Portraits of Mentorship: Dr. Jane Sojka & Hannah Fereshtehkhou on Confidence in Selling Yourself
After a long Tuesday proctoring a final marketing exam for the semester, Dr. Sojka and Hannah met with us in Dr. Sojka’s office. Their motto is that “everybody sells something,” especially themselves and it is important to build the confidence to do so. Despite the quiet halls of the Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati, they remained lively in their conversations – although that could have been the sugar from the cookies Dr. Sojka offered us.
Tell us a little bit about yourselves and what drew you to this field.
Hannah Fereshtehkhou: I am a graduate student pursuing a master's in marketing at UC, and this is my first semester in the program. I had a minor in marketing in undergrad, and my major was in psychology. It was the same things that I loved about both of these, which is learning why people do what they do, why they make decisions they make, why they have the beliefs that they do, what changes that. The whole idea of how you understand it all is what drew me to marketing.
Dr. Jane Sojka: My focus in marketing – because, you know, at the Ph.D. level, you focus – is professional selling. Nobody ever goes to college to become a salesperson, but I work at the B2B – business to business – level, which are highly professional jobs. My passion is our female sales class, and that's how I met Hannah. I've been teaching for 30 years for thousands of students and I became so frustrated because my women were so good and I could not get them involved. So we got the $10,000 P&G grant that started the female sales class. It's gone gangbusters.
Talk a little bit more about how you built this relationship that you have today.
Hannah: I had Dr. Sojka for my women in sales class when I was in my sophomore year. It was a hectic time for me. But I loved that class; Dr. Sojka, you have such energy and passion for what you do, and that class was about empowering women, so every single day I came in and felt empowered. I feel like I'm promoting the class, but Dr. Sojka has so much energy for what she does and everything is so authentic. I loved being there and I felt great afterwards. I’ve been really lucky that I've been able to keep up this relationship and keep talking with you and working with you.
Dr. Sojka: Well, it’s exciting for me because empowering women makes everyone better.Sales just happened to be like a divine intervention and was a convenient place for me to plop. “How do you overcome your failure? How do you build resiliency? How do you teach women to become confident?” It fit with that curriculum. I've kept up with Hannah through the years and then when she was available to help me T.A. with my mega sections of marketing, it was great.
Hannah: She's talking about the curriculum of the class; it wasn't just like how do you sell products. It was very much about selling yourself and building yourself up and being the best version of yourself at all times. I feel like it sounds a self-help class – sounds cheesy [laughs].
Dr. Sojka: Well, the idea was you're going to get rejected; you’re going to lose elections. The thing you need to do, number one: Overcome your fear of failure. Then resilience, when you do fail, so you can bounce back quickly. And so you don't win that election, no problem; you’ll be getting ready to run again. My motto is “everybody sells something,” and it really is true and it is a life skill. What's interesting, Hannah didn't go this route, but I have a shocking number of women who do end up going into sales and, for example, a job just came across my desk: three years out of college, $180,000 base salary plus commission. The good ones are expected to earn $300,000 a year. It's a very lucrative area. Women do very, very well – if that's your calling. The thing I like about it is, with the flexible schedule, if you want to have a family, it works really well. It's a win-win, and then you've got to take what you learn and take it into another area.
How does mentorship affect the success of women in sales – or women in any sort of business?
Dr. Sojka: I mean, I don't think you can do it without mentors, because it is such a male-dominated sport. IT is the same way. I learned a lot from the women in sales class because, well, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. [To Hannah.] I think you're maybe the second round.
Hannah: I think so, too.
Dr. Sojka: We had 25 women the first round, and then the second year, we expanded to two classes. We worried if we could fill it. Now we're up to three, last year, and now we're up to six, this year. Even my mixed classes are more women than men. I'm bringing in a new instructor so that we can keep expanding it and I'm looking into expanding to other universities.
One of the things we learned is that you have to have a critical mass in order to get women to speak up, or anybody who doesn't look like the majority. That's where that mentorship comes in and is very, very important.
The commonalities among assignments and results are really important, and you would not know that if you didn’t have a mentor and a critical group that you can share those experiences with.
Hannah: I definitely agree with that. I know that in our class we did a really good job and Dr. Sojka did a really good job of fostering that sense of mentorship between her and us and the camaraderie amongst all the women in my class. That's part of what made it really enjoyable to be there all the time as it felt very supportive, welcoming, and open. It definitely helped me push myself all the time, as well.
