By Javacia Harris Bowser
For the Birmingham Times
Working various roles in corporate America for 20 years, Martha Underwood noticed many professional women dropping out of the mostly male-dominated business fields.
“I started to dig into why,” Underwood said. “Women would say, ‘My ideas aren’t heard,’ ‘I’m not given projects that I think will help boost my career,’ or ‘I don’t have a mentor, someone to help me with some of the unspoken rules.’”
Underwood, 44, decided to do something about that through ExecutivEstrogen—a program she founded in 2016 to provide one-on-one and group mentoring sessions for women in corporate America to help them advance in their careers.
“It just became a way for me to give [women] information, give them the tools and the templates I’ve used to continue to move up notches within corporate America,” she said. “I had gone through a lot of the things they were experiencing in corporate America, so … I think it’s my duty to pass it on to them so they [can] be successful.”
Underwood’s experience has taught her that most women approach problem solving differently than most men, and this can give women an advantage. She calls it the “Estrogen Edge.”
“Estrogen Edge is about how I think women are so multidimensional,” Underwood said. “We see things from a 360-degree view. We look at so many different things, at several different factors. When we’re problem solving in the office, I think this gives us our edge.”
The program can also help women better manage their time, whether they’re fresh out of college trying to navigate professional-development opportunities, learning how to balance work with family, or a top-level executive surrounded by people who need their help.
The Thrive Theory
Still, Underwood doesn’t see many professional women using this edge—and that’s where ExecutivEstrogen comes in.
The program is designed to help women in any industry thrive at any stage of their career. Underwood has created a Thrive Theory Assessment to help women determine their life stage and exactly what they need. No matter where a woman is in her career, four elements must be considered, she said: clarity, time management, conflict management, and confidence building.
ExecutivEstrogen also can help with conflict management, which Underwood calls the “secret sauce of success.”
“If you can manage conflict, you can solve problems,” she said.
ExecutivEstrogen tackles imposter syndrome, too, helping women build confidence. “We’re always thinking, ‘Are we good enough?’” Underwood said.
Climbing the Corporate Ladder
Underwood calls ExecutivEstrogen her “passion project.” She now serves as senior vice president of software engineering transformation at the global banking corporation BBVA, but she started her career in 1997 working for IBM in Tampa, Fla., as an electronic data interchange analyst.
“What helped me succeed there was I had an amazing manager, Dale Rushing,” Underwood said. “He challenged me to stretch myself into new roles. He saw something in me, mentored me, and helped me move up the ladder. In concert with that, I was always open to new things, which helped me expand my knowledge in tech.”
Eventually, the company was taken over by another corporation, and in 2007 Underwood was laid off: “I had to reinvent myself,” she said.
Newly married, she and her husband moved to Birmingham, where Underwood landed a job with a company that helps hospitals and health systems develop web-based patient portals. She worked there for five years in a number of roles, including trainer, implementation consultant, and risk and governance manager.
Later she was recruited by a company then known as CallidusCloud and tasked with helping the Silicon Valley-based company increase its footprint in Birmingham. By the time she left, the Birmingham office had swelled to 120 employees from 20, grown its annual revenue, and launched new products.
After taking some time to do independent consulting and launch ExecutivEstrogen, Underwood was recruited by BBVA.
“Along the way, I had some really good mentors and partners that helped me,” Underwood said, adding that even at this point in her career she still seeks guidance from mentors, such as BBVA Head of Talent and Culture Rosilyn Houston.
“Representation matters and seeing her lead and inspire an organization is what continues to keep me sharp and energized,” Underwood said of Houston. “I don’t think anyone can do it alone, which is why I said I need to pay it forward to help as many women—and men, for that matter, because we all need to do it together—be the best they can in their careers.”
Faithful, Fearless, Confident
Underwood strives to help her clients understand market trends and how they could affect their jobs in five to 10 years. She helped one woman figure out how to combine her love of agriculture with her skills and career in technology as a process builder. She taught another client how to increase her salary by presenting her skill set and passions as invaluable assets to a company.
Underwood helps her clients with their resumes, helps them solve specific problems they’re facing in the workplace, and helps them brainstorm new ideas.
April Bridges is a business analyst contractor by day, but she turned to Underwood for guidance when she started working as a product manager for a startup company on the side.
“Startup companies have their own set of challenges, but those challenges can become obstacle courses when you are a woman in a space that is mostly dominated by men,” Bridges said. “Working with [Underwood] is helping me command space in those environments rather than fade into the background and blend in with the crowd. She is also working with me on my negotiation skills.”
Ariana Parsons is a software service (SaaS) consultant who turned to Underwood because she wanted a Birmingham-based mentor to guide her and help her expand her local network.
“I work with an entirely remote team,” Parsons explained. “In-person contact is critical for my personal development. I wanted guidance in my career, as well as a structured program to help me find my purpose and voice.”
Bridges and Parsons agree that Underwood is not your average career coach.
“[Underwood] is real,” Bridges said. “None of the strategies she gives are far-fetched, but you have to be faithful, fearless, and confident. The great thing is that she helps her clients with being all three. She truly believes in her clients’ abilities and stretches us because she sees herself in us.”
And clients like Parsons can see their futures in Underwood.
“Being able to work with a successful woman in tech has also allowed me to see what I can achieve,” Parsons said.
Through ExecutivEstrogen, Underwood, who was born in the Bahamas and grew up in Miami, Fla., teaches her clients to trust their intuition. She said those ideas that come to mind and linger are the ideas that deserve attention.
“As you continue to go through a meeting, if that feeling, that solution, that thought, or that idea does not go away, you absolutely need to voice it,” she said. “That’s the intuition I think women ignore too much and need to move forward with.”
Underwood, a graduate of the University of South Florida who also earned a certificate in executive leadership certificate from the University of Texas at Austin, believes women should trust their way of solving problems, too.
“We try to get as much information as we can to solve the problem. Men, at times, look to solve problems quickly, but women look to be more comprehensive in solving problems,” said Underwood, adding that she does not believe one way of problem solving is better than the other.
“I think we need each other to be able to come to the right solution because at times you need speed, but you also need contemplation,” she said.
As word has spread about the career coaching Underwood offers, she has begun to attract male clients, too. And she’s happy to help.
“We need them as allies,” she said. “I think we’re all in it together, and we’ve got to figure it out together.”
Visit ExecutivEstrogen.com for more information.