I must start with a confession: This scares me.

When the Baltimore Sun offered me the chance to contribute a series of six columns "focusing on issues of women in business ... offering analysis, insight and advice," I wondered: Can I do it? As an accountant and risk manager who has risen to be a managing director with Legg Mason, I am entirely confident with business writing: memoranda, planning documents, notes to financial statements. I'm good at that sort of thing.


Writing for a newspaper is different. It instills fear and raises my heart rate. It pushes me from my comfort zone. But the challenge also enlivens me. I believe I have something to say.

In more than 30 years in corporate America I have worked with — and learned from — many talented women (and men). Now it's my turn to mentor. That's why I chair the Legg Mason Women's Leadership Network, through which we develop leadership skills, broaden personal networks and give back to the community. These initiatives help us promote the value that women and their perspectives bring to Legg Mason, Baltimore and the asset management industry.

I believe the messages for today's professional women are immensely positive, and I intend to write more about them in coming weeks. More opportunities are available to us than ever before — like this one. We did not get here quickly or quietly, but through the hard work and sacrifices of our mothers, aunts and grandmothers. The debt we owe them we can only try to pay forward.

I have been fortunate to have several excellent teachers and mentors, some female, others male. I have also worked long hours and late nights, and written more than a few reports during vacations and holidays. Getting ahead with a Wall Street firm (even if my office is in my beloved Baltimore) requires extra effort. I knew that when I started — and I got what I expected.

I enjoy the substance of my work as much as the rewards. I am proud of what I have accomplished, and happy too. But, getting to a good place in my career required choices.

That's why I confess to rolling my eyes every time I hear or read a variant of, "How can women have it all?" I have achieved a lot, but I do not "have it all." What does "having it all" even mean? Whose "all" are we supposed to want?

Every life has compromise, and there are many roles to fill. Some people are meant to lead, others to follow. Some women are consumed by work. Others curtail careers to focus on family. Some want time to follow other pursuits, such as faith, community service or hobbies. Thanks to those who came before us, each woman can make these kinds of substantive choices for herself.

That leads me to Sheryl Sandberg's best-seller, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead." Media attention has turned the book into the veritable "elephant in the room" when discussing women in the workplace. To some it resonates as revealed truth; others (including a colleague and dear friend) put the book down after only a few pages, disgusted.

I was in between, as I think most women are. I read "Lean In" to be conversant in popular culture, like watching all the movies nominated for the best picture Oscar. It was an easy read and offered some insights, but the real value has been in the conversations it has sparked among my colleagues and friends. People who read "Lean In" want to talk about it, regardless of how they feel about Ms. Sandberg or her conclusions. The message I take from "Lean In" and similar books is that each person should be intentional in making her — or his — choices.

The most important questions everyone must ask are: What do you most value? Who do you want to be? Women must be no less willing to address these questions head-on than men.

The answers are different for each of us. To some the cookies must always be homemade; but perhaps store-bought can suffice after working late. Maybe we can't "have it all," but we surely can achieve meaningful goals. I believe that what each of us commits to with all our heart will come to pass. Like writing columns for this newspaper, even though it pushes me out of my comfort zone.

And in this day and age, can anyone seriously doubt the power of a highly-motivated woman to achieve her dreams?

Stephanie Beran is managing director of Enterprise Risk Management at Legg Mason & Co., LLC. Her email is smberan12@gmail.com.

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