# 5: Pots, Pans and Millions: A Study of Woman’s Right to Be in Business…

Cummings, Edith Mae (1929): Pots, Pans and Millions: A Study of Woman’s Right to Be in Business. Her Proclivities and Capacity for Success, 167.

The Story behind the Passage

Today, I can already tell you that I am going to get myself into trouble. You will be the “victims” of that trouble because I am really excited about what I am going to write about today. I can feel that. It is like a flow of energy coming from within which makes me think and type faster than usually. And this energy also forces me to write — right NOW. So, even if I were tired or my calendar filled with other plans at this moment, I could not concentrate on anything else before writing what is occupying my thoughts on this topic. And that in turn usually leads to the fact that I end up writing a lot, even though I know that you, dear reader, do not like reading a lot in today’s busy times. Or are you different than all the others who claim they have no time?

Let’s try a compromise (which is not my strength): I will try really hard to boil it down to the basics and if you found it interesting, I will write another essay or paper about Cummings. Well, that is the first issue I need to explain now before wasting more lines. Who was she? And how did I end up choosing this passage? Let’s look at how she herself approached the task of writing:

“I cannot promise to place in the reader’s hand a magic wand that will realize all her dreams and de sires, but I do hope, through this story, to inspire the thousands of women who I know have wonderful talents buried in uncongenial toil, and who need but the inspiration to turn these talents into money. In this story we will study the conditions under which women have lived for centuries, and will follow the course of human events as the pendulum ticks through future years.” (Cummings 3)

As always, the impulse for choosing a passage (or rather several this time) from a woman business author came to me just like everything in life comes to you. It is just that you have the choice of being aware of what comes to you and then you can make a conscious decision of either letting it touch you and move you to some action or not. In this case, I had a conversation with a female university scholar yesterday. Although it was not the topic why we had scheduled the meeting, we ended up talking about gender differences in leadership behavior. As happens quite often among women — who might even talk to each other for the first time — there is an immediate connection because both have what you can call “tacit” knowledge on the issue (implicit, unvoiced knowledge). This knowledge is usually rooted in experience, not in formal research (both can overlap, of course). But since many women either stopped or never started talking about it, conversations like this can open up unexpected opportunities for talking about “it.”

In our case yesterday, this “it,” the differences women still experience on the job when working for and with men, were not spectacular at all. In fact, there is nothing spectacular about whatever you read about the topic in the media or hear from colleagues, unless there is a criminal case involved or some big new movement such as “MeToo.” What I am saying: There seems to be nothing new to learn because the topic is already being discussed from many different perspectives. What is interesting to me is that women themselves — at least many of them, yes, I am generalizing — seem to have entered a stage of resignation and acceptance somehow. They have accepted that the differences persist and talking about and fighting them anywhere and all the time only costs valuable energy. “I mean, men just do that sometimes (e.g., not taking women seriously, ignoring them, acting overly confident thus making women feel small…). But they do not do it on purpose. They are simply not aware of it,” my colleague summarized her insights yesterday.

Yes, and this finally gets us to the passage: I personally went through different moments of realization concerning that topic in the past. And today in this post, I am mostly going to focus on one: What can you do about it? This is an entirely coaching-based and highly pragmatic approach. Coaches do not care much about where problems come from (that is the issue of psychologists). What coaches do is help clients with practical solutions to the problem. Since this is not a coaching blog and my main occupation is not coaching (what is it anyway?…), I am just mentioning this differentiation to show you the mindset behind the approach. One is explanation-oriented and therefore problem-centered. The latter one is solution-oriented. And that, after all, is the philosophy that I am trying to bring to the academy a bit more than is presently being practiced. Again, this does not mean that it is not as crucially important as well to study the origins and mechanisms of gender and other diversity differences when it comes to leadership behavior. What does all this have to do with Cummings????? Yes, dear reader, I hear you yelling at me already, I am getting there now.

