What If You Were Called to Meet With the President?

Many of you have read our article, Women: Find Your Voice, which was published in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review. As you might expect, this article generated a bevy of comments and conversations from both men and women. One of the most memorable conversations came to me in a phone call from our colleague, Ravila Gupta.

Ravila is President of Umicore, USA Inc. , a globObama-2al materials technology company with North American headquarters in Raleigh,  North Carolina. Prior to joining Umicore USA, Ravila earned a master’s degree in chemical engineering and, later, a law degree. She is a truly talented woman leader!

A couple of weeks after our article was published, Ravila called me and said, “I read your HBR article about women and meetings and I have a meeting I want to tell you about.” I asked her to tell me her story. Here it is:

A few months ago I was surprised to receive an invitation to attend a meeting of CEOs at the White House. Of course I knew I needed to prepare thoroughly. By the time I went to the meeting I had practiced and practiced my prepared remarks. I had planned my outfit and accessories carefully. I had prepared mentally by relaxing, breathing deeply, and giving myself positive messages…‘I will make my company proud. I will contribute with impact.’

Prior to being joined by President, the group of CEOs met with White House senior staff. After about 45 minutes, the doors opened and President Obama entered the room. He welcomed us, then came to the table and sat down beside ME!  Since I was sitting next to the President, I was aware that I was also in the view of all of the cameras. I kept telling myself, ‘Relax. Own the space. I will contribute with impact.’  A few of us (including me) were asked to share our prepared remarks and he followed up with questions.

As the meeting progressed, the topic of increasing women in engineering was discussed.  I was asked what influenced me to go into engineering, I replied that my father was a Professor of Engineering, and had encouraged all three of his daughters to go into engineering, which we all did.  I told him how much I had enjoyed engineering as my first profession and how it had been a building block for my current position leading a company. The President asked me a few more questions and thanked me for coming. He then turned to one of his aides and said, “We need to find a way for Ravila to help us!”

While attending the meeting was an unexpected opportunity, having a very personal interaction with the President was good for me and my company. I am glad that I prepared so thoroughly for the meeting. I know that I made my company proud and that I contributed with impact. This was probably the highest profile meeting I will ever attend … unless I get to meet the Pope!

Ravila, you not only made your company proud, but you made all women business leaders proud! In addition, you have taught all of us a lesson. We need to remember to prepare. We need to practice being purposeful. We need to practice making an impact in all of our “regular” meetings. One of these days, we will receive OUR invitation to the White House…or to meet the Pope…and we want to contribute with impact!