I’d like to continue to grow this platform to talk not only about style but also to and about women of substance. It’s frustrating that the only ‘role models’ modern women have are movie stars, socialites, and the incredibly wealthy. It’s hard to take advice from someone who doesn’t even pick up their own dry cleaning. I could do it all too without breaking a sweat if I had their kind of support staff. What about the rest of us?
Inspiration for me comes from the real world. I want to hear from the woman who takes conference calls in a closet because their kid is home sick. I want to learn from those that hustle no matter how many times they fail. I want to know how women operating in the real world manage relationships, family, and career. I think we could all benefit if we learned one new little nugget of information or piece of advice. It’s in this spirit that we launch our new monthly series, “5 Questions with and Inspiring Woman.” Each month, we’ll introduce you to a new woman. Our subjects will be from all walks of life, in all industries with one thing in common. They are all living their life with authenticity and grace with their feet firmly planted in reality.
Neen James is a sought-after, international professional speaker. Within the speaking industry, she is not only respected; but she is also close to rock star status. On stage, she’s charming, brilliant, and inspirational. She has a way about her that makes people feel like they have a special connection to her, even if they have only met her for a second. While her fans and followers know her as a champagne drinking, Louboutin-wearing Aussi with a fabulous lifestyle, she was born far from having a silver spoon. Her very humble upbringing in Australia gave her a hustle that is unmatched and the most generous heart of anyone I have ever met.
She also happens to be my best friend, so I get the privilege of knowing the “real” Neen. Our daily lives are very different from each other, but our moral code, loyalty, and intolerance for injustice has been our common bond. That, and we make each other laugh like no one else. I wanted Neen to be our first feature because she embodies hard work, integrity and a loyalty to her friends that is inspiring. If you are a female entrepreneur or even thinking of running a side business, Neen’s advice is invaluable.
Megan: Once you become successful, I think people assume you were always successful, but we know that’s not the case. When you were first starting your business, after moving from Australia to the States, what was your greatest struggle?
Neen: Building my speaking business from scratch was my biggest challenge. When I moved here from Sydney, I had no friends, no network, no clients, and no money. Imagine arriving in a foreign country and even though people speak English, it’s an entirely different culture. I had no brand here, no reputation, absolutely nothing. Even with an extroverted personality and confidence, I had to build a network one person at a time strategically. No one knew me, and I had no infrastructure. My whole business was built one connection at a time. I had to reach out to people diligently, attend a gazillion networking events, make friends with total strangers (and quickly), and it all took time. It also took longer than expected. I attended some terrible events, meet some draining people, and made some bad decisions. It’s about perspective, all of those experiences also led to fabulous events, exceptional people I now call my dearest friends and clarity on what was important to me and the types of clients I wanted. If you’re just starting out you have to go through the journey to get to where you want to be. You’ll be better for it, but it’s really hard, the secret is to never stop trying.
As a business owner whose product is your personality, how do you find balance in being “on” all the time while keeping certain parts of your life private? Being your best friend I know when you have been in struggle but never showed it. What’s your secret to keeping a brave face when you feel like telling everyone that everything is crap?
When I am with someone, I always remember it’s never about me. It’s always about making the other person feel special. It’s about making them feel seen and heard. Sometimes, people want to take a photo with me or share with me how the message of my keynote has impacted them; it’s not because of me, it’s not about me, I am just the vehicle for sharing that message. It’s about their learning, their moment, their realization and how they feel. When we can give the gift of encouragement and show others attention it somehow makes us all feel better. The smile and brave face are easier when you realize it’s not about me, it’s about them.
I’ve learned it’s also essential to have a great support crew around me (that’s obviously YOU Meg) that can sometimes run interference or help me when I just need to recover and not be “on.” When I attend conferences, it’s always fun to see people I haven’t seen in a long time and get to spend time with them, and it’s exhausting at the same time. I remember one event where I was speaking on the main stage, and you swooped in, we hid in a restaurant for a drink and then escaped the hotel to do some shopping – it was just what I needed.
While I have a significant social media profile I am also very diligent about what gets shared online, and there are aspects of my life that are very private, only those closest to me know that, and that’s OK.