As you can guess after reading these lines, I have not started thinking about these issues only yesterday. In fact, that began in elementary school already when I started observing how my male and female teachers differed when it came to teaching or even running the school. Many years later, around 2013, I then wanted to write my postdoc project about the Financial Crisis and the debate that followed about “Lehman Sisters,” i.e., the question of whether or not women investment bankers would have prevented the disaster. To me, this debate was fairly a no brainer but that is a different story… What I am trying to get at is that this topic brought me to do research on more historical business biographies, including those by women. “What? Historical business biographies by women?” you might ask now. How can it be that we are always told there hardly were any women and now I am telling you they even wrote books about it? Yes, that is where Cummings comes in and she exactly represented the solution-oriented attitude I described above.

I cannot remember exactly how I learned about the book but the mere fact that it was written in 1929 told me that I just HAD TO READ it. The problem was, it was not available anywhere, not even on Ebay. At that time, I had planned a research trip to NYC anyway and I learned that the NY Public Library had a copy and would scan books for customers for a small fee. This is what I did. I ordered a scanned copy but I do remember I also went there. (Right now, I cannot remember why that was, because, after all, they could have sent it to me via e-mail.) Maybe it was just because I wanted to have that “hunter” experience of chasing down a book right on the spot and linking that to this magical feeling of walking around in NYC. I did find a copy on Ebay later, though, and bought it. This is the original that you see in the pictures below. It is a bit smelly and the pages are yellow but beautiful for book lovers.

My screenshot

Now, you almost made it through this intro. We will get to the flesh on the bones now. What was so fascinating for me when I read the book back then, was the timelessness of the content. You could have simply exchanged the date and the cover and you could sell it TODAY! The insights and pragmatic advice Cummings shared were so far-sighted and true (in the eternal spiritual sense) that they have never become and never will be outdated (my claim). Cummings in the book described her life story of becoming a millionaire in the real-estate business along with her learnings as to how to promote the business success of women. As she emphasizes in the title: this is a “right” for women. I am not going into this entire discussion now because I want to focus on the pragmatic stuff. Still, I wanted to emphasize this word because it already tells you so much about the political philosophy that is still resonating in all the debates about women, business, and leadership. Let’s take a look at the Table of Contents of the book, so you see what you will miss before I dive into the passage and my learnings.

My Learnings

“Knowledge becomes power when we know how to use it.” Wow! Are you getting goose bumps when reading this? No? No problem, then it is just me and I am enjoying it. :o) If there is one big message that Cummings stands for — and she is just one example among millions of entrepreneurs who still say and write the same thing — it is that knowledge is the basis of everything but it is worth nothing, if you do not implement it. This is the pain that is driving me to write this blog, in case you have not noticed yet. In university, our “product” is knowledge. But do we use it? How? (You answer this one yourself…).

After working as an entrepreneur for almost two years now, I cannot claim to know much about entrepreneurship yet. What I do know, however, is that knowledge makes the difference between bullshitters and really great business people (you can exchange the latter group for people in any career, including research and science). The fact that you are an entrepreneur or hold a certain position says nothing about the quality of your performance yet. This is simple but we tend to forget that in a world that is dominated by marketing and PR. Do not let anyone fool you on this. You can tell whether people really know what they are talking about pretty quickly if you learn how to not get blinded by bullshit vocab and technical bla, bla. I think, in business, because of the trend towards simplicity and the purity of design and user orientation that startups also bring to the markets, there is a healthy movement to reverse this trend.” Nevertheless, in other areas we are still behind when it comes to going back to the roots in the sense of: Learn first, talk later.

Now, I have already spent three passages on just talking about one word of that sentence, that being “knowledge.” You see, I am testing your patience here. But I think, I will just stick to that one sentence this time and further unwrap it. The second key term, at least in my opinion, is “power.” That is such a big one in political philosophy and in our daily lives and politics, that I will really refrain from getting into it. Nevertheless, in the business context, it is perfectly in line with what I am saying above. If you really studied whatever you think you need to know in your field, you are in a good starting position. But that does not feel like power usually, at least, this is my experience. I think the power magic happens as you walk around and start practicing whatever you are passionate about. With the feedback you get and, even more so, with the observations you make about competitors, this is when a sense of “power” — in a positive way — emerges.

