At a moment in history when women still hold fewer than 20 percent of board seats at American companies, Gigi Stetler has not only subverted the paradigm — she's lucky to be alive.
Thirty years ago, at the age of 23, she was attacked by a homeless man she had helped with food, clothing and shelter. He charged through the door of her apartment, lunged at her with a knife and stabbed her 21 times, leaving her for dead.
Stetler survived, and throughout her long, slow recovery, she was determined to heal so she could fulfill her dream of becoming a successful businesswoman.
“You don’t realize your inner strength and how strong you are when you’re fighting for your life," she said, adding that during her horrific ordeal, she kept thinking "I’m in the middle of my mission, my accomplishments, you’re not going to stop me."
Today, at 54, Stetler is the proud owner of a recreational vehicle dealership in Florida — a company she built from the ground up to compete in an industry sector largely dominated by men.
Proud to be the first woman in the U.S. to be founder and CEO of an RV dealership, she calls it a challenge she's been proud to have overcome.
“I know exactly what I'm talking about and they still just cannot help themselves to find out where the man is in my life," she said. "I don't take it personally anymore, now I use it to my advantage. When I do a service estimate, I go out there with my clipboard, my heels and my miniskirt and do an estimate on everything from the engine to the body work.”
She wrote about her life in a man's world in a book called Unstoppable! Surviving is Just the Beginning.
Based on her experiences, she is not surprised by the findings of a recent study of women in business. The global accounting firm Grant Thornton surveyed companies listed on stock markets in the United States, India and the U.K. It reported that companies with diverse executive teams outperform competitors run by men only, by $655 billion.
Stetler calls that proof women can transform and lead any company, and she advises other leading businesswoman to step down from their boards and start their own companies.
“There need to be more women business owners having men work for them than the other way around, because they are the heart of this country," she said.
And her advice for young women — or even men — fresh out of college: “Don't leave school thinking you know everything, because they only train your book smarts, they don't train you street smarts.
"Go find the best person you can learn from, and no matter what they pay you, it doesn't matter," she added. "Don't work for money right now — work to learn."
For Stetler, that was the philosophy that drove her to establish her own successful business.