Succeeding in business and in life as a woman is a challenge and many women, especially women of color, have sacrificed relationships and interests, personal growth, and their health to advance their careers.
Aster Angagaw is an Ethiopian-American Black woman, who put herself through college and then eventually became CEO of Healthcare North America at Sodexo and then President of ServiceMaster Brands, which are both multibillion-dollar companies.
We Are So Much More is a book that features 18 other remarkable female executives across 10 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. This book integrates these amazing stories, including Aster’s own, and then distills their collected global wisdom around seven essential dimensions that hold the key to having it all, across countries, class, and color. When we live with intention we are so much more. Here is my conversation with Aster.
This is the Author Hour Podcast. I am your host Benji Block. Today, we are thrilled to be joined by Aster Angagaw. She just authored a new book. The book is titled We Are So Much More: Integrating the Seven Dimensions of Success for Women Leaders To Thrive at Work and in Life. Aster, we are so glad to have you here on the show today.
Aster Angagaw: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
Benji Block: Absolutely. For listeners who may be new to you and your work, you are doing some amazing things. I’d love for you to just tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Aster Angagaw: I am originally from Ethiopia; I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I came in the US in December ‘82 to go to school. I have had the pleasure of living here and going to school and then later working. I am married; I have a daughter who is 24 years old. That’s just in short, that’s who I am.
Benji Block: Awesome. Well, you list your mom as the actually the prime inspiration, [the] reason for this book now existing. I wonder if maybe we start there and just talk about what led to the writing of this book and what your mom meant to you in this whole process?
Aster Angagaw: My mother has been an incredible inspiration to me. Just watching her growing up and handle so many different life situations so gracefully and still be able to live a somewhat fulfilled life. I didn’t realize how deliberate and intentional she was about her life until I started writing this book.
I understood the challenges she was facing. She had 10 children, in the middle of it she lost her husband, not — he didn’t die, but he was arrested for political reasons in the 1974 Revolution in Ethiopia. She was able to raise us all through all that and still be such an incredible inspiration to me, my friends, our neighbors, and to her friends as well. I thought if she could live a fulfilled life in the midst of her struggles, we should all be able to live a life like that. I’ve always aspired to be more deliberate and intentional about my life and have, also, wanted to make sure I leverage the opportunities and the privileges I was given due to her efforts and really be able to share the learnings I have gained from my life with others. I’ve always been in awe of other women who have succeeded despite everything else that was happening in their lives, and have been focused on learning about them. That’s why I wanted to include more women in the book. I wanted to really elevate and amplify the voice of other women as well.
Empowering and Acknowledging Yourself
Benji Block: That’s amazing. This book is a testament to her legacy and the legacy of so many women that you highlight, and it’s beautiful to read and take in. When you are writing and working on a project like this, who is the person you are thinking about as you are writing? Who is the ideal reader that you want to pick up this book?
Aster Angagaw: It is very funny; I wanted to really be focused on the audience as I was writing the book. I picked my daughter.
Benji Block: That’s amazing. I love that.
Aster Angagaw: I thought, if she wanted to, she would really learn about my mom. I wanted to really pick some sage wisdom from my mom that I would want to share with my daughter. It’s not often you sit down and unload everything you know about your mom or your life to your kids. But when you have an opportunity to tell a story in a book like this — I thought if I could really focus on my daughter, it would serve everybody equally, because I care so much about my daughter, what she learns and what she understands about the world. So, that really helped me a lot.
Benji Block: Did your mom write a lot? Because you quote her at the beginning of every chapter, which I think was a great way of carrying her legacy, but how did those quotes get handed down?
Aster Angagaw: It’s funny, I’ve told you I have nine siblings.
Benji Block: Right.
Aster Angagaw: When we get together, we all say different sayings that she said.
Benji Block: I love that.
Aster Angagaw: We just really passed down orally, nothing was written. My initial intention was to go around and capture all the sayings because you would only remember them when an event or an incident happens that goes with that saying, and when I quietly sit down to write. It’s hard to remember them all.
She has been sharing wisdom and advice by different sayings and all my siblings have many, many of her sayings as a guiding light for their lives.
Benji Block: That’s amazing. Well, let us dive into some of the content that you are covering in this book, and I’d love to just start by providing some context as to where we are regarding women and women of color in the workforce. Sometimes, we hear of progress being made but honestly, reading the stats that you list, the numbers are still very low, right?