Well, I am noticing that I do need to explain at least how I define power in this context. Power to me is a mixture of the textbook definition of power in political science, i.e., the ability to achieve/influence a certain outcome based on certain resources. In addition, and this is what I am hinting at above, it is the awareness of this capacity. And this awareness at least gives me one thing: calmness. You know that nobody can steal this solid foundation from you and this leaves you free of any pressure to make decisions based on other people’s insights or to follow unnecessary trends. This is also something startups should learn at an early stage, I think. Taking one more moment to think and learn might save you years of trouble and lost money…

Now, I need to add a word on the concept of knowledge because otherwise, my explanation about power above does not make sense. What I mean by knowledge is both the information that you have collected and the ability to acquire more information and connect this with existing information that makes sense to you. In sum: knowledge without the ability to learn deeply and quickly is worth nothing — especially in the digital age. This brings us to the issue of education which Cummings stresses so much throughout her narrative. As I just discovered now when I googled her name, she also taught business to women and publicly spoke about her experience in real estate as several newspaper articles show. I am sure this is described in the book as well but I did not remember.


This very fact of passing on knowledge is an interesting thing. Why? Because learning itself has nothing to do with teaching. Yes, Peter Drucker and many others always claimed that if you really want to learn something, you have to teach it. I agree. But what is teaching? Teaching means looking at things twice, discussing content, and being made aware of content, e.g., passages in books, that you yourself did not pay attention to. This causes you to think more and thinking more leads to more and stronger brain wires. So, basically, you can replace teaching with the concept of “discourse” more or less (I did want to avoid this term because I have come to hate it. In my field, especially in literary studies, everything is pretty much about “discourse” and it leads nowhere in the sense of fixing problems. Still, now that it has escaped my mouth, I will keep it in the text.). This actually brings us to the last crucial element in the sentence: “use.”

As Cummings states, knowledge is still worth nothing (even in combination with my complicated thoughts on learning and teaching above), if you do not “know how to use it.” That formulation in and of itself could now be brought to the ultra-level of complexity but I am not going to do that. Instead, I want to tell you how freaking serious this finding is and how much fulfilment business can bring to this urge. Business is nothing else but a bridge between “knowledge” and “use” (or impact, in my words). I am saying this because “business” to many people outside business is somewhat of an abstract or even nasty concept. For people like me (laypersons, entrepreneurship level 1) and historical business figures (experts, genius level x), business is a tool to bring change to the world. That change does not happen if you merely study and write papers about your thoughts. This change happens if you figure out smart ways of bringing that knowledge to people who in turn do something with it. You can argue about the purpose. But you cannot debate the fact that these things are happening in the world. Or did you not see how Elon Musk shot a rocket in the sky?

This process that I am describing above is basically what business development is all about. And it is a long and painful process, even though it might sound so easy and clear when you read it in these entrepreneurship textbooks and manuals. But the great thing about this process is that it is transparent in the sense that you end up having a very clear indicator of whether or not what you are thinking and designing is actually working: money! Yes, dear capitalist-skeptical helicopter-parents-raised kids and leftist activists, money is an indicator of success, if you like it or not. People do not open their purses if you do not create value for them. And value for human beings usually means you are making their lives easier and/or you create some kind of pleasure. This can also include learning itself, which some people still enjoy, no doubt. But even the point behind writing as a means of knowledge transfer is based on a (tangible) product — a book, an article, a blog or an app.

