“You sound way too educated to play a Native American woman.” Valerie Red-Horse Mohl had encountered such stereotypes before. This wasn’t the first time a white male casting director had dismissed her from an audition because she didn’t fit his narrow vision for how Native Americans should sound, or speak, or act. “Well, I am educated,” she replied, “and I am Native American.” But in the midst of the short argument that ensued, Valerie realized she was fighting a losing battle.
Early in her career, Valerie was often told she wasn’t good enough, and eventually she decided there had to be another path to success. Refusing to concede that she had limited potential, and encouraged by many empowering lessons from her husband, Valerie took bold steps toward the career she knew she could have.
After years of hard work and belief in herself, Valerie has a long list of achievements. Today she owns an investment bank and a filmmaking company; she has developed and sold a lucrative hair and skincare line; she runs several church ministries; she is partnered with Stanford University to launch an entrepreneurial training center for Native Americans and was recently named the Executive Director of the non-profit IC-SVN (an organization focused on social impact investing), all while being a devoted wife and mother.
During our interview, she quipped that when people tell her she’s broken the glass ceiling, she replies, “I never knew there was one.” And she means it. Valerie took all the “Nos” and “You’re-not-good-enoughs” as new opportunities, and she blazed her own trail.
Listening to Valerie share about her life, it’s clear that her early upbringing helped prepare her for the challenges and opportunities life would throw her way. She was raised by a single mother, and although they were very poor, her childhood was rich with unconditional love and strong role models. She learned to make kindness and honesty a priority, to ignore stereotypes, and to celebrate her Native American culture.
These lessons provided the solid foundation Valerie needed when she arrived in the male-dominated worlds of Wall Street and Hollywood.
But sometimes on our way to fulfilling our dreams, life interrupts our plans. In Valerie’s case, interruption number one was working while attending UCLA’s theater and film school. She got a job below entry level at the nation’s top investment bank and, because of her intellect and flexibility, she was soon promoted. Eventually she worked on the deal teams that handled development of landmark casinos and other businesses in Las Vegas, projects that laid the foundation for a Las Vegas economy that continues to thrive today.
Valerie stayed on at the bank after graduating with her degree in film and ended up with seven years of investment banking experience.
Life interruption number two came from starting her own family. Juggling marriage, motherhood and career was tough, but Valerie continued to pursue her dreams and benefited from always having her husband, Curt, as her champion.
When every tv or movie role Valerie was offered portrayed Native Americans in a negative light, she got frustrated. But Curt, a former National Football League (NFL) player, said, “Think like an offensive lineman. They go into every play thinking they are going to win.” Valerie embraced that mindset and kept going.
When she sat in a room full of men at a Wall Street meeting and was told, “We don’t want to hear from you. You have no business being in this meeting,” she got discouraged and left. But the setback was only temporary. No one spoke up to defend her in that meeting, but Curt has never wavered in his support.
She says Curt’s perspectives have taught her a lot about how to work effectively with men. His attitude and advice include many pearls of wisdom:
- Always think without limitations. Curt can’t even conceive of putting limits on what is possible and thinks no one ever should.
- Learn how to read the room and be flexible. Sometimes you will have to adjust your style, pitch or approach based on who’s in the room.
- Be direct, stand up for your rights and ask for what you deserve.
To illustrate that last point, when their daughter Courtney was afraid to ask for a promotion at work, she came to her parents for advice. Valerie’s first instinct was to create a spreadsheet and Power Point that Courtney could use to argue the case with her boss. Instead, Curt advised that she just ask for what she want, pure and simple. That’s what Courtney did, and she got the promotion.
After years of playing to win and thinking without limits, Valerie has developed plenty of her own wisdom, too. These are a few of the lessons she offers women:
- Find at least one man you respect and with whom you can build a trusting relationship. Ask him to help you decipher men’s behavior in the workplace and understand how to work with men effectively. The man could be a family member, life partner, peer, or friend.
- You may face intimidation and you are not always going to be liked, but this is not a Miss Congeniality contest. So, stay focused on the big picture and what you really want to accomplish.
- Develop a personal brand that lets you be known as someone who is smart, honest and kind to others.
Valerie’s work experiences with men, both the positive and the negative, taught her a lot. And that shows us that men’s roles are vital in helping women succeed. Men comprise 85% of executive suites, and they get something from being in the majority – privilege and influence. If every man could intentionally invest in the development of two women for a year by helping them understand the male perspective, we would make great strides in having more women able to succeed and contribute to the economy. And those men, the 85%, would also get to understand the female perspective. In the end, everyone would win.