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Indra Nooyi, Bobbi Brown, and other women leaders offer their career advice

June 25, 2021, 7:30 PM UTC

They may make it look easy, but success didn’t come overnight for women like Indra Nooyi, Symone Sanders, or Fidji Simo.

At Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen digital summit, speakers laid out their personal—and, in some cases, very public—struggles with health crises, divorce, or abuse. They also opened up about moments they were held back in their careers, as well as times when they became their own greatest obstacles.

Whether they were running multibillion corporations or igniting a movement, this past year in particular offered plenty of challenges and opportunities.

Here’s some of the advice they shared for the next class of female leaders on how to overcome obstacles in your life and career.

Understand company politics, but don’t get sucked in

Indra Nooyi, the former 12-year CEO of PepsiCo, has been one of the few immigrants and women of color to run a Fortune 500 company, and she offered important advice for women aspiring to the C-suite.

“Understand the politics in the organization, but don’t play the politics of the organization,” she said, a path she tried to follow during her ascent at PepsiCo.

Make yourself heard

Symone Sanders, chief spokesperson and senior adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris, has two words of advice for young women: Speak up.

As a spokesperson, she’s used to shifting attention away from herself. But it’s behind the scenes, in the meetings and the decision-making processes, that it’s “really important for folks to retain their voice—to not shrink, to speak up,” she said.

Sanders also shared some advice from the veep herself: “Young women are often made to feel like they have to be focused on the next thing. Focus on the thing in front of you right now. Do that thing extremely well, and the next opportunity will come to you.” 

Take control of your own story

Model, actress, activist, and entrepreneur Emily Ratajkowski has been boldly—and publicly—making headway in reclaiming control of her image in the age of social media.

A key way to own your own narrative: Write it yourself. Ratajkowski is publishing her own book, which will include 13 essays, including one she recently published in The Cut.

“When you write your own story,” Ratajkowski said, “that’s the ultimate way of regaining control.”

She has also learned to take control of her own career. Early on, a lot of people made Ratajkowski feel as if they knew better than she did about what to do with her career, she said.

“I would say that ultimately there were people who definitely had words of wisdom and good advice and a lot of expertise,” Ratajkowski said. “But ultimately, trusting your gut and doing what you believe in is the most important thing.”

Team up to get results

Chiney Ogwumike, WNBA basketball player and ESPN radio show host, says there is power in coming together. She emphasized the importance and urgency of doing so as women—whether it’s to push for higher salaries or take up the cause of racial justice. 

At Fortune’s summit, she recalled how the WNBA rallied around the name of Breonna Taylor in this year’s basketball season.

“We didn’t want the woman to get lost in that conversation because, far too often, that’s what happens to women,” Ogwumike said, adding: “We know that you work twice as hard to get half as far. We had to be twice as loud to say her name so that she got justice, too.”

Despite the different backgrounds and different beliefs held by the women of the WNBA, “when we’re tested like that, we stick together,” she said, feeling empowered to say what they feel, but sitting together and moving forward in solidarity.

Declutter your life and your work

Suzy Batiz, the founder and CEO of Poo~Pourri and Supernatural, has faced bankruptcy and an abusive marriage. Her trick to drown out the background noise? Decluttering everything—from her office space to her email inbox.

“Whenever you start clearing up that clutter, what happens is there’s naturally more space that’s available, right?” she said.

Another big realization for Batiz came after her second bankruptcy, she said, noting that she had always believed that once she was successful, then she would feel worthy and valued. It was when she came to the conclusion that she could find those things within herself that she came up with the idea of Poo~Pourri, she said.

Be your own advocate

The head of Facebook’s app, Fidji Simo, has been very public about her health status, speaking up about her miscarriage, her struggles with endometriosis, and a blood circulation disorder called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome.

Even though the topic of health can be taboo in the workplace—and particularly so for women—Simo wants other women to know you can rise within a company, despite facing severe health challenges.

Simo said it’s important to stand up for yourself and be your own advocate, especially in the doctor’s office, where women aren’t always taken seriously.

“Doctors just dismiss women’s pains and women’s symptoms, and I’ve seen that firsthand,” she said. “We need to address bias in medicine if we want women to really become healthy and be supported in their career and in their lives.”

Project leadership in the way you carry yourself

Dambisa Moyo, a global economist, author, and coprincipal at Versaca Investments, shared advice for how to get on a company board, which can be more challenging than the role itself. 

Among her tips were that your attitude, dress code, and communication skills signal whether you’ll be a leader or a follower. She also said to be prepared: have in-depth expertise in a specific area combined with broad knowledge of how the company works and the business landscape, and ground your views in data, not in emotions or suppositions. And if you get rejected? Take that as a cue to transform yourself into a candidate they just can’t ignore.

It’s okay to disconnect sometimes

Dylan Farrow, an activist and author, went public with sexual abuse allegations against her adoptive father, Woody Allen, about seven years ago—allegations Allen vehemently denies. Earlier this year, the HBO docuseries Allen v. Farrow delved into these claims.

Farrow said that the release of the documentary “did bring up a lot of trauma to the surface” and was emotionally taxing for her. “I just had to very consciously defend both myself and my daughter from being overwhelmed by that. It’s very important to me,” she said.

Farrow said she and her husband crafted a system for when she would get overwhelmed—she would leave the room, collect herself, then come back.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to disconnect, Farrow said, who mentioned that she has taken time away from the Internet several times this year.

She also had some advice for her younger self: Be brazenly authentic.

“Looking back on my life, I was very focused on what people think of me, and that sort of drove me to not be as authentic in myself, in my skin, and in my life as I would have liked to have been.”

Turn limitations into a growth opportunity

After selling her first company to Estée Lauder, makeup entrepreneur Bobbi Brown was bound by a noncompete. She launched her current company, Jones Road, the day that agreement ended.

But she doesn’t have regrets about selling her company and how it all played out, Brown said at the Next Gen Summit.

Brown started working on new products, developing wellness products that were sold online at Amazon and Walmart—“all those things kept me busy and also got me into the [direct-to-consumer] world.” 

Brown says career breaks can be the greatest learning opportunities—for work and self-growth. Brown said she met many female founders and learned how to better take care of herself during those years and grew her network and support system.

“When I launched Jones, I was able to carry those things with me, and I learned a lot,” she said.

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