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What Women Want from Brands, Advertising, and Marketing in 2021

This Women’s History Month, AMP explored what women today want from brands, advertisers, and marketers. Since there are approximately 3.9 billion women in the world — each with their own unique personalities, backgrounds, and desires — we’ve narrowed the focus of this article to three desires that stood out to us during our research. We’ve also included insights from women we interviewed who have worked in the advertising and marketing industry. (Their names have been removed for privacy.)

We don’t claim to speak on behalf of all women, but instead aim to highlight some of the desires and expectations for brands & the industry that many women have expressed in recent years.

Women Want More Diverse and Intersectional Representation

Over the past decade, there have been some incredible pushes towards more diverse representation of women in advertising — from The National Lottery’s uplifting & inclusive “This Girl Can” campaign to this amazing photo of Black transqueer lesbian model Jari Jones popping open a bottle of champagne in front of her larger-than-life Calvin Klein ad. Most of the women we spoke to in the industry mentioned that they’ve seen more diverse representation in recent years: more interracial couples, more body sizes in the fashion world, more stay-at-home dads, and fewer blatantly sexist ads.

Still, only 29% of American women believe they are accurately represented in advertising, according to a recent study by data intelligence company Morning Consult. (The same study found that 44% of American men believe women are accurately represented.)

As advertisers and marketers, a crucial step in developing a strategy plan is studying our consumers and learning about their wants, needs, and habits. So why does the industry continue to miss the mark with female representation?

Perhaps it has something to do with the word “and.” Because a consumer is never just a woman. Maybe she’s a woman and bisexual and Latinx and a stepmom and really into Maseratis and perfume. When we look at female representation, we must consider intersectionality and what other identities might matter to female consumers.

Let’s say our consumer identifies as a lesbian. According to a 2019 survey of 2,000 adults in the UK by GAY TIMES and Karmarama, 72% of LGBTQ respondents think the way they’re represented in advertising is tokenistic. 

Let’s say she has a disability. The Calgary Society for Persons with Disabilities (CSPD) reported in 2019 that only 3% of characters on North American television have disabilities and of these, 95% are played by able-bodied actors. (This statistic inspired their moving “Visibility for Disability” campaign.)

Let’s say she’s a mom. A 2019 report from the brand Motherly with almost 6,500 survey respondents found that 85% of millennial moms don’t feel like society does a good job of understanding and supporting them.

Let’s say she’s a woman of color. A 2019 study on the representation of Black women and girls in Hollywood found that Black females and other females of color are more likely to be portrayed partially/fully nude than white females — in films and on TV. The same study found that white female TV characters are more likely to have a job (89.6%) compared to Black female characters (70.5%) and other female characters of color (58.8%). (This study was conducted by The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and focused on family films and TV.) How might it feel to see characters who look like her repeatedly oversexualized and underemployed?

Even if a woman feels her “womanness” — or whatever you want to call it — is well-represented, maybe she doesn’t feel like her other identities are well-represented. Maybe the commercials, print ads, and radio spots she encounters are not adding up to how she sees herself as a whole woman person.

 

Women Don’t Want to Be Superheroes (At Least Not All the Time)

The brilliant author Carmen Maria Machado wrote, “We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.”

Our messy complexities are part of what make us human. And it turns out, a lot of women want to see more of this messiness, and less of the fully put together superwoman archetype we’ve been served again and again in past decades. One ad that leans into this attitude superbly is Frida Mom’s “Stream of Lactation” commercial, which highlights the highs and lows of breastfeeding with an authentic, stream-of-conscious voiceover.

One woman in the industry we interviewed said:

I LOVE the new Frida commercial about breastfeeding. While watching the commercial, I felt seen and understood. I saw myself and thought "Wow, that's exactly what I do" or "Yes, that happened to me." Women want to see other women that they identify with, and that's the best (and most ethical) way to sell your product.

