A few years ago a woman named Gina sent me a message on LinkedIn. I just love Words of Women, she wrote. I’m a lawyer at a big law firm and think I could help you if you ever wanted to expand into other things with the brand. My interest was piqued. I replied telling her I couldn’t pay her and didn’t really know what there was to do, but if she had ideas, I was happy to listen.
Over coffee she seduced me. “I just think you’re brilliant,” she said. “I just think Words of Women could be so much more,” she said again and again. Then she told me I was pretty. So, so pretty. Blushing, I told her I’d obviously love to make money from Words of Women one day, but right now it was just a passion project. An outlet for all the insights I was finding for this book. It was just my little blog. I wasn’t a businesswoman and I definitely couldn’t pay her. “That’s okay,” she said. “I’m happy with just equity.”
Because she was a lawyer, she offered to draw up the papers. And because I didn’t want to spend $300 to have my lawyer do it, I didn’t protest. The only terms I gave her were that she could have 25 percent of Words of Women contingent on her getting funding. I figured since Words of Women was just a passion project, if Gina could find us money, she could have a percentage of it. Gina agreed and proceeded to send me lovely texts about how excited she was and all the investors she knew. Then she’d send me emails with articles about companies we could be like or be better than. I know Gina is a good lawyer because all these tactics worked. And when the contract appeared in my inbox and I was flooded by an array of ideas and promises and future plans, I was too excited, too dizzy, too distracted to read it. I just signed it and sent it back.
I wasn’t going to read forty pages of a contract. Gina was so nice. Gina was my new best friend. On top of that, Gina’s boyfriend got along with my boyfriend, so now I didn’t just have a new friend, but we had couple friends. It all seemed perfect. Until Gina got drunk. More specifically, got drunk and told me she wanted to write a book. “I thought you wanted to help grow Words of Women?” I asked her in the dimly lit bar outside her law firm in Midtown. “I do, but I also want to write a book.” She took another sip of her martini. “I think I could write a really good one about being a female lawyer. You know, surrounded by all these high-powered men.” She slurred into my ear, “I know some shit.”
“Oh, okay. That makes sense. Well, that’s exciting.” I tried to feign enthusiasm but was annoyed she was now just thinking of doing what I was doing when I needed her to do what she said she was going to do.
“Do you think I could see your book pitch?” she asked.
“Um, yeah, sure, it’s not done yet, but if it helps I’ll send it.” I was susceptible to her charms. I also thought once she saw the fifty pages, she’d give up and move on.
Two weeks later we met up with her and her boyfriend for another drink. “I finished my book pitch,” she squealed while our boyfriends huddled on the other side of the booth talking about World War II documentaries.
“Wow, so fast! That’s great!” I feigned more enthusiasm.
“I really want to send it to you. Julien told me not to, but what the hell.” She slurred the last word.
“Yeah, send it!” I said. But what I really wanted was to stop talking about it. How could she have finished a book pitch in two weeks? Mine took six months.
The next day at work I was bored and decided to check out Gina’s book pitch. The pitch was attached to an email she’d forwarded to me. Who had she sent it to before me? I scrolled down to see the original email. It was to an agent at CAA, one of the biggest talent agencies in the world, one even I hadn’t thought to pitch myself to when looking for an agent. She told them she’d written a book and was the co-owner of Words of Women. Everything went dark. It had to be a mistake. I opened the attachment and there it was, plain as day, a near exact copy of my pitch with her name on it.
I reflexively sent her an email. Hey Gina, I just read your pitch. I have to say I’m a little taken aback by you saying you co-own Words of Women. The agreement was that you could have a percentage if you got us funding. And even if you did get funding, you wouldn’t be a co-owner. I have been working on Words of Women for four years. I only met you three months ago.
Two hours later she responded: Read the contract. I own 25% of Words of Women. You signed it…remember? She then had the nerve to sign off the email with sigh, as if she couldn’t believe she had to explain this to me.
