5 Business Lessons From Pioneering Women Through History

And their unique approaches to leadership

I started my career as an artist, and even as I followed a path into brand design, I always looked beyond the confines of what constitutes "design"—often to arts and culture—for inspiration, motivation and support. It's a big part of how I keep my business nimble, authentic and effective, and how I stay interested in what I do.  

Over the years it's only become clearer than ever that whether I'm working with large corporations, cultural institutions, or startups finding their feet, the best creatives draw inspiration from unlikely places.

And there's a huge amount we can learn about running a business, building a brand and crafting creative, effective designs from female figures past and present—writers, artists, musicians, environmentalists, fashion house pioneers and more. Women like these ultimately show how being passionate and dedicated allows powerful ideas to circumvent bureaucracy. They can teach us all a thing or two about celebrating our own unique approaches to leadership.

Leverage your difference for good.

When we're considering delving into something intimidating—maybe starting your own studio, going freelance, severing a client relationship that's no longer working for you—it's all too easy to self-sabotage. People often fall into the trap of believing outdated historical biases, consciously or not: "They won't listen to me because I'm a woman/a kid/neurodivergent," for instance.

Real, positive change for yourself, your business and the world at large comes from questioning inherited preconceptions and forging your own path based on what you think, believe and feel is right.   

Greta Thunberg is probably the most famous environmental activist today, and she certainly didn't let being a 15-year-old autistic schoolgirl stop her from speaking out on the world stage about the climate crisis. 

You could argue it's not despite of, but in part because of, those differences from who we'd expect to hear discussing such complex global issues (male, middle aged) that Greta's message has been so powerful, and so widely heard.

Solve your own problem.

When Gabrielle Chanel (better known as Coco) was born in 1883, women customarily dressed in multiple layers of corsets, garters and other unnecessarily complicated, uncomfortable and anachronistic accoutrements that were impractical for modern busy women.

Like any good business idea, her designs were born of spotting that problem and finding a solution to it.

Her womenswear (sailor frocks, sweaters, tunics and her famous little black dress) was inspired by clothing deemed to be traditionally for men, or more specifically, for trade. Identifying a vast gap in the market, she created clothes that married luxury, comfort, style and practicality—her Chanel suit skirts featured a pocket for businesswomen to store cigarette cases, for example.

Be interested.

Many in business would agree that the idea of "networking" can feel contrived and a little icky, for want of a better word. 

Writer Anaïs Nin—dubbed the "patron saint of social media" by the Guardian in 2015, thanks to her knack for soundbite-like quips—made a writing career out of the characters that surrounded her. Nin used her journals as a way to process and document her life and the many starry names that she was surrounded by, like Henry Miller, Antonin Artaud, Gore Vidal, to name a few.

Networking, or building relationships with potential clients and collaborators, or just people that inspire you and your business, is really just about being in the world and living, being open to meeting new people and knowing how to leverage such relationships.

So much of Team's work has come about through just being open to meeting new people (through friends, at parties, even through our kids' parents evenings) and being genuinely interested in hearing their stories—and the drive to help them make their businesses better through good design.

Respect your routine.

Most of us aren't lucky enough to be able to work only whenever our muse graces us with its presence. That's why routine is often our friend: not just to keep us on track personally, but also so that our team members, clients and collaborators can rely on us to do what we said we do when we say we're going to.

Thanks to the pressures of juggling writing and motherhood, Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes divided the day into rigid segments in which to work. Even before they had children their days were carefully apportioned, with each aiming to write for six hours a day, from 8:30 a.m. until midday, then from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m., according to Plath's letters. Once they had children, Plath said they'd divide their writing times so that she worked from 9 a.m. until lunchtime, and Hughes from lunch until teatime.

There's a lot to be said for structure in the working day, all the more when you fully understand how your brain functions. It's usually a case of balancing necessity (such as external meetings, childcare and so on) with preference (such as taking on more cognitively intensive tasks in the morning, and saving more mundane tasks for the 3 p.m. slump). Toni Morrison customarily wrote at dawn to take advantage of the slice of time when she could be alone and undisturbed before her children woke up. Later in her career, that habit born of necessity became a choice as she realized she felt more clear-headed and confident in her work first thing in the day.

Understand your business from the inside out.

There's a hell of a lot to be learned from Grace Jones' attitude to life and work. When you're running an agency or a business, while it's all about collaboration and trusting your team, such relationships can only ever be strengthened by knowledge of all aspects of the business. 

While you don't have to be an expert in every area (no one would expect a new business person to also be a whiz at video editing in a design agency, for instance), having an understanding of the various roles within your company is not only beneficial for you, but also breeds the empathy and understanding it takes to build a team that trusts one another and which works to realistic deadlines. 

In her modeling days in Paris, Jones was determined not to be seen as nothing more than a "mindless clothes hanger," as she put it in her book, I'll Never Write My Memoirs. She claims to have learned French in just three months after arriving in the city, and made a point of always asking the makeup artists and lighting directors how they did what they did, to both garner a deeper understanding of all aspects of the business she was in and to work toward being able to take care of all the elements herself, should she have to.

Practice empathy.

In my line of work, a branding project means fully immersing yourself in the mindset of your client—understanding their voice inside out, and expressing it in the best, clearest way possible. You have to shapeshift in many ways, taking on other characters in order to speak truthfully as that brand. As such, there's a lot to inspire us in Kate Bush. Her songs are frequently told through others' voices:  "Wuthering Heights" from the perspective of Cathy Earnshaw, for instance. In "Army Dreamers," Bush takes on the voice of a mother, wracked with guilt and mourning the death of her soldier son; while in "Breathing," Bush becomes a fetus panicked about the potential of nuclear fallout. 

Brand building and business alike often rely on the ability to walk in someone else's shoes to understand a brand's journey or a customer or client's needs: The ability to take on another character, fully immerse yourself in that world and speak on behalf of it is a talent that will pay dividends.

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Amy Globus
Amy Globus is co-founder and creative director at Team Design.

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