For years, women were served razor ads featuring models with shaved skin and pad ads featuring that notorious blue liquid. Marketers made shaving and menstruation seem like a walk in the park. But then came “Blood Normal” and Billie. “Blood Normal” by hygiene company Libresse broke ground as the first campaign to show actual period blood. Billie similarly changed the game by creating the first razor campaign for women featuring actual body hair. And people loved it. “Blood Normal” won the coveted Glass Lion for Change Grand Prix at Cannes and Billie has grown to be a successful brand with 278k followers on Instagram.

By portraying women in nontraditional but relatable ways, brands like Libresse and Billie have managed to both diversify female representation and gain a loyal following of customers.

 

Women Want Brands to Play a Role In the Conversation on Social Issues and Gender

In the era of social media, brand accountability, and virtual boycotts, we are seeing more women putting pressure on brands to speak up on social issues. When the Black Lives Matter protests surged in spring 2020, numerous brands spoke out on the topic of racial justice. But for many internet users, these efforts — many of which took the form of social media posts — didn’t go far enough.

Examples of real comments posted on one popular fashion brand’s 2020 posts:

“If you just posted a square, you’re performative!”

“What steps have you implemented to date?”

“So this was a lie.”

“I’m so sad to hear all this and will no longer support [brand name]. I’ve been a diehard fan for so long. I will never stand for a brand that would allow, at any capacity, racial profiling.”

This brand has over 4 million followers on Instagram. And it’s just one of many brands we saw called out in 2020 for their social media responses to current events.

We’re also hearing women say they want brands to contribute more directly to the conversation on gender. A women who works in the industry told us:

I want to see more men wondering what detergent to use and more women thinking about what kind of cool car to drive. In my own relationship, my husband is very concerned about dishwasher liquid (really) and I want to drive a slick fast car on an open road. Life is changing, roles are changing, and all I'm asking is to see that reflected. Big brands especially have so much power to normalize and destigmatize.

Another important step in joining this conversation is amplifying female voices at brands and agencies. It’s not just about hiring more women, but also promoting them to management and leadership positions.

When The 3% Movement was founded in 2012, only 3% of all US Creative Directors were women. The organization has since helped push that number to 29% today — an amazing increase, but still not close to 50%.

Promoting women to leadership positions adds diverse perspectives to our teams and brings more female insights into how women want to be represented.

 

How To Give Women What They Want

There are so many ways organizations can tailor their branding, advertising, and marketing efforts to better address the desires and expectations of women. They can engage with the conversation on social issues and gender, complexify female roles in their campaigns, and offer more diverse and intersectional representations of women across the board. They can also enrich their internal teams by hiring women, and promoting them to leadership roles.

The goal isn’t for every brand to try and address all the desires of every woman on the planet, but to make efforts day by day where you can. For example, if parents make up a large percentage of your target audience, you might consider how to bring intersectional, complex representations of moms to your ads. Think of where it makes sense to engage authentically with your customers.

Insights from Women Who Work in the Industry

To get a better idea of how the marketing and advertising industry is currently addressing female wants and expectations from the inside, we interviewed some of the women we know. The responses below come from people who have worked as interns, freelancers, and full-timers — at agencies and in-house — with experience ranging from 3-10+ years in the industry.

Q: What do you want from the ads and marketing tactics you see in the world?

A: “I would like to see more representation throughout ad campaigns. It would be nice to see people who look like me and the people around me, and not just the same famous people.”

“I've seen companies attempt to be more socially aware (or "woke," if you will) but sometimes it backfires. I want advertisers to stop trying so hard in their marketing tactics or do a better job of reading the room.”

“I always respond to authenticity, self-awareness and especially humor — the Ok Cupid "DTF” campaign is a great example. As a consumer, I do not respond well to feeling shamed or condescended to.”

“I want to see all types of women doing all types of things. I also would love for brands to call out censorship, double-standards, or gender roadblocks in their ads directly.”

 

Q: What are your expectations for the campaigns you yourself put out in the world?

 

A: “To cast women in unexpected roles. Conversely, to not only show moms as
caretakers and nurturers.”

“I do my best to make people think about the thing we're advertising in a new way, whether that means showing them a way our product can add something new and positive to their lives, or just causing them to stop and laugh at an interesting image or headline. I also feel a pretty heavy responsibility not to add to any of the toxic stereotypes or standards that we're all — but especially women — constantly bombarded with.”

