Bring on the Brave! 15 Women Share Their Most Daring Career Moves

15-daringTurns out you don’t have to search long or hard for women’s stories of courage at work—especially when you have our contact list! We asked and were swamped with responses. Here’s the first installment of fear-defying deeds and what our speakers and friends have learned from them. Be prepared to be inspired.

Annie Heckenberger, vice president at Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners

My bravest act: “Fairly early in my career, I was approached with an opportunity to focus on a specialty in marketing. I bounced the idea off some seasoned professionals and every one of them cautioned me against segmenting my path—it might box me out of a bigger growth opportunity. Despite that input, I listened to my gut and took the specialized position. And I lucked out. That specialty—media—became a highly coveted area in my field.”

My takeaway: “Trust your instincts. A few years later, I was presented with another opportunity to pivot into another emerging field—social media. I jumped without a second thought, having learned to take the leap if it feels right.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “Moving forward despite the fear and not allowing it to paralyze you into complacency.”

Jane Hyun, co-author of Flex: The New Playbook and author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling

My bravest act: “For me, it was leaving corporate America to start my own leadership coaching and consulting practice. Until that point I had a steady paycheck and benefits, a nice office, etc. It’s amazing what we take for granted until you go out on your own! It took about five years to get into a groove with the work I do currently and I learned a lot from those early experiences.”

My takeaway: “I learned patience and to surround myself with those who challenged me to keep pressing on, as well as leaning on friends who were quick with words of love and support.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “Being honest with yourself about what it is you offer and knowing when to ask for help. And, I have needed a lot of help over the years.”

Cathy Kangas, president and CEO of PRAI Beauty

My bravest act: “Deciding to sell my skincare line only on home shopping networks.  When I began PRAI Beauty in 1999, it was considered risky to not have a brick-and- mortar store. But I believed I could reach more women and I knew in my gut that I could win them over if they heard the story of our products on television. Now PRAI Beauty is the fastest growing skincare company on home shopping networks in the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Italy, Australia and Dubai.”

My takeaway: “I learned to think creatively and to forge ahead even when others told me that it wouldn’t work. I also discovered how important it is to believe in yourself and what you are selling.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “To tell yourself every morning that you are going to do one thing that makes a difference in the world. Knowing that every time I sell a product, a portion of the proceeds helps animal causes motivates me to do the best job I can.” 

Elizabeth Thornton, professor of management practice at Babson Executive Education and author of The Objective Leader: How to Leverage the Power of Seeing Things As They Are

My bravest act: “Transforming my life and career after losing a million dollars. I had risked everything in an international fruit juice business venture and lost everything—my condo, my savings, my stock portfolio. After many months of movie marathons to avoid thinking, I finally got off the couch and began the painful process of putting my life back together and confronting how I had crashed and burned so badly.”

My takeaway: “I began studying a wide range of subjects including philosophy and neuroscience, and I realized that how I framed my world was the problem—the underlying assumptions that drove my perceptions and responses to people, circumstances and events. I realized that I did not always see things clearly and as a result did not always respond objectively.

The secret to conquering fear is… “To know that fear is a thought and that you have the power to choose a better thought. The key is to change your mind about what you expect, learn to be more objective and see and accept things as they are.” 

Nazli Yuzak, senior global social media consultant at Dell

My bravest act: “Leaving my previous company to work at Dell. It required moving from a city I had lived in for 10 years, leaving a lot of good friends and my network behind and coming to Austin to join a very large organization. So much was at stake.”

My takeaway: “Amazing things happen in your life when you are ready to let go of stability—which is in fact an illusion since things are always changing—and take bigger risks. It has been an incredible journey. After four years at Dell, I have a larger network than I’ve ever built, work with some of the smartest people in the industry and have a circle of great friends.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “Just start somewhere and take an action! The more you stay stagnant, the more your fear grows and becomes much harder to handle.”

Lynn Bardowski, aka The Million Dollar Party Girl

My bravest act: “Buying a hot pink suit. As one of the few women selling B2B custom business forms in the 80’s, I had changed who I was, wearing dark, no-nonsense suits in hopes of fitting in with ‘the guys.’ I was super intimidated by my male competition and I was worried my clients wouldn’t take a young career woman seriously. But one day I saw that pink suit. I felt like a rebel buying it. It was exhilarating! That was a defining moment in life.”

My takeaway: “I learned that trying to fit in and be who everyone else wanted me to be chipped away at my self-esteem and confidence. It wasn’t until I owned who I was that I felt like I was truly stepping into my power.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “Letting go. Most of our fear comes from worrying about what everyone else is going to think.” 

Jessica Craft, founding executive director of Rock to the Future

My bravest act: “During the recession in 2010, I left my job at a prestigious investment firm to start Rock to the Future—a nonprofit organization that provides free music education to underserved youth. It was unnerving to start the project without full funding or promise of a paycheck, and we had to volunteer for the first two years to get the organization up and running.”

My takeaway: “Pursuing dreams and passions may take exponentially more effort and time than a well-paid desk job. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because I’m proud of what I do and wake up excited to work each day. I never knew what I could accomplish until I tried and now realize that most people are willing to help if they are just asked.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “Realizing that if it’s not a life-or-death situation, why be afraid? You’ll make it through, learn something about yourself and maybe others, and be a stronger person.”

Kathy Kinney, recently seen as Bunny on The Secret Life of the American Teenager

My bravest act: “Over 30 years into my career, I know that the biggest key to my success was that as frightened as I was, and terror barely covers it, I simply said yes and walked forward one tiny step at a time. For me bravery is the act of how you handle your fears every day of your life.”

