Why This CEO Isn’t Afraid Of Being Assertive, Even When Called A “Bitch”

By Annie Liao Jones

It’s widely acknowledged that men and women can do the same exact thing and elicit totally different reactions. The traits that make a man a “perfectionist” are seen as “bossy” in a woman. An assertive man is praised. A “bitchy” woman might have the same traits but now they’re seen as a negative.

I’m a female CEO of a highly praised branding and marketing firm, but I never wanted to be seen as successful as a woman or as a minority. I want to be treated the same as my peers, which means being thoughtful, forceful, and determined. You don’t have to be a different kind of leader just because you don’t fit the classical description one.

So how can a woman show confidence and strength without being dismissed as nothing more than a stone cold bitch? It’ll make a lot more sense if I start from the very beginning. 

I was born an outsider. First generation of Taiwanese immigrants, I was born in Dallas and grew up in Plano, Texas. Being different from the other kids made me more observant. Being an outsider gives you something unique: a totally different viewpoint on life. 

I clearly remember my first ‘aha, you’re not normal’ moment. I’d just woken up and realized all my decisions were easily and innately heart over head, while everyone else relied on this thing called logic. I didn’t respect logic. I respected wisdom. I respected soul (which now is called authenticity), and I respected people that didn’t care what other people thought. 

The other ‘aha, you’re really, really, not normal’ moment in life came when I would ask my parents to drop me off at the mall at 10am and they’d pick me up at 4 pm. Did I shop? No. But did I pick out people who made me curious and follow them around? Today it might be called stalking, but back then I’d follow these eccentric, really rich blue blood grandmas around to see what they bought. Anyone who stuck out to me, I just really wanted to see what they bought.

Fast forward to my early twenties. Life was supposed to be chill. Since I was a kid, I just wanted to grow up and I dreamt of what I’d prove to them career-wise. I never had the “white picket fence” dreams. I had the “independence” dreams. But it was never about gender, it was about competing with myself and as the first born, probably having something to prove to my dad when I got lectured about having a ‘safe job’ with a 401k. Even worse, he’d had to do the opposite: risked it all and moved to another country to give me a better life and ended up building his own luggage empire. Move fast and break things? That was my philosophy when I was born. 

I fell into business development accidentally, needing to pay half the rent on a house I shared with my college boyfriend. This is always a mistake. What’s funny is now, as the owner of an Austin-based branding agency, I judge recruits on whether they’re at the table for a paycheck, or if it’s because they love what they do. I’d rather hire a less experienced person who is passionate and curious about the world––genuine dreamers that can execute.

But back then, I was one of those that just needed a paycheck. Being young and fearless, I found out that I LOVED cold calling. I actually in year two got 9 out of 10 people to call me back. With the average commercial printing job being $2500, I sold $2 million my second year in sales. Now everyone wanted to pick my brain. No one could believe I left voicemails. No one believes I didn’t have collateral to leave behind. Prospects just knew I really cared. Not because I was perfect, but because of the way I handled problems when they arose.

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I fought for them, and I fought for what was right and fair. I knew then why my boss was so shocked that I didn’t do business card quotes, that I asked him to mark my quotes up – early on I knew how to take price off the table. Everything I do and practice now have entire words for it. Today it’s called ‘relationship selling’. I stayed there for seven years because I knew if I left other people’s jobs, the people in production who helped me deliver, might be let go. I stayed there because I was loyal to my boss, who took a huge risk on an unknown like me that had no sales experience.

Finally, I had an existential crisis. I looked around the room and couldn’t imagine being there forever. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere forever. I chucked my cell phone out of my car and headed to Marfa for a two-week meltdown. In my gut I had to go through it to get to the other side, and I wanted to get it over with. Did I mention my problem with patience? It’s an overrated virtue.

In July 2009, with my daughter only two months old, I filed as a sole proprietor. I used my savings to start an advertising agency. My favorite clients were my agency clients when I sold print (back in the heyday of specialty stock and annual reports). I had to prove to myself that I could do this, so I kept my head down and met with someone that would change my life trajectory (work and life are the same to me). David Davenport, the head of the largest food bank in Texas and maybe in the country took a chance on me to build an iPad app for brand awareness. In 2009, any kind of iOS App was cutting edge, so it wasn’t exactly the easiest first move of a fledgling agency. 

