In her new book out this week, Gay Gaddis—the founder and CEO of Austin-based ad agency T3—offers advice on living like the trailblazing women who began defying gender stereotypes long ago: cowgirls. Part memoir, part life lessons, Cowgirl Power: How to Kick Ass in Business and Life releases at a moment when harassment and workplace behavior is part of an urgent national conversation. We spoke with Gaddis in her Austin office about Annie Oakley, the Golden Globes, and what men can do to help change workplace culture.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Texas Monthly: So let’s start with cowgirl power—what is it?
Gay Gaddis: I write about a different kind of empowerment, not the top-down autocratic power that we sometimes think about with the negative side of power. All of us have this inner power that needs to be unleashed. You have to start to recognize those watershed moments in your life when power is coming into you and you take advantage of it.
TM: This is an auspicious moment for a conversation about women and power. Was the timing of the book’s release intentional?
GG: I’ve been very focused on women’s empowerment for a long time. For the past twenty years I have been out speaking to women mentoring women, giving scholarships to an organization I’m in, and really being disappointed with the way the press talks about women’s achievements. So I went back in history and found some amazing women—the historic cowgirls that I write about in the book. They were international superstars like Annie Oakley, and they were just fascinating women who had determination and grit. But what I loved most is the values and the ethics that they brought.
TM: What are some of those values?
GG: Honesty, grit, authenticity, caring, and really be honest with people—doing what you say and showing up, and all these things that I saw growing up in Liberty, Texas.
TM: I presume you watched the Golden Globes. What did you think watching it?
GG: This whole debacle and tumbling down of some of our icons, some of these men who have been real business tycoons and been out there in the media, them finally being called out—it’s time. And it’s the tip of the iceberg because if that kind of behavior is being allowed, then what else is going on in these organizations? You know, a fish rots from the head down.
TM: You’re a company founder and a CEO. How do you create a healthy work culture?
GG: Well you can’t say you’ve never made a mistake. So I won’t be holier than thou. But I will say that I’ve always tried to have an environment where people’s voices are heard, where people feel included.
We have to have zero tolerance for what I call “bad actors,” and this doesn’t always mean sexual harassment. There are other people in the workforce who put people down. They are bullies, they’re assholes. You have to “shoot the assholes” when they come along because they ruin everything. We know who they are, and they’re unpleasant to be around. They are not team players and they’re blind to other people’s ideas. That’s the biggest travesty.
TM: What are some of the things some of the specific tools or advice that you give young women now so that they can find their power?
GG: First of all, you must find your strengths and understand your weaknesses. Find your strengths and play on those 100 percent. Become somewhat of an expert at something. When you become an expert that leads to confidence that can lead to assertiveness, and that gives you a real seat at the table with any of your peers or anyone.
TM: What do you most want this book to accomplish?
GG: If women can feel empowered, get their confidence, and be assertive, then a lot of the workplace fiascos should start to calm down a bit. Women have been quiet. I want them to not be necessarily vitriolic or angry. That’s not the book at all. It’s more about, hey, I have my own personal power. I can do this, and I don’t have to work in an environment that doesn’t allow me to be the best I can be.
Editor’s note: Texas Monthly is hosting an event January 25 at River Oaks Bookstore in Houston from 5 to 7 p.m. Gay will be there for a Q&A and to sign books. For information, click here.