I have found that as a female business owner, often other women are the ones who ask me to work for free. In the ten years that I have run my business, a man has never even tried to negotiate my fee, let alone ask me to work without payment. It seems like within the speaking world it’s even worse. What advice would you give to new female entrepreneurs faced with the consent request to work for free? How do you honor your value?
Ah, this one sucks! It happens all the time. Unfortunately ‘women’s events’ have also developed a reputation for not paying their speakers. It’s a general statement and more common than it needs to be. Believe me; I have spoken for free (and happily for charities I support, boards I serve on, and for a favor for a few dear friends). Sometimes it takes you getting annoyed (often at yourself or the situation), before you realize that you are more valuable and don’t want to be taken for granted any longer.
It’s a hard lesson to learn and such a valuable one. No one goes to the dentist and says ‘please fix my tooth but don’t charge me.’ Selling the intangible, the invisible like your intellectual property and years of experience is often hard for people to grasp value (including ourselves). I can’t tell you how many people ask Maria in my office ‘I just want to take Neen to lunch to pick her brain’ – argh – that’s the worst. It’s the ugliest phrase, and it’s another thing that women do to each other. Let’s all value our expertise and expect to pay for each other’s brilliance.
Value is hard to define and yet once you name your price and someone pays it’s much easier for you to see it. Do the work. Do the research and find out what your skills and talents are worth in the marketplace. For every industry there are levels. In the speaking profession, there are known fee ranges based on experience, books published, ownership of a category or topic and platform skills. Don’t undervalue yourself. I did that early and often and then regretted it. We often joke it only takes one person to pay our fee, and that means someone else will too. I also believe we all need to be able to say our fee and then don’t blink and don’t look away. If you can do that (and not laugh) you might surprise yourself with the result. Also, make a habit of reviewing your fees annually. Stay current and relevant in your profession and industry and do what you need to get to the next level of business or skills. I pay coaches, mentors, attend conferences, read books, listen to podcasts, subscribe to industry journals, whatever it takes to increase my worth and skill sets. It all impacts your value.
We often talk about how important it is to have strong female friendships. What have you found to be the biggest challenges around maintaining them, and what do you do to keep them going?
Time. Everyone is busy. We are all busy. The key to maintaining healthy female friendships is always to make time for them no matter what is going on in life. We can’t do that for a gazillion people. However, we can do it for the precious few.
Travel schedules, kids sports, running multiple businesses, community and industry obligations… oh and just pure exhaustion, are all possible (and legitimate) reasons not to catch up with girlfriends and yet I believe they might be one of the MOST important relationships we have.
To keep my friendships strong I make a point of texting encouraging thoughts, sending handwritten notes, buying gifts or cards when I see something that reminds me of them, scheduling a date (even if it’s just sitting on the couch with a glass of champagne). I make a point of reaching out every.single.week. That’s how important it is to me. I have been known to camp out on someone’s doorstep until they open the door (side note, this was Meg) … we need to be aware of what our friends need too, sometimes that’s space, sometimes that’s a shoulder to cry on or someone to yell at that will listen to the crazy. As I have got older (gosh I sound like an old lady), I have become very clear also that I only need one or two super close, sacred, deep, intimate relationships with precious few however I can be a ‘friend’ to many, just not the same level of intimacy. There’s a difference.
I’m amazed how much I still care about what people think even now that I’m in my late 30s. It’s like one minute I don’t care at all, and the next I care a whole awful lot. I hear it gets better in your 40s. What’s the best part of being in your 40s that you didn’t expect?
You know the joy of being in your 40s is that even though we all care what people think, for some reason it’s like people take us more seriously in our 40s because we have made it (whatever that looks like). My 40s have been the best years of my life because I got clear on who I was, what my style was, who I love, what I wouldn’t tolerate any longer, who I could set free and who I wanted to see more.
In your 40s you have a reputation, a brand, a set of girlfriends and a bucket load of memories you have created. You can care less about what others think and more about how you are going to leave a legacy and create more significant moments that matter.
Have questions for Neen or know an inspiring woman we should feature? Share your thoughts and comments in the section below.