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What socialites can teach us about negotiating our monetary worth

Saturday July 21 2018

Socialite Huddah Monroe. PHOTO | FILE

Socialite Huddah Monroe. Many socialites have been able to monetise their personal brands, no matter how questionable their origins. PHOTO | FILE 

By RACHEL WAMBUI
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Women like Huddah Monroe and Vera Sidika may be ridiculed for their life choices, but they have one thing many women don’t: unquestionable confidence in their ability to receive wealth. What can they teach career women about success?

The Kardashian sisters. Vera Sidika. Huddah Monroe. Zari Hassan. All these women have one thing in common: They have parlayed off their looks to build businesses and an enviable income.

The common word to describe women without any discernible skills or educational qualifications on which to base their income is ‘socialite’ – and the public loves socialite lifestyles. Like them or hate them, the fact is that they have a rare skill: the ability to ably monetise their personal brands, no matter how questionable their origins.

The world of the socialite has always been associated with money and power; they first appeared on the scene in the 18th and 19th century, populated by the wives and mistresses of royalty and wealthy industrialists who hosted gatherings of the elite upper class.

FAME AND FORTUNE

First among the modern socialites of our time was Paris Hilton, heiress to the Hilton dynasty.

Hilton garnered her fame from a leaked sex-tape, and for her notoriety in the New York party scene. She managed to turn this into a personal business empire with music, deejaying, reality TV and most recently, a fragrance and fashion line. Today, she is said to earn over $10 million a year from product sales alone, and not less than $500,000 for club and event appearances.

What, if anything, can these socialites teach the impressively qualified but often overworked and underpaid professional woman?

“They have an enviable amount of confidence,” says 35-year-old Ruth Karimi. Ruth is a public relations professional, currently pursuing a Masters’ degree. For her job, she works with celebrities and socialites.

“We hire them (celebrities) because the public recognises and associates them with a certain kind of aspirational prestige,” she says. Ruth adds that it does not matter whether these celebrities actually represent that aspiration, or are just faking it for desired effect. “It’s not important whether XYZ can actually afford a BMW in real life, or whether they personally care about a cause.”

In a 2014 interview on NTV, Vera Sidika pointed out that she doesn’t go out to entertainment spots to socialise. “You,” she told the interviewer, “you go out to the club just like that. Me, I get paid to be there.” She mentions that her rate for club-hosting is $2,500 (approximately KShs250,000) for an hour or two of what she describes as, ‘just sitting there and looking pretty’. She has been known to remark that her body is actually her business, and that she therefore heavily invests in her image.

Meanwhile, professional women find it hard to toot their own horn, while socialites spend their every waking moment showing off their attributes. 45-year-old Patricia K.* runs her own real estate investment company. “We are raised to be modest, so we don’t say how accomplished we are. Men (or very confident women) will say, ‘I just got this project and I am going to kill it!’ Most professional women will say, ‘Ah yes, I just got this project and it’s nice but it’s no big deal’. It’s almost as if they are embarrassed. As I got further in my career I realised when I say ‘I am awesome!’, even if it comes from a place of false bravado, people actually believe it.”

Psychologically, self-deprecation is one way that people deal with insecurities. But Patricia, who has sat in various recruitment panels in her capacity as a manager, says that this can be quite the gamble.

“When you are qualified but not self-assured you run the risk of, at the very least, coming off as boring. And then in saunters this person – and mind you, this is how most men handle interviews – who is like a lightning bulb, answering questions off the cuff and stuff. They are exciting. Women lack a cool belief in their value.”

NEGOTIATING PAY

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook, the fifth most valuable company in the world. Yet, writing in her book Lean In, she admits she is still a long way from mastering the art of feeling confident.

“I was shocked that Forbes ranked me as the most powerful woman in the world, right after Angela Merkel and ahead of Michelle Obama,” she says. “Far from feeling powerful, I felt embarrassed and exposed. When colleagues congratulated me I pronounced the list as ridiculous. When they posted the link on Facebook, I asked them to take it down. After a few days, my executive assistant told me that I was handling the publicity poorly, that I needed to stop subjecting anyone who brought it up to a diatribe of absurdity. I was showing too many people how uncomfortable I felt and revealing my insecurity. Instead I needed to simply say ‘Thank you’.”

