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by Kristen Hadeed

With Women’s History Month around the corner, I’ve been thinking lately about being a female entrepreneur in my generation. I’m what you’d consider a “Gen Y” or “millennial.” Most of you reading this probably are, too.

I started a business when I was a junior in college. What began as a stereotypical female job (house cleaning) quickly turned into an award-winning enterprise that I owned and operated before graduating in 2010. Fast forward to 2014—my cleaning company is open in 2 locations, employs more than 400 students (male and female) during peak seasons and has a division that produces events to bridge the gap between business and startup communities. In addition to my cleaning company, I launched a tech company in 2012. This new venture centers on an application that will optimize scheduling and streamline business processes for cleaning companies. Our solution is expected to revolutionize the cleaning industry and is scheduled to sell to the public this spring.

I am only 25.

Could this have happened to me if I was born 30 years earlier? 50 years? If I was born in another country?

I’ve got to be honest—sometimes, I take it for granted. I try to remind myself that not everyone has it as easy as Americans do. I mean, I was born during the information age in a nation that is paving the way toward equality and in a community with accessible resources for creating a formula for success. It’s not a rare combination, but it’s an enormous head start compared to the journey many women face in developing countries and impoverished cities around the world.

Don’t get me wrong: The world is definitely making progress toward equality, but not fast or widespread enough. According to UNESCO, the current out-of-school population has been disproportionately female, and the right of education for girls continues to be inhibited in the third world.

It’s unbelievable to me that in our lifetime, there are women without access to education and tools for learning. We need to work harder on breaking down barriers and stereotypes; it’s the only path toward positive change and progress. We need to make education accessible to everyone, no matter your age, gender, orientation or religious beliefs.

How am I contributing toward equal rights for women? I hope that by creating and running a company as a young woman, I will set an example for others after me. I hope that my story will encourage women, young and old, to chase their dreams and follow their hearts. In my own company, I have made it my mission to transform the young women on my leadership team into fearless innovators who have incredible self-confidence and a “bring it on” attitude.

It all boils down to this…Jump (it takes more than a step!) outside your comfort zone. There have been countless times where I have walked into meetings and have been the only female in the room. Sure, I felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave — but I never did. When I wanted to voice my opinion about a certain topic in a boardroom dominated by males, I would always second-guess myself. It would be so much easier to remain quiet, smile, and nod. But I never did.

We’ve got to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. As women, we can’t let our gender stand in the way of voicing our opinions, and we can’t let it muddle our self-confidence. We have every right to be just as successful as our guy friends.

Did you know that in the USA, a woman with exactly the same level of education as her male coworker can expect to earn around 18 percent less than him, even when factors like type of degree and actual hours worked are taken into account?

So, to all my ladies out there—what can you do to even the playing field?

Join organizations on campus and take leadership roles within them. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinions, whether it be in front of a class, an organization, or even a group of friends. Don’t be afraid to apply for that internship you’ve been dreaming about or ask for a raise or change jobs because the position you’re currently in doesn’t match your values. If you can’t find a job that will pay you what you deserve, create one for yourself; the entrepreneurship community is thriving right now. We are in the most progressive time of our lives, digitally and on a human level; take advantage of it!

Those who step outside their comfort-zones and ignore the stereotypes and naysayers naturally emerge as leaders, inspiring others around them to do the same. That is how we create change.

Gen Y, this is our time. Let’s be the generation known for breaking down gender barriers and inspiring the women who come after us to achieve anything they set their minds to.

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Visit campuspeak.com/hadeed to learn more about Kristen and her leadership keynotes.