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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Author Elizabeth Gilbert gives an eloquent empowering speech at NAWBO conference

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat Pray Love”, addresses the National Association of Women Business Owners conference on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018 in the Grand Ballroom of the Davenport Grand in Spokane. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By Judith Spitzer The Spokesman-Review

Eat, pray, love are the words many women associate with Elizabeth Gilbert, best-selling author of the book with the same name.

But Gilbert had three different words for more than 500 women from across the country who attended the National Association of Women Business Owners conference last week in Spokane.

Those words?

Priorities, boundaries and mysticism. Then Gilbert added one more word: relaxed.

“If you’re going to wait until the world looks the way that you want it to before you relax, you’re going to die unrelaxed,” Gilbert said in an interview after her keynote address Monday to the conference, attended by local women as well as others from nearly every state in the country.

“This is not new that the world is a mess. Like there’s never been a moment in history that women could relax,” she said. “I’m just not willing to trade my well-being for some idea that everything’s got to be in order before I can relax. So I breathe through it.”

Gilbert’s message seemed to light up the audience, many of whom – as women business owners, struggle with balancing work, family life and time for themselves – sat in rapt attention while she spoke and ended the hour with a standing ovation.

Founded in 1975 by 12 women in Washington, D.C., who sought to open doors for women entrepreneurs by changing public policy and influencing opinion makers, the National Association of Women Business Owners today has approximately 5,000 members and 60 chapters across the country. NAWBO continues to champion women business owners and their issues to lawmakers, the media, federal government agencies and the greater business community.

Susan Stewart-Baldwin, current NAWBO-Northwest president and a health and nutrition coach, said Gilbert’s keynote was spot on for her.

“She was very authentic,” Stewart-Baldwin said. “I think that understanding my priorities and setting boundaries are a big deal for women, and it’s easy to over-commit – doing things you’re passionate about, keeping goals, building in time for family and other things that are a part of life.”

Stewart-Baldwin said women struggle with not getting everything done, as well as with perfectionism.

“We need to recognize all the amazing things we do accomplish, and the other things will be there the next day,” she said. “Women in particular … we’re so hard on ourselves. Balance is huge.”

The theme of the conference, “Work Well. Live Well,” was seamlessly weaved into Gilbert’s talk and seemed to ring true for women in attendance. The entrepreneurs expressed their challenges with running successful businesses, giving back to the community, achieving leadership roles, raising and nurturing families and advocating for causes, all of which can leave many women exhausted and stressed out.

‘Deeply moving’

Rena McGill, founder and owner of Corlinc, described the company as “committed to the delivery of a single, affordable online platform to create, connect, monetize and engage your tribe.” The company is less than a year old but growing quickly, McGill said.

“Corlinc is an online community, a synergistic platform for organizations, and professionals to market, interact, and engage in commerce,” she said.

She added that Corlinc also is a family business. McGill partners with her son, who has a background in computer programming. “My son and I cover two perspectives on gender, two generations and two distinct skill sets.”

McGill said she expected Gilbert’s keynote to be “very soft serve,” but found it “breathtaking and deeply moving.”

“Her message to relax and recharge was empowering,” McGill said. “As women, we are caregivers even when we choose not to be. It resonated with so many of us and reminds us we’re not taking enough time for self-care.”

A NAWBO member only since March, McGill said she immediately embraced the organization. “I felt welcome the minute I went to the first meeting,” she said. “It’s a positive, uplifting environment and I have been unwavering. I said, ‘You’ve got me for whatever you need. I’m here to serve as well.’”

Historic moment

Women’s history was also on the agenda last week.

McGill said she was surprised to learn about the Women’s Business Ownership Act, also known as HR 5050, one of the most game-changing pieces of legislation for women business owners, which was signed into law in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan.

NAWBO also was instrumental in the landmark legislation that changed how women qualify for business loans. In some states 30 years ago, women who wanted to take out a business loan couldn’t do it alone. Many states still had laws requiring women to have a male relative – be it a father, husband or son – co-sign. It didn’t matter if he was involved in the business, just that he was male. That changed with the new law.

Members of NAWBO pioneered the policy change that added women to the list of minority business owners, making the case for the U.S. Small Business Administration to include women business owners in federal procurement assistance programs.

“I was shocked when I learned that (the law change) was only 30 years ago. I didn’t know about it,” McGill said.

Several women who worked on and supported the legislation were honored onstage at the conference. Stewart-Baldwin said she thought long and hard about the women who fought for it back in the day.

