Leadership Lessons: Advice from a Female Founder

November 19, 2019

On Tuesday, November 5, women from across DC gathered to hear from one of the nation’s premier conservative donor development experts, Ann Fitzgerald. Before starting her successful nonprofit consulting firm, Fitzgerald was the Director of Development at the Heritage Foundation where she helped lead an effort to increase contributions by 20%. 

Fitzgerald began her speech by diving into her own career path. As a young woman in corporate sales, she quickly learned how to adapt to a fast-paced environment. The stakes were incredibly high: miss your numbers for a 3-month period, and you were out of a job. Despite the many challenges that came with high-pressure deadlines in a male-dominated field, Fitzgerald enjoyed herself. She urged the women in the audience to understand the value of their time, and work in a field they are passionate about so they can truly thrive.

Following her own advice, Fitzgerald soon moved into donor development at the Heritage Foundation because of her passion to advance the conservative movement. While at Heritage, she boldly advocated for new ideas — earning herself a reputation as a bit of a troublemaker. But her boldness paid off, as she rose through the ranks and eventually became the Director of Development. She was extremely successful in this role, managing a large team while innovating the donor outreach programs at Heritage. The end result of her efforts was such a large increase in donations that she decided it was time to start her own business.

Fitzgerald’s experience at Heritage positioned her perfectly to start her own nonprofit consulting firm, AC Fitzgerald. She spoke candidly about the challenges she faced at the beginning of her entrepreneurial journey. Fitzgerald told the NeW members that while many women were supportive of her starting her own enterprise, many men cautioned her against it. She opened up about the self-doubt she experienced, and how she overcame it by following 5 key rules:

  • Dream big, but have a plan too. Before you start your own business, make sure you’re committed to the planning process, even if your plans change over time. Dreaming without a plan can hinder you because you’ll find yourself too focused on unimportant details. 
  • Do good, do good work, and do good to others. This simple motto represents that you have the power to define your own success. You don’t need to build a multi-billion dollar company to be successful — define what success means to you and then go achieve it. 
  • Find the right support team. Often, we want to turn to our friends for support when starting a business. That’s completely fine, but we also need to seek out mentors with experience in the field. Mentors can be found anywhere, whether at an old job, while networking, or in groups like NeW.
  • There are no shortcuts. Building a successful small business is not easy. It takes long hours, sacrifices, and determination even when times are tough. No matter what happens, cutting corners will not help you.
  • Don’t listen to naysayers, especially men. Men don’t always directly tell women not to follow their dreams. Often, it’s as simple as someone saying “Well, it’s going to be difficult, have you thought it all the way through?” But you don’t have to think through every detail right at the beginning. You can learn along the way because it is within your power to build something great.

After sharing how she was able to find success, Fitzgerald took questions from the NeW members in the audience. One woman was in the process of starting her own business, and asked Fitzgerald about how much time she should spend on making a plan versus moving forward. Fitzgerald stressed that although making a plan was important, at some point you have to move forward or you’ll get stuck.

Another woman asked Fitzgerald how to run a productive meeting in a male-dominated firm. Fitzgerald spoke candidly about how women often get ready for meetings with research, while men are talking with one another and consensus-building. She advised that although women want to work hard and prepare, sometimes it is necessary to adapt to your environment. 

As she finished taking questions, Fitzgerald paused. Before she finished the program, she spoke about her niece who will be starting college soon. Fitzgerald’s optimism for her experience was evident, and she cited NeW as the primary reason why. As the preeminent organization for conservative university women, NeW provides a support system vital on liberal college campuses. As she expressed her gratitude for the support system her niece is about to encounter, Fitzgerald was met with a loud round of applause.

To find out more about the NeW Professional Network and to get involved, please contact NeW Program Manager, Amber Downer at [email protected].

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