When it comes to tales of New Yorker ambition, the female factor is hard to deny. I mean, what would you expect from a city whose most recognizable icon is Lady Liberty? I had the chance to speak with three women who are currently killing it on some of the City’s biggest stages to see what the “A word” means to them. And for more stories of women in high places, check out Madam Secretary, premiering Sunday, September 21 after 60 Minutes.
Down at Tweed Court House across from City Hall, there’s a game changer in the mix and her name is Iris Chen. She’s part of the largest wave of women appointments to city government in New York history. “I believe everybody has a super power — a unique talent or passion,” the new executive director of The Fund for Public Schools declared firmly over the telephone. “It’s not ours to keep or ours to hoard — it’s ours to fully deploy. I think we should always ask ourselves: ‘Am I deploying my own super power to have the biggest impact on the world?’”
Chen, a former Brooklyn public school teacher, had already done what teachers do best: she got me thinking.
Having most recently run an educational startup, Chen has also served as an executive at Teach For America and was formerly CEO and President of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation. Now she has taken on the top fundraising job for the New York City Department of Education, leading an office that has raised anywhere from $20 million to more than $40 million a year to support the city’s students and schools. We talked about the administration’s focus on bringing system-wide innovations to the City’s Education Department starting with free, high-quality Pre-K for every 4-year-old in New York and her aspiration to get every New Yorker engaged in supporting our city’s students. With the development and care of 1.1 million school kids at stake, she’s readying to impact the five boroughs in person and on the ground. “I don’t love the word ‘ambition.’ I never have,” she shares. “When young people come and ask me for career advice, talking about their ambitions and all they want to achieve, I try to reframe it. The important question is not what you will achieve, but what you will contribute. Some of the greatest leaders I know approach their lives that way.”
So, is ambition a dirty word? “Not in New York. No, not at all,” says Daily Worth founder Amanda Steinberg. Daily Worth, a leading financial media company for women headquartered at 25 Broadway in Manhattan, has over 900,000 subscribers and a bold motto: “It’s your life, own it.” I first met Steinberg for a drink at The W hotel in Midtown after the launch of my book, The Seven Pearls of Financial Wisdom: A Woman’s Guide to Enjoying Wealth and Power. Steinberg is, at her core, still a techy. She’s an engineer by training, and interested in startups, in other women, and getting it done. “It’s funny, I was just born ambitious,” says Steinberg. “I was born leaning in at a 70-degree angle. In New York, you have to create yourself as larger than life because everybody is larger than life.”
That’s probably why you can almost smell the ambition rolling off New York women like a fierce perfume, and floating out of the doorways around Madison Avenue. One of those doorways is Bistro Chat Noir, a restaurant launched during the recession by Suzanne Latapie. In a business space dominated by men, and where fine dining locations open and shut like a revolving door on the Upper East Side, Latapie is victorious. “I always say that women make reservations, men just follow,” she tells me, laughing. “So if there is a yummy health beat to the menu, it’s a good thing.”
Bistro Chat Noir’s décor, art, and food design exudes a low-key French elegance mixed with an American’s warm approach to welcoming the day’s guests. And catering to a calorie conscious salad, fish, and veggie eating set, it is shining just as brightly as its star clientele. “Last week we had Chelsea Clinton. Two days later we had Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt. When Madonna reserved, she wanted a table in the rear, pre-selected the wine, and had her assistant call and confirm menu choices. When she arrived, we quickly escorted her to the table, and made sure service was invisibly seamless.”
But success didn’t just waltz through Suzanne’s door like so many celebs now do. Getting her hands dirty was a prerequisite, and in earlier days, she sometimes acted as host, waitress, bartender and busboy all at once. “I often channeled my inner Scarlet O’Hara,” Suzanne declares excitedly. “Hey, she literally ripped down the curtains and made herself a dress. Never let them see you sweat!”
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