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WomanOf the Month 9-03: Geraldine Laybourne

She’s a new grandmother and the chairman and CEO of Oxygen Media, a 24-hour cable television network for women. But when Geraldine Laybourne sought a footing in the business world some 30 years ago she had few role models to look to beyond her own grandmother, Emma, a pioneer in North Dakota who founded a seed potato company, and her mother, a pioneer in community building. As it turns out, those two antecedents were enough.

"My grandmother was tough as nails, but people thought it was great working for her. And my mother was one of the most gifted people I knew. She made sure her daughters knew how important it was to make a difference, and to be economically independent, " said Laybourne at a Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce Athena Award ceremony. The award recognizes individuals who have inspired others with exceptional professional achievement and community service while assisting women.

Laybourne spent 16 years through the ‘80s and early ‘90s at Nickelodeon, assuming management of the network in 1984. She founded Oxygen Media in 1998 along with Oprah Winfrey, Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach. She has been widely recognized for her influence in and contribution to broadcasting, having received the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s award for Distinguished Lifetime Contribution to Children and Television, among many other honors.

When Laybourne entered the cable industry, she noted that it was "looked down on as the lowest of the low." On the plus side, however, no old boys’ network existed, which opened up opportunity for women. "Noone wanted my job," laughed Laybourne. Success was based on performance.

At that time career self-help books for women generally suggested they dress like men, wearing little ties with their business suits, and talk in sports metaphors. Laybourne credits her boss for saying, "I don’t know anything about sports—I want you to be who you are."

As for customer service, Laybourne suggested there’s no better teacher than a two-year-old, and she has learned the lessons well.

Today women should take advantage of their differences from men, Langbourne said. To an appreciative audience, she pointed out some of the key distinguishing features:

  • Women understand the value of relationships and teambuilding. Men love it when they win, because someone else loses. Women want everyone to win. They like a collaborative process.
  • Women’s brain structure has 12% more space in the prefrontal cortex, allowing them to hold multiple thoughts and switch from one topic to another with ease.
  • Making money is usually not enough for women. They want a greater purpose.
  • Women are good at coaching, listening and empowering.

"Here’s what holds us back," said Laybourne.

  • Women are not as successful at being decisive and planning. They are also poor at "tooting their own horn." They don’t make sure they get credit for their accomplishments.
  • "We weigh decisions too much—we’re so careful and we could make quicker decisions."
  • "We don’t get over it very well when things don’t go our way. I try to take my Aunt Dorothy’s lesson to heart: Don’t get mad, get funny."
  • "We don’t play enough—we’re too directed. Younger women are better at this—they don’t have such a chip on their shoulders."

One of the most significant frontiers for women continues to be access to capital, noted Laybourne. "When I left Disney to raise money for Oxygen, I raised $600 million. I did it because I could. And that was the first time women had owned and operated a television network."

Last year Oxygen asked women to send in business plans and received 12,000 entries. Oxygen has funded some of them and a show in March 2004 will track some of the businesses’ efforts.

What is Laybourne’s hope for women in the future? She hopes they will never have to "shrink to fit." And maintaining her playful streak, she noted, "During my granddaughter’s lifetime, I hope that mediocre women will be the heads of companies."