Aster Angagaw: Yeah, I think it’s very disappointing. So, since the early 1980s more women have been graduating from college than men. We start out very strong in the workforce around 56%. As we go higher in the ladder, it just dwindles down, right? So, when you get to middle management, your merit goes down, and then when you get to the C-Suite and CEO level, it is near 8%. That has not changed. When you think about the women’s right to vote was 100 years ago, and we’ve been graduating at a higher rate since four years ago. Things are not moving really fast, especially for women of color. The Fortune 500 list started in 1955, so for 66 years, there was only one woman of color, Ursula Burns, as the CEO of a Fortune 500.
Benji Block: Wow.
Aster Angagaw: A Black woman. So, when you think about it, there is a lot of good progress being made but the speed is just really disheartening. My feeling is that, yes, we have to wait for the policymakers, for employers, for all of those who can support us to succeed. But we also have to look within us and try to figure out how to empower ourselves to have the same power. This book is about recognizing, then acknowledging everything we have to do, and our responsibilities, and still figure out a way to live a more fulfilled life and still be successful at work and in life, and that’s really my main message.
Benji Block: Now with Covid, over the course of the last 18 months, soon to be two years, how do you think that has impacted the entire situation? What are we seeing when it comes to women and women of color in work?
Aster Angagaw: It is so disappointing because it took us back, way back and I don’t know how long it would take us to recover from that. As you know, many millions of women have left the workforce or [are] contemplating leaving the workforce. And those women are women who worked really hard to go to school, build their careers and struggled through so many challenges, and then something like this happens and the first choice that families make is, “Okay, why don’t you stay home,” right? So, there are just so many factors for that. One, we really have not created a dynamic balance in our lives that actually help us anchor and push forward when something like this happens. And the other one is, we are often the ones who are underpaid. Our spouses may be making more than us. So, the decision would be, “Okay then, you should stay home and take care of the kids.” Kids [are] not going to school, and I am sure having elderly parents — creates a huge dilemma for women. So, it’s very disappointing what happened during the pandemic. I think we would need to be a lot more deliberate, a lot more intentional as employees and employers to help women get out of this.
Benji Block: Yeah, that’s why I think that this book hits at the perfect time. Because I think it — like you dive into this concept of the Seven Dimensions of Success and it is something that was applicable before Covid hit and everything, but I think it, especially right now, is so important to be talking about. And you’re giving so much hope in this book because you’re outlining the stories of women who really embody these dimensions of success. How did you come into the seven dimensions? How did that solidify in your mind? Was it something that you just saw in all of these women, or was it something you already had the idea of the seven dimensions, and then you kind of went out and these women are examples of that?
Aster Angagaw: I’ve been working on this dynamic balance concept for quite some time. I’m very passionate about women about how balancing — what I realized, that work/life and work/family balance, it really doesn’t represent us in totality. We really need to look at all dimensions and create a dynamic balance within these really key Seven Dimensions. I feel to grow into a leadership role without burning out, I truly believe women must make thoughtful choices that nurtures and integrate the Seven Dimensions. And it’s not just career, but also community, play, grow, self-care and money, and most importantly, purpose.
I honestly feel we need to map out our lives and really think about the things that matter to us. All our needs are very unique so there is really no one formula, but we need to figure out the dynamics that work for us as women, as individuals, and really be anchored around that.
The Seven Dimension Framework
Benji Block: How did you come to landing on highlighting the specific woman that you highlight in this book? Was it hard narrowing down the content?
Aster Angagaw: I came with the framework in mind.
Benji Block: Right.
Aster Angagaw: The Seven Dimension framework. I’ve been exposed to a lot of great women my life and one, during my tenure at Sodexo, there were many great women I worked with. Then when I went to Harvard Business School for advanced management program, I had an opportunity to spend a substantial amount of time with 150 executives from around the world, some of them women, and I was very inspired by those women. So, it’s a combination of women I met in my career, I met in this program and because I held a global view and I came from another country. I really have this global view that I wanted to really understand, and it’s not a single lens. That’s why I interviewed women from five continents, 10 countries to really see the commonalities, and it’s really striking how common our challenges are.
Benji Block: One of the things you talk about— specifically when you’re speaking to career, which is sort of where we start, but I love that you also mentioned purpose and we’re going to get to some of that in a second, but you talk about collecting organizational intelligence. I thought what you said was brilliant so I will just quote you, here you said, “To advance our careers and our lives, we need good information. Sadly, it is often kept from us either by accident or design. To overcome this, women must build deep and strong relationships in the workplace.” How have you seen that take place? I mean, you’re speaking to it, right? What’s happened in your career and building that sort of network, where might one start in establishing that?
Aster Angagaw: I think for me, what worked is really being very curious. It’s not about just the work that you do or your ambition or where you want to get to, but really understanding how an organization works is very important. In order to do that, you find out from others in the organization. You know there are some things that are being publicly traded, companies that are already published and available, but you don’t know the inner workings of the company till you get in and start talking to people at all levels.
