Here are tips I've gleaned from both my career and from watching other women in the workforce in the hopes of helping you build your career.
Build your brand
For the first 10 years of your career, think of yourself as a product that you are developing and marketing. Think about building your brand and creating a strong product. Early in your career, your personal brand is going to be about the brands you have on your resume.
Seek experience in companies that have well-recognized brands, because some of their luster will rub off on you. If you can go to work for a bigger brand and take a lesser role, do it. If you can't, make sure that you move around to get different experiences inside the company.
Your knowledge base is also part of your brand, so think of yourself as being in knowledge-acquisition mode for at least the first ten years, making your product—yourself—more valuable. When I worked for Mentor Graphics, a large tech company, I started in their Corporate Finance Group doing financial analysis. When I could, I moved to pricing analysis, and eventually had responsibility for pricing and packaging of the company products. Pricing was part of corporate marketing, so this allowed me to join the marketing team and then make a move into division marketing. I transitioned into as many different roles as I could, which gave me the opportunity to learn and to figure out what I wanted to do.
Don't be afraid to change course
Coming out of college, young people put so much pressure on themselves to find a perfect job, but it's not an irreversible decision. You don't have to find the perfect job out of the gate because you'll have multiple shots at it. If you find yourself in a job and it's not what you thought it was, or if you don't like working in the field you majored in, do something else.
When I graduated, I started my career at KPMG. I worked at fitting in for about year before I realized accounting wasn't for me. Accounting has changed a lot since then, but at the time it was mainly score-keeping—measuring and reporting what had already happened in a business. This position helped me understand I wanted to be involved in making decisions that drove a business, so I decided to make a change. I applied to MBA programs. A year later, I was on my way to Harvard Business School. Your career is going to be a very long road. If you find you're going the wrong direction, it's easier to make a change early than it is to change later.
I've watched young women propel their careers forward very quickly by consistently and proactively asking for feedback. This is something I wish I'd done more. For every significant task you're assigned and every project you're on, ask the people you worked with for feedback on what you could have done better.
Be prepared to take some knocks, but keep it in perspective. Give yourself a break, because you're still learning. Also, realize being able to give feedback constructively is a skill few have mastered, so what you get may be not always be delivered in the most diplomatic way. But, if you have the courage to consistently seek feedback, and more importantly learn from it, it will dramatically increase the trajectory of your career.
Meet new people
Make it a point to meet somebody new every week. Ask people out to coffee or lunch. This isn't something that comes naturally to many of us, but there's no better way to build your interpersonal skills and expand your network. You'll be surprised by how much more confident and outgoing you'll become just by doing this. Improving your networking skills now will pay off in the future since much of your success depends on your ability to work with others and find ways to put them at ease.
Find women mentors
While there are still not anywhere near enough women in leadership roles, there are more than there used to be. Many women are willing to help others around them learn and avoid the mistakes they've made, so don't be afraid to ask. Everyone I know who has been asked to be a mentor has welcomed the opportunity.
Who should you ask? Perhaps you have a family member who is accomplished in her career. Maybe you had an internship in college and connected with someone or a professor you admired. Maybe your parents know someone who'd be willing to step up.
Find a cultural fit
It's clear that while women have made great strides in business since I started out, gender bias in the workplace is far from dead. It's rare today for a company's culture to be overtly hostile to women, but a more subtly biased culture can emerge over time, in random comments or viewpoints, or ways people are treated differently.
If you see this happening, think about moving on. Most cultures are deeply ingrained, and not going to change in the short term. You don't have to silently struggle and keep working there—life is just too short to put up with bias.
Find a company where you're comfortable. There are plenty of good ones out there. Meet with the HR person at your current company on the way out. Be very clear about why you are leaving, and let them know what you experienced. If enough women communicate their experience and leave because of the culture, it may get the company's attention to change. Later in your career, when you have the opportunity to change or build a culture, build one that welcomes everyone, regardless of how they look.
Karla is Chief Executive Officer, Co-founder, and member of the Board of Directors at Nvoicepay.