Intuitiveness, sensitivity, exceptional time management — these are skills that have, for a long time, been associated with women. Translating these skills to the corporate environment, however, hasn’t been historically explored in depth. ExecutivEstrogen is changing that.
Founded by Martha Underwood, a strong leader who has devoted her livelihood to advocating for women in the workplace, ExecutivEstrogen offers one-on-one and group mentoring sessions designed to provide women entering corporate America with the skills needed to navigate office politics, master corporate protocol and advance to executive levels. Through the platform, Martha has helped countless women tap into — and benefit from — the innate skills they already possess.
We believe Martha offers a service that is incredibly valuable to the modern woman, and we hope her interview encourages others out there to have the confidence to ask for what is rightly theirs. Meet today’s FACES of Birmingham, Martha Underwood.
What is ExecutivEstrogen?
ExecutivEstrogen exists to provide women the support, tools and templates to navigate around and above office politics, and to contribute our talents and skills in all industries and at all levels.
How did you develop this platform?
I’ve been in the tech industry for over 20 years. During those years, I’ve seen women celebrate wins, manage challenges and drown in defeat. Through all of it, I’ve been fortunate to thrive, advance and gain some fantastic mentors along the way. I thought that as long as I worked hard, helped my colleagues succeed and outperformed the men who didn’t believe I deserved to be there, I would make it to the top. That changed when I got a front-row seat to how corporate politics and male egos took down one of my dearest mentors. She was a well-respected top executive who managed a team of all men and me. After years of her mentoring the men towards advancement, when allowed to offer feedback on her value, they chose to report that she was incompetent and invaluable. They went on to position themselves as replacements. After that, she decided to leave the tech industry and become a stay-at-home mom. That broke my heart and moved me to create ExecutivEstrogen since I had seen it replay in my new work environment.
Explain what paternalistic micromanagement is and how it affects women in the workforce.
It’s a style of management by men that doesn’t take into consideration the ideas and suggestions of others. As a result, women, in particular, are stifled and robbed of the opportunity to make decisions on their own and build experience by working through various business scenarios.
How have you seen ExecutivEstrogen help women?
My courage gives women courage, and through ExecutivEstrogen, I share my stories and strategies to overcome common issues.
For example, I coached a colleague on negotiating a higher salary. She knew she was underpaid compared to her male counterparts, but she didn’t know how to communicate her value and ask for a raise. Instead of comparing herself to others, I helped her focus on herself. First, we identified all the wins for the year, the new skills she acquired, the number of clients she renewed, and the revenue she was directly responsible for securing. Then, we focused on the ask. I coached her on how to stick to the facts and boldly ask for the increase. The result? She got more than she asked for because the leadership didn’t realize the breadth of her contributions.
I also coach women to get over themselves sometimes and to recognize when we may be overreacting and how to reframe the issue towards a positive outcome.
Can you name a few defining moments in your career?
I’ve had several defining moments in my career, here are two standouts:
IBM hired me as an analyst as my first job out of college. When I found out that a male colleague was making $20,000 more than me, I went to management and said I had another job offer (I didn’t), and they needed to match it, or I would leave. They called my bluff, and I was devastated. I had to move back in with my parents. Three months later, a recruiter called for another position at IBM and offered $25,000 more than I was initially making. I went back and worked for the best manager, to whom I credit my success today. The lesson I learned is that sometimes taking a risk for what you believe in is absolutely worth it.
Here’s another. I was passed over for a VP position that I’d worked hard for, in favor of a male colleague who had no experience in the business vertical and had to commute from Texas to Birmingham to manage the team. I approached the CEO of the company directly and stated my case for the position. Ultimately, I didn’t get the promotion. To add insult to injury, I was directly blamed for his (and others’) failures and released from the company as a result. I learned two valuable lessons. The first thing was the importance of timing. I approached the CEO just after he’d found out a critical client ended their contract. I didn’t know it at the time, but I could have thought through my strategy better. Secondly, my ask was too big. I included others in my ask because I thought it was my only shot. I should have focused on myself and then helped them once I secured myself. Put your oxygen mask on yourself before helping others. Moral of the story, know when to go. I should have left when it was clear that my contributions and work were no longer considered valuable.
Who is your biggest role model/inspiration, and why?
My biggest role model and inspiration are my parents. They migrated from Haiti to the Bahamas, where I was born, and then to the United States. Next year, they celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary. They showed me that family always comes first, and there’s no substitution for hard work. They also taught me to always to be empathetic, kind and to help everyone I can, because you never know when you may be in need. I got my work ethic and big heart from them.
What book has impacted you the most?
I’d have to say The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav. The way he explains how impactful your intentions and choices are in your life is powerful. I think it’s a book everyone should read at some point in their lives.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Believe in yourself and go for it! Whether it’s a raise, a board seat or a position that I don’t think I’m 100 percent qualified for, going for it stretches me! Whether or not I achieve the sought-after goal, at least I leave learning what’s required to get there. And throwing my name in the hat associates me with that level/caliber of opportunities.
Shifting gears, describe your perfect night out — where would you go, what would you do and who would you see?
I would go to Paris, lie out on the grass with my husband near the Eiffel Tower and have the duo Black Violin serenade us. I adore violins. If I had to stay local, I’d go to a Chicago-style steppers club and dance the night away. Chicago-style dancing is a type of ballroom dancing — I love to dance!
What’s your greatest life accomplishment thus far?
The birth of my two boys. They are the blessing of my life! They are great boys with sweet spirits, and I thank God for them daily.
What’s your big goal for the future?
My big goal is to use ExecutivEstrogen to help women WIN as much as possible while figuring out how to package and market all the great ideas for products and services that come to me at 3 a.m.!
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My phone, because I’m in constant communication with my family. Air conditioning, because being hot is dreadful. Finally, iced coffee. I’m loving Fitz right now — with almond milk creamer. It beats Starbucks any day of the week!
Thank you, Martha, for the wonderful interview. And thank you to photographers Eric & Jamie, for the fantastic photos!
Subscribe to StyleBlueprint for your best “me moment” of the day. Click HERE!