Why do you do what you do?

My parents raised me to set my sights high.

But at age 11, a religious teacher said I could not be a leader because I was a girl. In my high school, only boys could run for senior class president so I had to settle for vice president. A Harvard professor claimed that girls weren't smart enough to get As in Economics. My parents might have been enlightened and ambitious for me, but society's institutions weren't.

I earned my Harvard MBA in 1973, a time when few women were accepted into business leadership programs. The idea that a woman could pursue a serious career was novel, and opportunities were scarce. I took off my wedding ring for job interviews to avoid the intrusive questions and visible skepticism about my professional aspirations and commitment.

I chose the explosive information technology industry where the need for talent was so desperate they'd even hire a woman! I sought roles where I could do 50 percent of the job with my hands tied behind my back and a bag over my head, and 50 percent would be totally new. Because working moms in executive roles were so rare, we banded together to support each other. For more than 40 years, I've pursued a dual focus in my career—to build valuable businesses and to help other women succeed.

As President of Catalyst, my avocation is now my job! I wake up every day knowing that as Catalyst's leader, working on behalf of gender parity in business leadership, I can contribute directly to making the world a better place. It doesn't get better than that!

— Ilene Lang

Photography by Paula Vlodkowsky