Now, let us bring all these different thoughts together, so I can come to my last learning from Cummings. Cummings encouraged women to get into business to live out their potential. And she contributed to that by sharing her own success story as well as by teaching them business skills, including sales, accounting, and so on. All this was based on her conviction that business is not some magical sphere which some gifted people are able to master and others do not. Rather, she repeatedly stated that it can be learned — like almost anything in life. What she did not say, however, is that everybody can be successful in any kind of business. Cummings decisively focused on individual talents as the starting point of all business creation. See what she states in the following lines (yes, I am repeatedly violating my “one passage” only rule, but I am fine with that for today;o)).

“Success in business, however, is no longer a matter of sex; thousands of women have talents for business that would bring them millions of dollars if they knew how to apply them or had the determination to try. Business is a science; it can be learned. To achieve success in modern business, however, a woman must learn not to depend upon the lipstick and rouge pot, but to depend upon her ability to develop her mind.” (5)

Whenever I coach or consult with startups or individual professionals, this is a fundamental conviction that I learned from Cummings and many, many others (sports is a great field to look into as well, you will find the same logic there). Even one of my bosses in consulting once told me the same thing: “Strengthen your strengths.” Start with your talents, the things you are good at and enjoy doing, and then have the discipline and determination to become a master in this field. Do not waste your lifetime trying to catch up with people that are already ahead in other fields. This means that you — for some reason — never developed a natural passion for these other fields. Yes, you can learn anything with respect to how to develop a business, etc. But the core value creation of that business will depend on one strength or talent that you already have without you doing anything for this right now. At least, this is the easiest way of approaching entrepreneurship. If you want to choose the hard path and become a professional investment banker, for example, after hating numbers all your life, fine, go for it, your decision. I will say something about “common sense” further down…

This brings me to the very last point: authenticity. This is a word that Cummings, I think, does not use explicitly. But she embodies it more or less. By saying that you should do what you can do, she is saying you should be yourself. In the last passage I am going to show you that she uses the word “real” for this. At least, this is how I interpret it. And this complements another business skill that Cummings seemed to be good at as well: networking. This fits in well with what I wrote about learning and teaching above. Deep learning takes place in interaction with others. This is just a different way of saying that communities are catalysts for change. Learning is change that takes place in your head without others noticing it. Growing a big company is change that is visible. Both require people that have to meet somewhere. And meeting people that you actually enjoy being surrounded by only works if you are “real” — to yourself and to others. This is how Cummings got her first job in real estate which turned out to be her ticket to a successful entrepreneurship career:

Cummings 12

After this initial meeting, Cummings expanded her personal network and everything else followed from this. To share some life facts: She was not a girl from a luxurious family background. She was a young widow with two children when she got her first job as an accountant and then continued to search for opportunities. Learning and the determination to realize her “right” to be in business drove her. Again, you might claim that her decision to write down her experiences was driven by “marketing” or ego purposes. But honestly — who cares? The business advice for women — and I have just showed you glances of this — is still relevant and up to date even almost 100 YEARS LATER! Are you getting it??? If “yes,” then draw your own conclusions and start using your potential in whichever field you choose as your favorite playground. Again, “business” is just a metaphor here. You can replace it with “life.” As Cummings ends her book (and I actually used this sentence in my second book project): “

“Are we to believe that business is something like an exclusive Heaven, surrounded by almost im passible obstacles that just a certain few could ever hope to pass? After all, what is business based upon? Business is just life, and we had life long before we had business. The chief ingredient in a successful life is just good common sense…” (Cummings 100)

This is my final message to you today: use your common sense and never lock it up in some hidden treasure box inside your soul. It will turn your thoughts into actions and money will tell you if these actions bring change to the world.

Reflection Questions

1) No matter if you are a male or female reader — How important is learning for your career at this very moment? How much time do you spend on it (you apply your personal definition of learning as something that you think makes you grow and brings joy to your life)?

2) Which activity do you enjoy most (keep it basic, it can be any verb, e.g., talking, writing, reading, running…)? In which business areas is this activity/skill being used? If you do not know, ask people…

3) Which networking options do you make use of?



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store