by Hannah Brinks • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
One look at Darlene Lee, CEO of Darling Communications, and your mind might flit to words like “professional,” “successful,” or “motivated.” Her poise and articulation would never communicate anything akin to self-doubt. However, her relentless attitude for success keeps her humble, and at times, she has felt unsatisfied. “I did all the right things with my education and work. It was still not enough to move my career to where I wanted it to be,” she said. This vague malaise, though, drove her to her current passion and venture.
“I wanted to do something that was more impactful, something that would cause social change.”
Lee holds a doctorate in communications, runs her own business, and works for positive change in the lives and careers of corporate women. While working as a cosmetologist for nineteen years, she heard conversations about gender inequality from her professional clients. She was a smart, competent individual, and what she heard sparked her desire to work toward a better workplace for a new generation of women.
“I wanted to do something that was more impactful,” she said. “Something that would cause social change.” So she did. She returned from New York to Grand Rapids and started her company, Darling Communications, where she works to bridge any gender professional, leadership, and pay gaps. The Institute for Women’s Policy estimates that the gender wage gap won’t close in Michigan until 2086; this statistic is just one of many that fuels her business’s distinctive style. Her innovative approach to social change includes positively enlisting executive males in the movement toward equality.
According to Lee, men play an important role in women’s careers, and can be an asset to quick advancement. She believes in the importance of allowing men to play a part in women’s corporate development; but like all revolutionary ideas, this approach was met with some opposition from other women’s programs. Bandied about were arguments and questions such as “We want to do this for ourselves,” “What can men tell us that would be of any use?” or “How can men understand where we’re coming from?” With women making 0.77 cents for every male dollar, why hear a man’s view on a problem that primarily concerns women?
Lee likens it to any sort of diversity. The key, she said, is understanding. “You know how we want to operate and deal with other cultures; we want to quell conflict and do business with them?” she asked. “There’s a big push with diversity and inclusion to learn how to deal with different groups. Just think of it like that. Think of it in terms of becoming male-competent.”
It’s beneficial to understand how men work, for it allows women to highlight the ways they shine. In order to do so, Lee encourages women to use all resources at their disposal. This includes her focus: finding male mentors and sponsors. “Mentors are typically more concerned with helping you become confident and competent in your work,” she explained. “Sponsors take on some of the responsibility to accelerate your career.”
She speaks from experience; her personal and professional development was, and continues to be, supplemented by the wisdom of these men. For example, Ben Goei, the CEO of Eastern Floral, guided Lee when she returned to Grand Rapids. “He suggested I start a business. I decided I wanted to host a conference, and that was me starting the conference right then and there.”
She herself has four male mentors and one male sponsor and considers her success an indication that this tactic works. She practices what she preaches. The most important item in her purse? A recorder so she doesn’t miss a single piece of insight that these men, as well as other spontaneous advice offerers, happen to share in conversation.
Her uncle, another of her male mentors from early in her career, advised: “Don’t give them a reason to tell you ‘no.’” She undoubtedly takes that into her work life; she’s poised, professional and passionate. Her ambition is unparalleled and she describes her work at Darling Communications as “all-consuming.”
She is armed with statistic of female stagnation. It’s troubling to think that women represent top leadership in only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies. According to Lee, this isn’t an increase from previous years—it’s the same 5 percent as was represented in 2014. She finds herself compelled to renew women’s efforts, to move them toward their goals of success and leadership. “That’s what I’m working to do, and what I’m hoping to do with these conferences,” she explained. “[I hope the conferences] give women insight and strategies that will help move their careers forward a lot faster.”
She witnesses the women attending her conferences finding themselves more engaged, and armed with more insight into the world of business and the minds of businessmen. Some even come away with new mentors. “We want to know,” Lee said. “We want women to understand more fully how men think and operate in business.”
However, it’s not just women who attend her conference. Men are also encouraged to gain information and business savvy along with their woman colleagues. The business principals taught by the speakers are not targeted specifically toward women, Lee explained. They are informative to the workers, but also the leaders of companies that are hiring women. “I think organizations need to realize that what women bring to the table can help increase the bottom line,” Lee said. “They need to realize that having diverse opinions at the table makes for an inclusive environment and more ways of thinking about how to do things, which usually results in a better outcome,” she said.
Her advice for women is not limited to finding a male mentor or sponsor. She passionately feels that women need to be their own advocates. “Always look for ways to innovate,” she said. For example, Lee looked for a niche that the women’s industries around her weren’t serving and filled it. “Be innovative; take some time to do some research. Look outside your industry. Find out what kinds of talents and abilities you have.”
Lee’s annual conference, “Women! Let’s Hear It From the Men III: Key Strategies From the Businessmen’s Playbook” takes place on September 15 at Rockford Construction. The conference brings together four influential businessmen with ambitious, talented businesswomen. This year’s speakers include Mike Finny, senior advisor for economic growth for Govenor Snyder, Kurt Hassberger, chairman of the boar/president of Rockford Development for Rockford Construction, Roberto Torres, the executive director of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, and Skot Welch, the founder and managing partner of Global Bridgebuilders. By harnessing the power of these speakers’ talents and experience, Lee helps accelerate the career goals of the women and men in attendance. Register at www.darlingcommunications.com, and stay tuned for Darling Communication’s newest venture coming in 2016: executive male coaching.
“[Organizations] need to realize that having diverse opinions at the table makes for an inclusive environment and more ways of thinking about how to do things, which usually results in a better outcome.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Aside from chipping away at her ever-growing reading list, Hannah enjoys writing, running, traveling, and sipping coffee with her family and friends.