My takeaway: “I have learned that there is nothing I can’t handle or survive. Life can be difficult and there are many things I have no control over, but I get to choose how I want to face each day. And my choice is with my sense of humor intact and the belief that I am a loving, kind, valuable and brave woman.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “To make friends with it because it will always be with you.”

Katrina Alcorn, author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink

My bravest act: “Definitely, it is writing a book about my experience burning out at work. When Maxed Out was first published about a year ago, I kind of held my breath. I didn’t know how people would react to reading a personal story about such a taboo subject. I was terrified no one would want to work with me again.”

My takeaway: “The whole experience has been a huge lesson to me about authenticity—accepting your flaws and your mistakes. It’s very brave to be your true self, to be vulnerable. But it’s worth it. Career success feels far more satisfying when we stop pretending to be something we’re not, and we’re able to be our authentic selves. The response I’ve received since the book came out has been the exact opposite of what I was afraid of. I’ve also gotten many wonderful job opportunities as a result of people reading the book.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “Choosing to do what you know is right, even if it feels very, very uncomfortable in the moment.” 

Stacy Doherty, founder of Errands Etcetera

My bravest act: “Following my dreams and turning my ideas into a thriving business. The Errands Etcetera platform is totally out of the box, and there were many naysayers. I had my own fears—what if there was no need for what I was doing?—but instead of listening to all the negative voices, I let them motivate me.”

My takeaway: “Understanding the difference between naysaying and criticism was mandatory to grow. Many times when people are challenging your intentions, it’s not because they are staging a personal attack—they want to have a more clear understanding of your plan.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “Having a deep understanding about what you are afraid of and what might be holding you back, embracing that fear and determining which is greater—the risk or the reward.” 

Kate White, former editor in chief of Cosmopolitan and author of I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: How to Ask for Money, Snag the Promotion and Create the Career You Deserve

My bravest act: “Taking a job as the editor in chief of Working Woman magazine (a business magazine for women in the 1980’s) when I knew absolutely nothing about the subject matter. I never expected to get the job because I was seven months pregnant at the time, but the owner seemed to love me. Proof that when you are relaxed and un-needy in an interview, you come across really well, so try to fake it. Once I accepted the job, I feared I’d made a terrible mistake and I confessed this to my husband one night just before I started. ‘I know nothing about the subject matter,’ I told him. He asked, ‘But aren’t you a working woman?’ Of course, I was! At that moment I saw I could simply make the magazine about all I wanted to know for my work life—and make it scintillating as well.”

My takeaway: “Being challenged not only helps you learn and grow, but it’s what catapults you to the next level. If you aren’t willing to stretch, you’ll never make the big bucks and earn the great title. Though I was lured away from Working Woman by a fabulous offer after only a year and half, I learned so much there. Not only did the job lead to me writing successful career books, but the business strategies I discovered through the content absolutely helped me later in boosting Cosmo’s circulation by 700,000 during my time there.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “Remind yourself of your core competencies. Sure, a project or new job may demand things from you that you’ve never done before, but instead of fretting over that, focus on the related skills and experience you are bringing with you. For instance, you may be about to deliver the first speech you’ve ever given—in front of 100 people. Sure, you’re new at it, but remind yourself of the great skills you have that apply: your of love of people, your desire to share, your knowledge of the material.”

Lindsay Reilly, owner of Lindsay Tia

My bravest act: “While still in college, I opened an online store and did my first manufacture run of 105 bags. Up until then I had been making totes by hand for friends and family. After I graduated, I pushed production to 400 bags a season, telling myself I have no one else to support but myself, why not just go all in? I’m now making 500 bags a season.”

My takeaway: “I have never been more grateful, broke and happy all at once! When I think about all the hard work and obstacles I have overcome—well, it’s an incredible feeling to know what I accomplished by myself.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “Not to run away but to dive in and enjoy the journey. If it takes you somewhere amazing, good; if it doesn’t, it’s a lesson to learn from.”

Jumoke Dada, CEO of Signature RED

My bravest act: “Investing in real estate and starting my own business. Both required the willingness to step into unknown territory, learn something new and be resourceful. After taking real estate classes and passing the certification exam, I eventually bought property and then learned the ins and outs of home ownership and property management. Similarly, when starting my company Signature RED, I decided to take the leap of faith. I didn’t have any business experience or a mentor but I committed to it and went for it.”

My takeaway: “My biggest lessons with both endeavors were not to let fear or inexperience stop me from taking risks.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “Understanding that it is powerless and surrendering to that which is greater than you. In short, trust God.”

Christina Linnell, founder and chief idea officer of Linnell Media

My bravest act: “Clicking the ‘submit’ button for my Linnell Media Facebook page. I had been doing business behind the scenes for a while but when I shared that I had ‘hung my shingle,’ so to speak, on social media, I knew there was no turning back for me. I was all in!”

My takeaway: “I learned that I need to trust my gut. I knew that I was destined to be an entrepreneur, but I needed to trust myself and my instincts.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “Just Do It! Sorry, Nike! Don’t hesitate, don’t hem and haw. Make up your mind and jump!”

Ali Warren, author of Where Hope Lives

My bravest act: “Volunteering to be a firefighter at the age of 16.”

My takeaway: “I’ve learned that even in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds we all have the power inside of us to push past the fear and accomplish anything we set our sights on.”

The secret to conquering fear is… “To embrace it. Embrace that the most important and exciting things in life are going to absolutely terrify you and that is all the more reason to attempt them. Fear is an incredibly powerful and useful tool if we learn how to work with it and let it fuel us.”