So, I would say be curious, build relationships and talk to people. I have always had many alliances in the organization who I honestly asked, being curious about their role and the impact that they make on the organization. And I learned a lot and I collect a lot of information that way. Just collecting that information directs you to subliminally to act in the right way, or in the right direction, and align your goals and your objectives to the culture of the organization. It is very important, especially, to create good relationships with other women. It’s so powerful and totally understated. I’m not saying you should just have a relationship with women; I had many great sponsors, mentors and friends, men and women in organizations. But just be curious and try to learn about others. You learn, you pick up a lot about the organization stuff.
Benji Block: Yeah, along the lines of what you said there at the end, I mean— I’m a white male, so I really enjoyed picking up your book and I suggest that not just women read this, but men read this. How can I best set myself up as an ally and as someone that can help?
Aster Angagaw: So, I would say start reading this book.
Benji Block: It’s a good start.
Aster Angagaw: Start reading this book. It just gives you a little bit of a fuller context. Context is important in this situation. Like you said, you are a white man, you don’t have that experience. How do you understand the experience as a woman? I was just speaking at one event, and the photographer came to me said, “I have a daughter and I would have loved for her to hear this conversation because I never thought there were these many challenges for women in the workplace.” I think it’s important for you, as a white male, to have this conversation, the heart-to-heart conversation, and I think the Seven Dimension framework and the stories of these amazing women would give you the first insight.
Benji Block: One of the things that was very striking reading this book was the power of community. One, because you’re highlighting women all over the world, but also there are so many stories shared about your personal experience and how community played a role in that. Would you highlight maybe a specific way you’ve seen community play a role in your success?
Aster Angagaw: You know, when you are an immigrant coming to this country, you will have many communities. The communities that you come from your family, your friends, your neighbors, your schoolmates… so you have many communities. I think it’s very important to be intentional about the communities you choose to nurture. I had a really amazing women’s book club that I formed and discussed books with for over 10 years. That was such a strong community to really share deeper insights and feelings and contemplations with good friends. I have another community of friends in the Executive Leadership Council which is another community of African American Executives. I have another community, Women Business Collaborative, who are all women. So, just forming and really finding communities where you could really learn and teach and share and participate, I think enhances our lives. Community is not just outside, community is our family, the closest family, our kids, our husbands and sisters, brothers. All of those are strong communities. But we need to be very mindful and deliberate on how we interact. There is only 24 hours in a day, so how do you really integrate the various activities that would allow them to nurture the community side of your life?
Benji Block: Intentional is the keyword because so many of us would say, yeah, we have community or we have friends, but for the life that we want to create it takes intentionality and that’s something that I really took away from your chapters there. Continued growth in a growth mindset is also something you speak to. It’s vital for those looking to set themselves apart. As you think of women that are highlighted in this book, is there may be a story that sticks out to you that is inspiring in this idea of continued learning? Any takeaways as to how we may think about continued growth differently?
Aster Angagaw: Yes, so, as I said, most of the women that I featured in the book came from the advanced management program at Harvard. And these women were already highly successful executives when they came in. I took that class in 2018 and they could have stopped to say, “Hey, I know a lot, I already have learned a lot. I have many experiences, many years of experiences, and I can stop there”, but they didn’t.
Benji Block: Yes.
Aster Angagaw: They figured out a way to intentionally grow, develop themselves, took time out on their busy lives to say, “I really want to learn certain things in a very cohesive way, and that’s why I came to learn.” So, that’s one way of learning. The other one is how do we open ourselves up every day for new information? I think making sure that we are taking in new information is almost a responsibility that we have, but also the quality of information we take in. So, every day, I map out everything that I have to do, but growth is one of them. In what way do I plan to grow today? Is it my conversation with you? Is it listening to podcasts? Or is it reading a book? Or is it specifically understanding a specific topic on the capital market. I don’t know, but do you know what I mean?
Benji Block: Yep, making sure it’s baked into your schedule somehow.
Aster Angagaw: Absolutely.
Finding Balance to Live a Fulfilled Life
Benji Block: Well, I want to look at the future and kind of give you a two-part question as we start to wrap up. The first would be, where do we most need to see change in the coming years? When you’re writing this and you’re thinking about your daughter, where do you think we need to see the most change?
Aster Angagaw: I would say two ways, two things. One is obviously policy. Women— the policies that support women to be successful are clearly critical. And then employers to have to adhere to these policies in supporting women to stay in the workforce is important. But I think most importantly we need to empower ourselves.
Benji Block: Yeah.
Aster Angagaw: We need to really understand what is it that we want to achieve, and I say in my book, we need to start with purpose. I think we need to be anchored with a concept of purpose. What is it that we want to accomplish in life? Because sometimes we just engage in life day to day and time flies.