“What an incredible responsibility we play as women in the biz. It's frustrating to see
the same narrative about the same woman over and over. And it's a true challenge
to bend that narrative into one that's more truthful of our experiences. But it's a fight
worth fighting, and I think having women in leadership roles in advertising is greatly
improving this issue.”

 

Q: How are women portrayed in advertising? Do you predict this changing in the upcoming year?

 

A: “Over the past ten or twenty years, we've gone from a total proliferation of the same cookie-cutter image to the slow, incremental appearance of more diverse, ‘real’ images of women. As we've seen more and more brands jump on that bandwagon, I can't help but feel a little cynical. Pop feminism and ‘girl power’ have become just another sales tool... it's still so much about making women feel like they need things to be fully realized. It's just gone from, ‘Buy this product and you'll be beautiful’ to, ‘Buy this product and you'll be empowered.’”

“My wife and I have both been hyper-aware of the significant increase of interracial couples featured in ads, which is very exciting. For 2021, I'd love to see more of this, and a lot more queer women of all races, ages, body shapes, and ethnicities. I have seen lesbian couples here and there, but I haven't seen many lesbian parents.”

“I think there's still an absence of women who are 40+ in the advertising I see. Middle age isn't what it used to be and it would be great to see the modern, mature woman portrayed more in advertising that is not related to medications.”

“One thing I hope would change is the Instagram fad of everyone looking like a Kardashian. Influencers are such a huge part of advertising, and we know how harmful those unrealistic depictions of beauty can be.”

“For the most part women have been either hyper-sexualized or seen as arm-candy to sell a product. There are more conversations and actions happening in recent years to represent women in less hyper-sexualized roles. On the other hand, I do not have a problem with women being portrayed sexually. Especially in fashion and art. I think there has to be care in not being over-sexualized, where the woman then becomes an object of desire.”

 

Q: Do you feel satisfied with how you see women represented in advertising today?

 

A: “Satisfied would sound like there is not room for improvement. I think it’s much better than it was 10 years ago and hope it keeps evolving.”

“One thing that bothers me about the way Black women are represented in advertising today is that there is still a bias toward light-skinned Black women or women who look mixed race. Obviously this is an old issue, but it still persists and needs to change.”

“I think so… It is encouraging to see women of all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, and identities in ads these days… depicted as funny, strong, silly, beautiful, smart, and all of the ways you can be depicted. However, I do think we still need to come up with more ways to flip the script.”

“I don’t know if I’m satisfied with how women are represented in advertising yet. I think having more women in advertising and higher positions would change the outcome of some campaigns. There can’t be representation properly done without real women’s voices.”

Q: How does it feel to be a woman working in this industry?


A: “I’ve been fortunate to work in an environment where I haven’t felt treated differently for being a woman.”

“A lot of days I don't think about it too much, but it probably informs everything I do.”

“There’s always room for improvement. There's no better time to be a woman in history than today, and hopefully thirty years down the line, a woman will say the same thing. We should always be striving for better.”

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Lessons from Dr. Pooja Lakshmin on Burnout & Boundaries