Dr. Sojka: It’s interesting, especially the noncompetitive people, because the stereotype of sales is “cut, cut, cut.” I've been able to see men sell and I've been able see lots of women sell. When they do those roleplays, they’re terrified. Bless their hearts. You have to sell and you don't know what the buyers are going to do. It is a tough assignment and I know that. But before and after the women are all, “Okay, now don't forget to say this.” They're collaborating. The men are one-upping – “I closed in four minutes.” That's one of the beauties, and women can be very successful in business sales because they're collaborators.
I would walk in the all-women class – because I would come out of my mixed class, which was mostly men at that time – and just relax. I did not realize I would do that and I've described it to people that if you grow up in a house where both parents smoke, you don't notice it because that's all you know. I've grown up in male-dominated area so I just didn't notice the “smoke”. Then I got to this all-female class and the air was clear and it was like, “Wow. This is really cool.” It really brought out the best in me as a teacher. This class allowed me to experiment with assignments and gave me the confidence to take that into the male class to help them.
Hannah: On the note of collaborating, as women, I agree that women can be competitive, too. But we can be competitive and still build each other up.
In society, women are put down as being very soft because we do care about other people, we are empathetic, we are very supportive. It was really cool to see that those values being emphasized and encouraged as opposed to being put down.
Dr. Sojka: That was one of our things with this $10,000 P&G grant to start this class. All I could kind of say to pitch it was I want women to be women and I want men to be men. I don't want women to have to be like men. That was the way I grew up in business. What we're finding is that women are a lot happier and I think it's why some are going into sales. They're doing that. Of course, the research shows that diversity is really good, but better especially when it's not diversity as in, “look different but be like me” which is what we know, or, “look like a woman; play like a man.” No, “look different and be different”; put different thoughts on the table.
Dr. Sojka, how would you describe the difference in your field when you first started college to now?
Dr. Sojka: I was an English major, but I look back and I had one woman professor and we read 10 to 15 books a semester in one course. I remember reading one female author. Wow. I don't remember it being prejudiced or how life was or anything like that. That was just the way things were. Even though we're still nowhere near where I want to be, I'm excited that in our marketing department we've worked really hard. We have five Ph.D. women now: two research faculty and three educators. Number one, we have to be role models and also we have to support women; for example, we do a capstone class that is arbitrary groups. In one of the groups, it was a woman with four boys saying her ideas were already being put down. I thought, you know what, you have to have a critical mass; there should never be one woman. I complained anonymously and the woman who is in charge explained that they just assign them. I explained to her that it is our responsibility as women to protect our young. We need to do that. I see us cracking the glass ceiling. We have not broken it yet, but we're making cracks – and the light’s coming in.
Hannah, now that you’ve completed undergrad and are in your graduate school studies, how would your experience be different without people like Dr. Sojka and others?
Hannah: It would be so different. Wow. A lot of my professors still are male, it always stands out when I have a female professor. I was talking to someone about how empowering all the female professors that I've had have been. I don't know if that's like a symptom of them having to be because of the environment they’re in or what. It's what we were talking about before; it’s always a breath of fresh air with these female role models in my life, but also in business school which, like we talked about, is a male-dominated area. I don't think that I would feel like I could do what I am doing or that I'm allowed to or that there was a place for me if I didn't have all these females in my life showing me that they've done it already.
Tell us about any other mentors you've had, whether professionally or personally.
Hannah: It’s always been professors like Dr. Sojka, another professor here Dr. Roseann Hassey, or my honors advisor from undergrad. The commonality is that they are strong women and they embrace what people often think of as feminine or soft that women tend to have; they’re helping others through that. It's not a disadvantage to have those skills and traits. All of that is important is empowering and makes me feel like it's not a bad thing to be a woman.
Dr. Sojka: I always want to make it very clear that I love men, too. I'm a humanist. I love everybody and actually I would go with three men. First of all, my father, who sat me down in first grade said, “Study hard, make good grades, and you'll go to college.” That was revolutionary at that time.
Then my husband. When I was home with three preschool children and really not handling it well, he said, “You know what, you're mind is a terrible thing to waste. You need to get a Ph.D.” He already had his Ph.D. and made it possible for me to get my Ph.D. because he knew I belonged in the classroom.
Then a man at the other school I came from. It was this typical fear of failure. I was coming up for tenure and I was so afraid of not getting tenure. I was terrified. When I went right to him and said look, “Take me off the tenure track. I'll just teach part time.” He sat me down and said, “You have everything you need. Don't you dare step down.” I got tenure. I've been fortunate to have some really good men who support women.
Hannah: Feminism isn’t about women versus men; it's about helping everyone and empowering everyone. I didn’t think about that, even with my role models. The distinction is in my personal life, for example; my dad is a huge role model to me. It's for that reason, too, that he is so supportive, gives such great life advice, and pushes me to do my best regardless of son or daughter.