Snot and salt were pouring into my mouth as I emailed my lawyer. Can you please tell me what I signed? My lawyer called me back within thirty minutes to tell me the document I’d signed wasn’t a contract but an amendment to my LLC, and in doing that I’d made her part owner of the company.
Memories of the previous nights jumped in and out. Julien told me not to send it to you…I’m happy with just equity. My lawyer informed me she couldn’t help because this was a New York contract, and had different rules and regulations than contracts drawn up in California, where my lawyer practiced, and even if I claimed I didn’t know what I was signing, that would need to be reviewed by a New York judge. A judge?! She sent me information for her lawyer friend in New York, who informed me her retainer was $6,000. I thanked her, told her I would think about it, hung up, and started crying again. Foaming. Choking on hot, salty tears. In the midst of all this, however, I experienced one of those out-of-body moments. As I watched myself from a distance, the words of Virginia Woolf repeated over and over again like a mantra: “I am going to face certain things. It is going to be a time of adventure and attack.”
This was it, my moment of trial. One of those events that I had known would eventually come, only this one wasn’t death or disease or bankruptcy, but a smaller catastrophe. This was the first of many I’d face, and if I couldn’t handle this one, I’d never handle any of the bigger ones. So I dipped into my savings, called the lawyer, and took back what was mine. It was painful and expensive and I wish it never happened, but it did and I’m happy it did because otherwise I would have never learned the lesson Don’t sign anything without reading it.
A few weeks later, after the sting had worn off and a solution had been agreed upon, I found myself telling the story to a friend over dinner. Only this time I wasn’t crying. I was exaggerating, laughing, and pausing for dramatic effect, and just two days after that my friend’s friend, who heard the story through her, was emailing me to ask for my lawyer’s information. She was going through a similar struggle and she wanted my advice. I was the one with a feather in my cap.
That expression originates from the Native Americans who would add feathers to their headdresses for every enemy slain. The larger and more robust the headdress, the more prestigious the wearer was because of it. The custom was also used by hunters; those who’d made the first kill of the hunt put the feathers in their hat to let the others know. It was an honor, a victory.
Over time, that’s how experiences settle into us. They start as things we don’t think we’ll ever overcome. Then things we’ll never get over. Then they’re things we’re stronger for. After more than a year, that’s all Gina is to me now, a feather in my cap. Something I dealt with and came out, bloodied and bruised, on the other side of. To this day, I can honestly say it was the worst thing that happened to me in my professional life. It was the first time I had to deal with lawyers and courtrooms and the jarring realization that people will try to hurt you for their own selfish reasons. I’d been slapped across the face by reality, and hard.
Because of that, however, I had a leg up on my friends. The ones who’d eventually come face-to-face with their own moments of trial, their own scandals and real-world mistakes that could cost them real things. When it happened to them, I was that person who knew a good lawyer. I was that person with advice. I was the person who’d been there. It happened to me first, and now I could teach them about it.
Becoming a strong woman is like becoming a self-made millionaire: It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s years upon years of trudging and slogging and working. And when it happens, there are no trumpets or whistles. It’s just something that occurs, like arthritis or wisdom, after so much time, so many things, so many moments, that you’re not sure when you got it. You’re just stronger now. You just know how to wait in line. You ask for what you want. You command rooms with order and ease. You don’t flinch at awkwardness, discomfort, or the unexpected.
You’re strong because you’ve overcome all these things before. You’ve waited in enough lines to know getting annoyed doesn’t help. You’ve had enough flat tires to know AAA will eventually come (or if you’re truly gifted, you’ll change it yourself). You’ve embarrassed yourself enough to no longer care what people think. In the same way it takes ten thousand hours to master a skill, it takes ten thousand uncomfortable moments to acquire strength. And if you can look at every delay as a chance to practice patience and every breakup as a chance to strengthen your solitude, you start to see the terrible, uncomfortable, unforeseen events of life as moments to be collected and added to your arsenal of wisdom, knowledge, and personal development. Or as Jenny Holzer says, “When you start to like pain, things get interesting.”
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