Last week I had the opportunity to attend Ad Club’s Women’s Leadership Forum. It was inspiring to hear so many accomplished women share their knowledge and experiences with us. As a young female professional, early on in the grand scheme of my career, it was refreshing to hear about a topic nearly everyone is impacted by but few speak about: burnout. The session, poetically called The Betrayal of Burnout, was led by Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist and author specializing in women’s mental health.   Burnout is a word that feels all too familiar to many of us — especially in this past year and a half during the pandemic, where it’s been challenging to separate work life from home life when they are taking place in the same space. Dr. Lakshmin poignantly suggested the term ‘burnout’ itself exonerates a system that does not do enough to support mental health, working parents, or child care. According to Dr. Lakshmin, the most frequent response to an individual expressing burnout is “Are you going to therapy?”, or “Are you doing self-care?”. This, she claims, places the burden of responsibility onto the person, and not onto a system that is evidently flawed. Faux self-care practices like yoga, meditation and spa retreats will not solve the problems that come with burnout. Those are privileged solutions that many people do not have access to, and oftentimes are not long-term solutions. The only thing that worked for her was learning how to say no and setting proper boundaries. Below are a few important lessons that Dr. Lakshmin shared to help women set boundaries in their professional lives. The outcome? Increases in quality of work and client satisfaction are just a few of the benefits that stem from women in the workplace setting boundaries and avoiding burnout. No one is going to make the choices for you and your best interest — you must make those for yourself.  As women, Dr. Lakshmin says, we tend to put ourselves last. She warns that getting into a “martyr mode” comes with a cost. In order to truly prioritize your mental health, you need to make space for yourself. Whether it’s setting your Slack status to “Away” to take that midday walk that gives you a mental reprieve, or declining to take on a new project that would strain your already tight bandwidth  — these are the decisions we can make for our own mental health that help make us more focused while we are working and more easily unplug when we aren’t. Communicate your priorities to the people in your life.  Dr. Lakshmin encourages women to decide what your values are in your current season of life. Different seasons bring different priorities. Some seasons, she suggests, are for prioritizing your family, and some are for your professional work. You can communicate those to the people in your life. For example, if it’s important to you to have dinner with your family, then let your colleagues and clients know that you’ll be offline at 6pm. Setting those expectations creates clear boundaries your team and clients can respect. Sharing these priorities also humanizes us and can encourage our team and clients to do the same, creating a more empathetic workplace for all.  Feeling guilt does not mean you’re making the wrong choice.  Dr. Lakshmin recognizes that sometimes when we set boundaries as women, we feel a sense of guilt for putting ourselves first. In a society that conditions women to be the caretakers, this is an all too common reaction. She instead offers to think of your guilt as a faulty check engine light: just because you feel guilty does not mean something is wrong or that you’re making the wrong choice. Reframe it as building up your muscle to tolerate self-care.  Most importantly, Dr. Lakshmin reiterates, when you’re feeling burnt out, try to remind yourself this is a systemic issue. This is not something that we as women are creating for ourselves; instead, we are simply reacting to it. We must remember self-care is a verb, not a noun, and the real work is internal. We need to get our feelings out in a trusted space whether that’s with our partner, mentor, or friend. Holding those feelings inside will only work against us. Just like Dr. Lakshmin, when you take the risk to advocate for what you need and want in the workplace, you're empowering the women that are coming behind you as well as making yourself a better employee and partner to your clients. 