“Watching those women who led that whole charge and the degree to which they believe in it speaks to character and standing in your power,” she said. “They fought for it because it was the right thing to do, and that was back in 1988.”

Professional growth

Daria Brown, owner of Once Upon a Shoe in Hayden, said she was also affected by what she heard about the history of women in business.

“HR 5050 was impactful for all women business owners and paved the way for women to not only get business loans in their own name but (it) gives women the ability to scale their own businesses,” Brown said.

A member of NAWBO for the past four years, Brown said she joined the organization to gain professional guidance. “It gave me the opportunity to honor and to serve beside other women who positively impact our region and our world,” she said.

With a family of five boys ages 9 to 19, two dogs and a husband who teaches middle school, Brown said life is not always easy.

“But I found an amazing group of women who encourage me to get out of my comfort zone,” she said.

Brown said it’s always been a dream of hers to open a shoe store for women, believing “we want high quality, comfortable, stylish shoes that look great.”

Brown, who still works 30 hours a week as a tax accountant, opened the Hayden shoe store in June. She does it all, she said, with the support of her husband and her 19-year-old son, who works with her at the store.

“I have the support of an amazing man, an engineer for 20 years who decided to become a sixth-grade teacher,” she said. “He helps a lot with home and the kids and is supportive of me, so I can follow my dreams, and NAWBO gave me the confidence to do it.”

Brown had high praise for other women in her local chapter as well as the conference.

“Surrounding myself with all these other women is so important, it’s right up there at the top of my priority list,” she said. “It’s a blessing to be able to help other women and accept help from others.”

Watershed moment

Gilbert, who is best known for “Eat Pray Love,” her 2006 memoir that chronicled her solo journey around the world, looking for solace after a difficult divorce, talked about her struggles early in her career during her time on stage Monday.

“Twenty-five years ago, I was a struggling, unpublished writer living in a stinky apartment in New York,” she said. “Which means I was a waitress.”

Gilbert recalled how she was expressing her angst to a woman she deemed to be her mentor, over her inability to get anywhere with her career because of having three jobs, no privacy and a complicated lifestyle that included the care and feeding of a boyfriend.

“This woman asked me the single most important question I’ve ever been asked in my life,” Gilbert said. “It forever changed the direction of my life. She looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘What are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want?’

“It was the word pretending that was so wounding,” she added. “She said, ‘Let me repeat the question.’ ”

Gilbert asked the audience the same question. “What are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want?”

Gilbert said her life pivoted and changed at that moment, and she urged participants to get clear, get focused and define their best hours in their day to prioritize their lives.

“Start looking at where your time is going and who is getting your energy. My suggestion is that you take it. Be super greedy about that. You claim it,” she said. “And you can give 40 percent to those other things, because we know that even when women phone it in at 40 percent, we’re still really, really effective,” she said.

Key to success

Ultimately, Gilbert said after priorities, boundaries and mysticism are on board, being relaxed is the key to success both in business and in life.

“Everything with the #MeToo movement and women’s experiences with sexual assault and harassment … there’s almost a shared PTSD. But I’m very stubborn about the way I live. I go everywhere, and I do everything I want to do, because I want to be free.

“I’ve always been like this. I won’t sacrifice my freedom for security. But every woman has to navigate that on her own terms,” she said.

Tara Wear, founder and owner of Spokane-based Powerful Connections Now, is a speaker and coach who specializes in helping women achieve leadership roles by facilitating training, and coaching women to communicate with credibility and develop presentation skills.

Wear said juggling different roles is always a challenge, but her life is so much better when she practices extreme self-care.

“I’m a better person, wife and mother when I’m taking care of myself,” she said. “I do that by connecting with other women – like going to this NAWBO conference. The support of other women is invaluable.

“NAWBO has the resources to help support one another and it’s been biggest uplift in my life to find a healthy community of women where there’s no gossip or anything like that. It’s all positive.”

Besides meditation, Gilbert said, one of the things that inspires her is having the support of other women through friendships.

She said the death of her life partner, Rayya Elias, nine months ago has been the most difficult event in her life. Elias, 57, also an author, songwriter and short filmmaker, was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer in 2016.

“I still meditate, but it’s only since Rayya’s death that it’s become a daily spiritual practice again,” Gilbert said. “It’s put me back on track. It’s too horrible not to meditate.

“There are times when life just hammers on people, and all you can do is duck and dodge, and try to survive mentally. So I think I’ve learned to be humble in the face of those hammer storms.”