Then one day you wake up and you realized I’m really not sure what was all that. How did I really package my life? What is it supposed to mean? What am I supposed to achieve? I think really thinking about purpose and looking at our life in totality, I think is really important for women. But then saying, “How am I structured? How am I organized? How am I building my life in a cohesive way?” And most importantly, “Am I living a fulfilled life?” Well, [what] I find in a lot of women executives is [that] we struggle to get to the top. Whatever the top means, right?
Then we get there, and we’re inflicted with a terrible disease; we are completely stressed out and we have not done everything we wanted to do with our family and friends. Is that worth the price? I don’t know. I think really looking at it holistically and having a clear purpose in values and anchoring our activities and ambitions and thoughts around that and creating these Seven Dimension framework that would allow us to make the right choices. So, I would say empowering ourselves is also very important.
Benji Block: Before I get to the second part of the question about the future, I have one follow-up question there. Do you have any rituals as far as anchoring yourself to your purpose that you found to be particularly helpful?
Aster Angagaw: Yes, two things. One is, I really learned to reflect in the past many years. Which is, I get up in the morning and the first thing I do is grab my notebook and really handwrite and think and reflect— because that really helps me— what it is all about and if I am going in the right direction. Was I happy with the day that I had yesterday, and how do I plan my day today? I think that’s really important because that really helps me understand where are the areas I need to do better.
Then having the same thing, the next thing I do is after I reflect, I plan my day and my days are planned around the Seven Dimensions. That way, the purpose is front and center, so I always read it in my progress. Then seeing alignment with my day-to-day activities.
My purpose is to help and inspire others to achieve their highest potential. And I want to be able to say, “Am I growing the right way to be able to take this purpose? What am I doing for that today?” So, “Am I taking care of myself?” I think one of the things that is still the hardest thing to do is self-care. So, I always put that first because I think if you don’t take care of yourself, you are not going to help anybody else. I think writing that out and really filling my calendar with my self-care activities first— always help me, honor me first— and that is really important.
Benji Block: I can say today, you achieved your purpose because I am learning a lot from you.
Aster Angagaw: Thank you.
Benji Block: Thank you for the insight and I think there is a lot of practicality behind what you are sharing to center yourself. Whether it is on journaling or having some of that reflection time, is just so key. If you know where you want to end up, you got to know where you are today.
Aster Angagaw: Exactly.
Benji Block: That’s fantastic. The second part of the question that I have about the future is this, when you look to the future, what provides you with hope and believe that things will change and that things will improve.
Aster Angagaw: I really think there is a groundswell. I somehow feel this time maybe it’s a little different. Because a lot of different things came together. The women’s movement, like I said, had been many years [ago] and not a lot has happened, and I feel we do— policy, companies and people— we give ourselves a lot of self-talk that, in terms of putting it in action, has been really long overdue.
So, I would say there may be a groundswell of focus around women, people of color, the whole social issue, the whole stakeholder discussion around what companies are doing around environmental, social and governance issues. I think all of this coming together, it may keep us at groundswell. Most of all, I really, really hope that we are also looking within ourselves. This whole idea of self-care. When I look at the Seven Dimensions, there has just been a lot of discussion around the various topics for years, right? And self-care is now becoming really important topic. But I think this whole idea of integrating, recognizing and acknowledging who we are as individuals, as women, as women at childbearing age, and women with all the responsibilities that we’ll have to deliver, and figuring out a way to be successful in a way that serves our purpose, I think will be the future. And I am also very hopeful when I see my daughter. I am very hopeful when I see how technology is aiding our ability to have a little bit better balance. When I hear the discussion of flexibility in the workplace that was some of it is pandemic initiated.
So, all of these things may be creating a groundswell that creates a difference. And I also see what happened in 2021 to women of color becoming CEO’s. Early 2021, having a black woman, actually, Walgreens and TI Craft, and then when I see a Vice President— a black woman being Vice President. So, all of this is hope, right? And our girls will be growing up watching these role models which was really lacking. So, I am very hopeful about that.
Benji Block: I love where you find your hope. I think there is a lot there. I hope that it comes at a speed that hasn’t been there the last 100 years. It has been such an honor to discuss this book with you.
Aster, for those who want to connect further, where can people reach out and where could people find you online?
Benji Block: Well, the book is, We Are So Much More: Integrating the Seven Dimensions of Success for Women Leaders To Thrive at Work and in Life.
Aster, thank you for being on Author Hour today. It’s been so great to discuss this book and it’s going to be a great resource for so many.
Aster Angagaw: Thank you so much. Thank you.