Most Popular House Plants Based On Search

We have all had different coping mechanisms since the pandemic began. Stuck inside, many of us realized how lifeless our living spaces were. Some of us opted to adopt a living, breathing, loveable dog (see Sean Adams’ article on the top quarantine pooches), but for many who were not ready to take that plunge – we chose another way to bring life inside. Yes, I’m talking about houseplants. Houseplants became a newfound passion for many during their days in quarantine, and existing plant parents only seemed to expand their brood. Time seemingly has ground to a halt for the past year, and new leaves on my plants remain one of the only ways I am convinced that any time has passed at all.  To a pedestrian, keeping a plant alive may seem like child’s play. However as many of us new plant enthusiasts have learned, it is anything but. Many plants are sensitive, needy, and dare I say dramatic (looking at you, polka-dot plant!). As always when in doubt about really anything at all, troubled Americans turned to Google for help in their plant-parenting journey. THE MOST POPULAR INDOOR PLANT DURING THE PANDEMIC: BATTLE OF THE PLANTS We pulled historical data for the most searched houseplant keywords to see if the supposed quarantine plant craze is real (it is), and after that we set out to determine the ultimate pandemic plant. What was the most popular indoor plant during quarantine? Read on, reader. N.B. We have done our best to account for data related to Seth Rogan’s new business “Houseplant”   First, to prove I am completely normal for acquiring over thirty plants since last March, we looked at thousands of the most searched queries for the past several years that contained the phrase “houseplant” or “house plant” (yes, it makes a difference to Google). You can see plants were enjoying some popularity in 2019, but their moment in the sun truly arrived right as quarantine began. They saw some drop off over the winter, but are on the rise again this spring. This may be because plants don’t do as great in the winter, or because this winter was particularly depressing and we could all barely take care of ourselves, let alone our plants. All in all, house plant queries increased 97% between February and May 2020, when they began to total over half a million searches per month.  So, lots of folks decided that watching plants grow was more entertaining than anything else they were doing. Any millennial could have told you that. We wanted more; we wanted to know the absolute hottest quarantine plant. We wanted to know, if put to the test, who would prevail in a(n epic) battle of the plants? MOST POPULAR HOUSE PLANTS To start our investigation, we first gathered a list of common houseplants and plugged them into our search listening tools to find out the most searched plant types. We didn’t stop there, because we wanted to know not only the most Googled house plants in general, but the one that saw the biggest spike in popularity during quarantine. Of our list of 60+ common plants, the only one that did not see an increase in search interest between March and May of 2020 was aloe vera (go figure).  The most searched overall during May of 2020 -- the height of the plant craze -- was lily of the valley, followed by orchid and snake plant.      HIGHEST QUARANTINE SEARCH INTEREST   When we looked at which plant had the most dramatic change of search volume from the pandemic, certain plants stood out.        Although searches for lily of the valley skyrocketed during quarantine (+307% from March to May!), other plants made it out better with sustained interest post-spike. Notably, snake plants (+124%) and philodendrons (+124%) have held onto their newfound popularity quite well. Begonias (+233%) and hostas (+307%) and the lily of the valley both enjoyed lots of spring interest, but searches fell off in the winter. Today, they are rising once again to easily beat 2019 numbers.  Why are people searching for these particular plants? We took a deeper dive to see what questions people ask Google about their photosynthesizing friends.   ARE LILY OF THE VALLEY POISONOUS? You may be asking yourself: How cool even is lily of the valley? In short, it’s cute, smells good and will bloom in the off season if you keep it inside. Sounds good on the surface level, but we found there may be a dark side to this sweet lil’ plant.  https://s7d1.scene7.com/is/image/terrain/53318663_000_a?$zoom2$    It turns out the most searched question related to Lily of the Valley did not have to do with their soil preferences or water schedule. Instead, searchers wanted to know: Are lily of the valley poisonous? (yikes!) Well, are they? Yes! 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Adjust accordingly, but a snake plant really only needs to be watered once every two weeks. Make sure you give it a good drink!    https://www.thespruce.com/thmb/3ZzeafMMYBupme3O5dodMz3uoxI=/2048x1545/filters:no_upscale():max_bytes(150000):strip_icc()/snake-plant-care-overview-1902772-04-3f69d04885af4613bf2eda197704fe20.jpg    HOW TO GROW BEGONIAS?  Begonias are hideous (I said it) yet still somehow achieved huge popularity during the initial months of quarantine. Yes, they have beautiful flowers. Yes, they come in a huge variety of size and shape. However, if you aren’t ready to wait for it to bloom (could be years if you are a mediocre plant parent), you’re gonna get real sick of looking at those misshapen crinkly hunks of leaves. Trust me.    https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/91awtOV4jTL._AC_SL1500_.jpg They happen to look pretty cool in this picture.   Popular questions searched about begonias are quite innocuous compared to the deathly lily of the valley. 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Anywhere a leaf grows out of is the magic spot that needs to come with your new plant cutting so it will grow new roots and can be healthy by the time you gift it as a thoughtful housewarming present to your friend. Once you’ve secured a chunk of plant that includes a node, it will have to be placed in soil or water until it grows those oh-so-important root systems. Usually after a few weeks your plant cutting will grow roots and can be replanted!   SO WHO WON THE BATTLE OF THE PLANTS? We officially decree a tie between lily of the valley and snake plants as the ultimate champions of quarantine plant battle. Although lily of the valley had stronger overall interest during the height of the plant craze, the snake plant has managed to hold on tight to its increased popularity and benefitted the most from our collective suffering. Essentially, the winners are “poison” and “an outdated joke about mothers in law.” Congratulations! Now, only one question remains: will these two plants reign supreme in 2021? We’ll have to wait and see.   A BIT ABOUT AMP SEO Every day, there are 3.5 billion Google searches about everything under the sun (including plants). Google is everyones’ most trusted adviser, strategist, and confidant. To know what people search for is to know their true concerns. After all, why would you lie to Google? And if enough people search for the same thing, our search listening tools can pick it up, and we can analyze the inner workings of American minds. By utilizing our Search Intelligence services, AMP can help you unlock a trove of valuable market intelligence data sourced directly from the Google queries of your customers. If you have an interest in analyzing search data to drive brand & business decisions or in monitoring search data on an ongoing basis for up-to-date audience insights, you may want to learn more about our SEO agency services.