I somehow created a team in Argentina to build an app that uses what is now called ‘gamification’. The day it went live on the app store, crickets. Then one random day two months later my twitter feed was just blowing up. Like, massively. Our app was rated that day as the number one non-profit app in the whole country. 

Like I said, totally unprepared, when I received the Digital Innovator Award by Austin Woman Magazine: I would not have started my business if I wasn’t young and dumb. I had no Plan B. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t have a business plan. I didn’t see the point of not just getting to work. In hindsight, when you know too much the fear can hinder you from taking the kind of risks you have to as a business owner. I call it ‘jumping off a cliff and just trusting in the universe.’ Now, as I come upon my 10 year anniversary in June, we have heavily pivoted into a full-blown growth agency.  

I like to think as an outsider, I had this innate understanding of what people wanted. I built my agency on brand messaging and content strategy. It exhausts me to be fake. In any way. I knew like attracted like, and as a child of Buddhists I didn’t believe in an afterlife. It was now or never and cubicle life was not living to me. People can do this and live happy, meaningful lives but for me I can’t separate the two. I knew if my brand represented me (which is now called brand authority), I would attract like-minded people. Well today I ask prospects why they wanted to meet with me. I’ve heard, “I’m an outlier too.” I’ve heard, “I like your cockiness and irreverence.” Well I own it. That’s me to a T. 

You want to know the first time I thought about gender or race? One, when a client mentioned that a friend we knew in common said, “I’m not aggressive like Annie”. Next it was a client whose mission was empowering women with self-confidence. I came back from vacation and my managing partner said the client wanted to know how many women I’ve employed. I was in shock, then proud, that I had NEVER once thought of it. I was also disappointed. Now I was being pigeonholed as a female business owner… by a female business owner. I want to be known as a hard-working business owner. My employees know my trigger is when someone makes me feel or aware than I’m a female business owner. I do suspect I have to work ten times harder to get the respect from a male business owner, but that motivates me too.  

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When I’m dealing with collections, I have to ask myself, “would they bully or try to negotiate like this with a man?” The truth is, by creating a brand that is all me, I don’t attract the types that don’t like aggressive women. In fact, I get referred to as ‘hyper-aggressive’ as a good thing by venture capitalists, CEO’s, and other business owners. 

I don’t get why the words ‘aggressive’ and ‘bitch’ go together. I’m aware I live in a bubble I’ve created, but if aggressive means that I’m a bitch, then I’m a bitch. I don’t have time to waste on haters that can only attack you online. I have no respect for that. When I say ‘Man Up’, I don’t mean it by gender. We are letting society define us, instead of us defining who we are regardless. If you meet someone that associates aggressive with bitch, just know they are projecting their own insecurities onto you.

That is their problem, not yours. For me, female empowerment means ignoring everyone and doing your own thing, and respecting other peoples’ choices. It’s not about being special in any way. The most detrimental and dangerous clients are the insecure ones. In life you want to avoid them, as if they think you’re a bitch for being aggressive, they’re also very likely to be passive aggressive. And passive aggression is the most abusive kind of aggression as I learned in my psychology classes at The University of Austin. 

Long story short, I’m proud to be called aggressive. That means I don’t give up. And damn straight I don’t. There is always a way, and I don’t lose. If that means I’m a bitch, then I’m a proud one. Names don’t hurt you unless you let them. Don’t let those people get in the way. You’ll only hurt yourself.

So how do you avoid being called a bitch while being a badass?

  • Be authentic. Be true to your mission. People can sense the difference between someone who’s driven and someone who’s posturing.
  • If you do the first step, you should attract people who are inherently not put off your assertiveness. If you aren’t yet in a leadership position, you need to seek out allies who won’t put you down for your gender.
  • Last, and most importantly, don’t waste your time and energy on the misogynists who would think less of you because you have a heartfelt convictions and a strong will.

Annie Liao Jones is the Founder & CEO of Rock Candy Media, an advertising agency in Austin, Texas that  has become one of the fastest-growing businesses in Central Texas. Under Annie’s leadership, the full-service content strategy, design, messaging, branding firm and growth agency went from the ground up to grossing over 7 figures a year.

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