Stubborn. Obstinate. I’ve been called worse. But I definitely came by those accusations honestly. It’s a thing in my family – at least on my dad’s side. My great-grandmother lived to 103, and my grandparents to 91 and 92. I think it was because they were stubborn, persistent people who had worked hard their whole lives and damn well wanted to enjoy their retirement.
My Baba had a particularly stubborn streak in her. A lot of times it made sense, but she often seemed focused on random victories she wanted to win that made little sense to the rest of the family. For example, she always insisted she would outlive my Jaju. As you might expect, she was right. He didn’t quite make it to 92 – he passed a few months before, his hands held gently in hers as he drew his last breath. She lived another six years and six months. And if that wasn’t enough, she held on until month and a day past her 92nd birthday. There was no disputing that she won. Oh – and she still had an active driver’s license. And a registered car. And yes, she drove it until just a few months before she died. But only in the middle of the day, she would tell me very seriously.
Today is February 10. It would have been my Baba’s 96th birthday. As I write this, well past midnight, I am enjoying a beer and toasting the remarkable woman who shaped me.
I think it’s important to tell the stories that never get told. The ones that don’t seem important while they’re happening – where it takes decades to match up the pieces of the puzzle that the universe hands to us when we are born.
Annie the Riveter
During World War II, Baba (though it feels weird to call her that, as she was a teenager at the time) moved to Toronto with her sister Helen to work in the wartime factories. If you scroll up to the top of this page, you’ll see her, standing out as she always did, in her dark overalls and head kerchief – my Baba, Annie the riveter. Really; she actually was a riveter – on the Lancaster bombers, the principal aircraft used by the RAF during the Second World War.
She landed in Toronto because her boyfriend (it’s even stranger to think of my Jaju as a boyfriend; let’s call him her beau) moved there to support the war effort (a significant childhood injury prevented him being drafted into the war). Baba convinced Helen and their parents that they needed to go as well. To support the war, of course. Persistent, she was.
It was a different time
She was a strong-willed woman who grew up in a time where she had few options. Her baby sister, 5 or 6 years younger, would go on to become a school teacher. But my Baba would not have a career.
Baba and Jaju returned to Manitoba after the war, and were soon married. For a short time, she worked at the Eatons department store in downtown Winnipeg. But when her supervisor learned she was married, she was asked to quit her job. Of course she did so gracefully – even though she had strategically kept her marital status secret up until that time.
For the rest of her life, she never drew a paycheque, until she qualified for old age pension. But that didn’t mean she didn’t have a career. And I’m not talking about when people say things like “homemaking is hard work”. Damn right. I’ve been an executive, and still came home every day and cooked dinner, planned the grocery shop, and cleaned the house and acted as general manager over my family. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
Cookies and tea and government contracts
My Baba was a master negotiator, collaborator, head of conflict resolution, developer of strategy, and yes, central nervous system of her family’s life. While she grew up in a time where women were not the boss, she still wielded power – not overtly – but through will and nuanced relationships forged over cookies and tea.
While they raised their kids – my dad and my aunt – Baba and Jaju had a couple of businesses. When the kids were very young, Jaju was a contractor. He had a dragline and had years of government contracts to build roads throughout the dense bush of rural Manitoba. In later years, he and one of his very stubborn brothers purchased and ran a car wash. I don’t think I ever met that brother. But my whole life, I heard stories of what a pain in the arse he was, and how Baba had to mediate World War III at least once a month.
It hasn’t been until my generation that we’ve seen a noticeable presence of women role models in leadership positions. And let me be clear – the fact that we are now up to 40 women CEOs on the Fortune 500 is not exactly awesome. We had a long road ahead with structural barriers that need to be dismantled in favour of greater leadership representation – including among BIPOC women, women with disabilities and LGBTTQ2S leaders.
But over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the quiet leadership that I learned from my Baba.
The silent CEO
A hot-headed Ukrainian man with a grade 6 or 8 education, my Jaju was not the best businessman. In fact, looking back, I can’t even imagine him cultivating relationships, managing disputes, negotiating with government officials. That’s clearly because it wasn’t him doing that work. Who do you think managed the books? Put thought into contract bids? Built the relationships with subcontractors over borscht and sandwiches? It certainly wasn’t Jaju. He had zero interest in such things. WWF wrestling, yes. Relationships, not so much.
Of course it was Baba. Quietly working behind the scenes, wielding power through influence. Through more gentle means than Jaju could have even imagined. Finding ways that worked for everyone – not just the loudest man in the room. And yes, she did this while raising two kids – in a trailer in the bush, with no school or babysitter or family to take on the load.
She was the unsung hero of his life. She was the silent CEO of his businesses.
She was the first person in my life who ever made me feel like I belonged. And she gave the best in life lessons and stubborn, but compassionate Ukrainian DNA.
Program launch as a birthday celebration
In honour of this amazing woman, I chose her birthday to launch my latest program. It’s a foundations course in negotiation for women entrepreneurs.
It doesn’t teach you how to make demands, establish authority, or manipulate situations through dirty tricks.
It leverages the strengths that every one of us inherited through our DNA and through the loving life lessons our grandmothers taught us. It teaches you to use your empathy and your values as your power: to clarify your needs, look for effective opportunities to build solutions, and to remind yourself of the value you bring to your business, your clients and your partners.
It’s a different kind of program. It’s built for women just like you.
You know the kind – the ones who are quietly having an impact. Building strong relationships. Worth so much more than they’re paid. Just like my Baba.
Learn more about Fearless Negotiation: Essential Skills for Entrepreneurs.
If you’re an entrepreneur and you need a little help with kickstarting the awkward conversations that happen when you decide to raise your fees, then download your copy of Raise Your Rates: Simple Scripts for Entrepreneurs.
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