Takeaways from The 2021 Women's Leadership Forum

On the eve of AMP’s quarterly mental health office closure, a group of AMP’s female associates virtually gathered to attend 2021 The Women’s Leadership Forum hosted by Ad Club. The tagline of this year’s event, Nevertheless, She Persisted, was a foreshadowing of the primary theme throughout each session: persistence. By extension, this stands out as a reflection of an AMP core value: growth.  Fighting Invisibility   Gender and ethnicity also served as contextual backdrops for the stories told within each session. Award-winning author Gish Jen discussed her experience of becoming a novelist as an Asian American woman and the outside responses this frequently evoked. Being questioned as to why she wasn’t writing stories set in China was a common occurrence for Jen, and she explained that experiences like these often leave Asian Americans feeling invisible. But instead of playing the role of “professional victim”, as Jen puts it, she chose to stand her ground. Her decided response: “Do Asians write about these topics? They do now.”    Making Intentional Choices  This notion of choice recurred throughout several sessions, with speakers explaining that having intentional responses to negative situations has profoundly shaped their journeys. Former NWHL Player & Pro Scout Blake Bolden owns that her successes have always come from the choices that she’s made. Growing up as a Black female, she had to rely largely on herself to make these choices as the sport lacked other Black females whom she could look up to. Now, Bolden is able to be that role model for other young women. “When you decide to wake up an choose to be better every single day, you’re not just making in an impact on yourself, but you could also be making an impact on someone else,” she noted while retelling the story of meeting a young Black girl who’d been inspired by Holden to play hockey. It was then that Holden realized she wasn’t just playing for herself, she was also playing for the people that she inspires. “You always have an option to choose,” she says.    Being Kind To Yourself  That said, getting better every day doesn’t mean working around-the-clock and ignoring burnout. To visual artist Nancy Floyd, giving herself permission to reflect and reset has allowed her to rediscover her passion for artistic endeavors that she’s become disinterred in. “Take baby steps,” she advises. “You don’t want to work out? Drive to the gym, and if you still don’t want to work out, drive home.” While she certainly isn’t a procrastinator, self-forgiveness and kind inner talk live at the center of Floyd’s creative process.    Staying The Course  During another session led by Wendy Ong, U.S. President of TaP Music & TaP records, listeners learned about her unconventional journey from a small apartment in Singapore to leading record labels and discovering top talent in the U.S. After moving to the U.S. with her then-husband, Ong did everything she could to land a job in the music industry, including blindly knocking on doors at record companies in NYC. After finally breaking into the scene, Ong experienced several years of success before a particularly disheartening experience at a label that left her wanting to quit the industry and return to Singapore. With the encouragement of her parents, she decided to keep marching towards her dreams. Now, as the President of a major U.S. record label, paving the way for other young women in the industry has become one of her primary passions. Noting that she wouldn’t want others to face the same struggles, she goes out of her way to “dust off the path for others so they can start their journey a little easier”.    Becoming Unstoppable  Each of these women come from vastly different backgrounds. Unwaveringly, though, throughout their stories we are met first with persistence and then with growth. We quickly learn that when determination is combined with intentional choices, self-forgiveness and the understanding that actions can lead to positive change for not just the person taking action but others who look up to them as well, we become unstoppable.