Through Hot Mommas Project, one woman sets out to boost the confidence of all women


Kathy Korman-Frey, front, makes a face for a snapshot as she watches the Hot Mommas Project awards with, from left, Sonia Ledwith, Suki Howard, Rachel Eberhard, Francisca Alonso, Korman-Frey, Ify Ofulue and Christianna Pyo. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

As the guests filed into Kathy Korman Frey’s Palisades home in the District on Saturday afternoon for the first Hot Mommas Project “Super Bowl of Mentors” global watch party, she handed each a blue notecard and asked them to rate — on a scale of 1 to 10 — how confident they were feeling.

They had come to hear stories about women around the world who, much like themselves, are striving to meet career goals and live full lives outside work. Frey, a George Washington University business professor and Harvard MBA, had gathered the case studies as part of the Hot Mommas Project.

Similar parties in at least 20 other countries — the biggest and most elegant held in Kuwait — watching as Frey announced the project’s 2012-13 winners in a webcast.

Frey calls them “holistic leaders” at work and home. In other words, “Hot Mommas.” And she hopes learning about the winners will inspire other women.

“Our view is, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” Frey said. “Seeing real role models sends women and girls the signal, ‘Oh, I could do this,’ rather than getting discouraged by the usual wall of 6-foot-2 men in blue suits.”

Reams of research studies and surveys in recent years have shown how, as early as elementary school, girls are less confident than boys in their skills and abilities. That gap only grows as girls and boys become adults.

And, Frey argues, that confidence gap is a big reason why statistics show that women tend to earn less money at every level, lag in promotions in every field, and, while female-owned businesses are among the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, they tend to be smaller and attract far less venture capital than male-owned firms.

So Frey has turned her academic research and the Hot Mommas Project into a mission aimed at reversing what she calls that “self-efficacy” gap through the power of storytelling.

She shares stories like that of Eman Al-Awadhi, one of this year’s global case-study winners. Al-Awadhi dreamed of going out on reporting assignments for the Kuwait News Agency. Instead, she was told she belonged, as did all women, behind a desk, in the office, as an editor. “One day, you’ll get married and have children,” her boss told her, even though she was and is single. “This is better for you.”

Instead, Al-Awadhi reported in her free time and routinely worked double shifts to show she could do it. In a few years, that same boss called her and asked her to race out to cover a story about the NATO secretary-general.

“I wanted to share my story to tell other women that we need to find out what we’re good at, what we really want to do, and then fight to do that,” she said. “Even when it’s difficult.”

Other winners — from the United States, Nigeria, India, Croatia, Lithuania, Egypt and other countries — told of their battles to overcome alcoholism, their juggle of work and home demands.

Francisca Alonso, this year’s winner in the science, engineering, math and technology category, shared her story of starting her architecture and construction company in 2001, when her four children were all younger than 5.

“So many people told me not to do it, that I wouldn’t be able to manage. Sometimes I’ll still go out to construction sites and people will ask, ‘When is your husband coming?’ ” she said.

Frey started the Hot Mommas Project in 2009 after so many of her young female students came to her in tears.

“I honestly started it because students at GW kept asking me about my personal life, about how I could be an entrepreneur and married and a mother,” Frey said. “I thought, ‘This is getting old. I’m going to write a case study of my life.’ ”

Frey’s project is now the largest digital women’s case study archive in the world, she said. And many of the 400 cases — a technique she borrowed from the case-study model of teaching pioneered by Harvard Business School — have been published in business school textbooks.

As the women at her watch party milled about her kitchen, sharing a potluck meal, Frey’s interns, all college students, said seeing real-world role models opened their eyes.

“It helped show me you can mix work and play and family and have a good life,” said Hannah Friedman, a sophomore at American University.

“I’ve always been worried about how I’m going to have a career and a family,” said Sonia Ledwith, a junior at American University. “So just seeing women leaders is helpful. It’s like we know they’re there. But we’re just not as exposed to them.”

Matthew Scott, a senior at George Washington, said, unlike Friedman and Ledwith, most men in college think only about how they’re going to get ahead in their career, never about how they’ll combine that with a family. “But after seeing all these case studies, it makes sense that it should be on men’s minds, too,” he said.

Frey’s research has found that role models and mentoring have boosted women’s confidence by 66 percent in three hours, and 200 percent in one semester.

“My goal is to increase the confidence of 1 million girls and women,” Frey said. “The evidence is clear that having women leaders, women entrepreneurs boosts economic success in both the corporate environment and a country’s gross domestic product.”

At the end of the watch party, Frey again distributed the blue notecards and asked the women to rate how confident they felt.

The results? An admittedly unscientific jump in confidence, she said, smiling, of 37 percent.

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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