Patricia says that one way of raising confidence is by simply becoming very good at what you do. “But I don’t feel it’s that kind of confidence problem that a lot of us suffer from. It is the much deeper thing about our value in the world. That ‘who do you think you are’ voice inside, I have to figure out how to silence her.”

Today’s socialite is confident enough to ask for what she thinks she is worth – and expect nothing less. In her interview, Sidika let it be known that her boyfriend, who she then identified as a Nigerian tycoon, spoiled her, giving her amounts to the tune of $10,000 (almost Ksh1 million) just to go shopping.

What baffled the professional women we talked to was how It-Girls managed to not only place such high value on themselves but also how they managed to convince their clients to they were worth such astronomical figures. “I can’t even let my date pay for dinner, let alone ask for or accept money from him,” quips 38-year-old Angela, a lawyer and entrepreneur in Nairobi. Angela’s reasoning is that she does not want to owe the man anything. “But, I also have this colleague, she is an associate like me; we graduated the Bar together. She is constantly making noise about a raise. On the one hand I find it irritating but on the other hand, I am jealous because she actually believes that she deserves the raise. And I am quite sure she makes more than I do.”

Socialites do not stand down from the monetary figure they feel they deserve. However, many professional women do not bring their bargaining skills to salary negotiations, neither do they think they will be accepted if they refuse to compromise.

Facebook’s Sandberg herself admits that when she was negotiating for her compensation, CEO Mark Zuckerberg made her an offer that she thought was fair. “I was ready to accept the offer but my husband kept telling me to negotiate,” she explains, “but I was afraid of doing anything that might botch the deal. I could play hardball but then maybe Mark wouldn’t want to work with me.” Her brother in-law, without even knowing the details of the deal, convinced her that no man at her level would consider taking the first offer. “I negotiated hard, followed by a nervous night wondering if I had blown it. But Mark called me the next day, improved my offer, extended the terms of my contract and allowed me to buy into the company.”

She adds that one of her previous bosses, a chief executive at World Bank, once told her that men consider any time they spend thinking of about a work issue – even time in the shower – as billable hours. On the other hand, his wife (an attorney) and her female colleagues, “decide that they were not at their best on a given day and discount their hours so as to be fair to the client”. His advice to his wife was to ‘bill like a boy’.

NETWORKING

Studies across the board indicate that women negotiate less than their male counterparts, primarily because they are afraid of being unlikable. “I know many female friends who are employed who, before they ask for something at work, have to have gotten to a place of anger and resentment, which then compromises the energy with which they negotiate. Mostly, they walk away from the jobs,” Patricia, the real estate investor, notes.

Socialites are queens of networking. They get their name known through any means necessary. 27-year-old Stella Oloo says she is a ‘struggling creative’. “The other day, my friend told me, ‘you know Stella, you could really go places if only you would get out of the door’. He felt that I was too complacent about knocking on doors and getting myself out there.”

Gacheri G*., a 39-year-old producer at an advertising agency, says she always cringed at the thought of networking. “I didn’t go to after-work events because I viewed them as a chore. I also found them to be fake; I hated walking up to strangers with a nervous smile plastered on my face.”

Later in her career, she realised how effective networking was at making relationships with people who could help her. “I interviewed for a job and didn’t get it. Then a friend who was on the inside told me, you know what, they still want you. So and so is earning this so that’s what you should ask for. It was 50 per cent more than what I was making so I wouldn’t even have dreamt of quoting such a figure.

Without this back information, I wouldn’t even have had the confidence to go back to them let alone be ready to walk if not given what I wanted. This is the value of knowing what’s brewing behind the scenes and such things are often whispered about in industry events.”

Research shows women do not make career contacts at the same rate that men do, which is one of the reasons cited for the lack of women in companies’ higher rank. “I think it’s more about how we have been nurtured to unpack our relationships,” says Angela the lawyer.

“In a business setting you are very likely to be networking with men – socially, men are expected to approach women so in a work situation, this is awkward. It is also about how we have been nurtured to present ourselves – if you shade outside the box you will be cast out. If you ask me, socialites, in their own weird way, are people who have managed to shamelessly shade outside of this box. I don’t think I have that X factor. Only my work can speak for me.”

* Names have been changed.