys and the older women who seemed determined to press their expensive heels down on our heads. After threatening a coworker with genital mutilation should he inch his hand up another thigh, I was labeled the difficult one. The smart one with the big mouth. I lasted two years at Morgan before I would trash my suits, enroll in Columbia’s MFA program, and start a job at a burgeoning luxury goods dot.com.

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Whether I was working at a luxury company that went bust, a Fortune 500 cable giant, or a publishing mecca, men have always been my champions, while women were the ones to be feared. My whip-smart, ambitious, collaborative generation –– one that didn’t trade on their sex, dole out favors, or accept fingers inching up the thigh –– served as a threat to the old guard rather than a triumph. I repeatedly endured catty queen bees and ladies who rumor at lunch. Frustrated, I longed for a professional mentor who was maternal, smart, strong, and supportive. I wanted to learn from a woman who lead with confidence, who understood that one shines not because she desires to glare but because she allows others to ferret out her greatness. As I shifted into my thirties, I was determined to be this woman. Maybe it was because my mother was such a heartbreaking disappointment, but I felt a maternal instinct that was not one of procreation, but of cultivating and grooming strong, passionate young women in the workplace.

In 2010, I was given the extraordinary opportunity to manage 22 accounts and oversee a team of 19 women at social media marketing agency. To say that the challenge was overwhelming was an understatement, but perhaps the most gratifying part of my job –– beyond growing topline revenue, diversifying my portfolio, and implementing innovation and efficiency –– was the impact I had on a team of mostly millennial women. When it came to salary negotiation, I taught them to fight for what they deserved. While I encouraged them to bind together as a team, I also made them celebrate their individual strengths. From the straight-out-of-college associate to the seasoned director, every team member had a voice, and I taught them how to shout. I made them sit at the table. I told them they were equal to any man in the room.

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In 2011, when my two male bosses, my great champions, elevated me to partner status, there was a fever in the office. At the time, the agency employed a considerable amount of women, but I was the first to hold peer status in executive leadership; I now owned a percentage of the company. When my partnership was announced and I had to stand up and talk about my new role, my voice shook and my body was nerve-wracked. But then the thunderous applause. All the women I’d supported were my mentors; they buoyed me, proud that I’d earned this role because of my talent, ambition, confidence and compassion. When I look at my life, I can say with certainty that that day was one worth photographing. One worth remembering, always.

Recently I learned of a staggering statistic: 3% of executive positions in agencies are held by women. Hearing this coincided with my resignation, and as I made the rounds of catch-ups and lunches, some women joked, your leaving changes that number. Those words resonated with me over the past two months as I’ve been thinking about the things I carry. I think about my ability to see the world differently and write about it in the most magical of ways. I think about how I’ve been in a passionate, lifelong affair with food. And then I think about that day when I made partner, and I was proud that I had the power to lift other women up.

Today I spent the day with my best friend, a great woman with a heart that could blanket an ocean. A patient mother of two children, a devoted wife, a fantastic cook, a brilliant contract lawyer in a Fortune 500 company — she reminds me of our capacity to be fearless. Imagine what we could do if we knew we couldn’t fail? Some would have children, run a home, and find flexibility in a career they love. Others would break ranks and find their love in their work, their art, and in mentoring all of their adopted children in the office. Barefoot, we’d run through the garden at night. We’d get our feet wet; we’d tumble, we’d fall and skin our knees in the gloaming. But here’s the thing –– we’d get up and keep running. Keep at it until the sun stretches across the horizon.

Today my friend reminded me of the greatness in myself, and slowly my next chapter begins to write itself. I’m meant to lead. I’m meant to buoy great women. I’m meant to run, run, run wild.

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Chowing at Potlikker in Williamsburg + Little Cupcake Bakeshop in Noho.

potlikker in williamsburg, new york + lessons for spring…

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I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library. Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified. He said, What? What life? No life of mine. ― Grace Paley, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute: Stories

This morning I awoke, terrified. My hands were numb and I felt my body chill down to bone. Overcast and dark, no light came through my window and I was confused, shivering, wondering if the forecast called for thundersnow. Tossing aside the covers I paced my apartment, barefoot, waiting for the morning light to break sky. And in that small stretch of time before the night was relieved by the awakening of day, I doubted myself. Fear was that old friend who soft-knuckled the door that was my heart and I let it in and embraced it with my breath. Make no mistake, fear never really disappears, it hibernates, festers, waits for the moment when you are weak and shivering and slides in, pulls up a chair, wants to get to talking. Maybe, it whispers, you made a mistake. You do realize there’s no going back.

This put my heart on pause.

Here I was, so bold in my declarations I was practically bombastic. Telling everyone who would listen that March was the month before the first day of the rest of my life, and, imagine if I jettisoned off to Europe and never came back? Maybe once to cart off my kitty, but I’d hurry back to France, tumbling my way back to the country and the thicket of trees and orange groves and air. I rationalized that I was six years off the sauce {as of last week}, the most clarified I’ve ever been and everything felt right — so this was the right decision, right? To leave my job and run toward something other, right? But what if I was wrong? What if I was the wreckage?

And then the sun. I crept out on my deck, wrapped in a blanket, and for some reason I said, Hello, my life, and went back inside. And that was the end of it. I’m not kidding you. It was the strangest thing. I hopped in the shower, cut French class and went about my day.

Tipped off by a friend, I made the trek to Williamsburg to check out Potlikker, a place with its own story. Owner + chef, Liza Queen once ran a very eclectic spot in Greenpoint, lost her lease and took off for Vietnam to cook in a street shack. Two years later she returned, much like our Odysseus, and opened a place that’s an extension of her heart, her passion for flavor, and a menu that’s seasonal and filled with joie de vivre. Once inside I felt enveloped by warmth — from the staff to the open kitchen where you could hear the sizzle and snap of potatoes and sausage frying, to the serene green paint and wooden interior — and knew this was a place worth patroning.

And then there was the food. A flaky, buttery biscuit oozing with lemon curd and fresh berry compote, local eggs mixed with cheddar and served with applewood sausage and spicy potatoes, and the terrific, bottomless cup of coffee, I was DELIRIOUS. And while I was there, chowing away with aplomb, I thumbed through the latest issue of Kinkolk and found a photo essays, “Lessons for Spring,” a series of b+w images from another time and these simple instructions:

  • Leave the indoors behind
  • Choose a new hobby
  • Don’t be in such a hurry
  • Take matters into your own hands
  • Reawaken your youth
  • Sit in silence, alone
  • Draw close to those nearest and dearest
  • Don’t mind being eccentric
  • Fall in love with something new
  • Dive in deep

  • I tell myself to look for the signs. They may be minor, they may be innocuous, but just look for them. They’re my Northern Lights. Perhaps they can be yours, too.

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