Janet Lustgarten: Vulnerability & Emotional Intelligence

by Kyle Kendall

“A conversation about love.”

Janet Lustgarten is the CEO and co-founder of Kx Systems, a data analysis company. Her everyday work deals very much in the logical, analytical, technical realms.

Her secret to success is decidedly less quantifiable.

“The people who do well are the people who find love,” she says. “Love from other people in their surroundings – whomever, whatever. And that is such a message to be talking about. I’m a computer scientist and we’re talking about something very intellectual… and then I turn into a conversation about love.”

Love and vulnerability are languages women are socialized to know well, but they’re not usually part of the conversation in business. Some experts say it’s time to change that.

And those in the business world are starting to realize that traditionally feminine ways of doing things are not weaknesses, have never been, and in fact can mean stronger business decisions and ultimately better returns.

Take Sara Margulis as an example: she runs two companies – Honeyfund and Plumfund, both crowd-gifting platforms that allow people to contribute money to their friends’ honeymoons, important life events, and even charity causes. Last year, Sara wrote a blog post listing the five things she’d never tell her investors.

Number four on her list was: “I cried at work last week.”  

When we asked why, she shared: “The particular thing I cried about that day was a campaign we’re running on Plumfund for a man that lived in Fukushima, Japan in a radioactive zone, taking care of the animals that were abandoned there… and we sent him an email saying that we’d made the first wire transfer to him, $5,000, and his response was just so simple and so moving. He just said, ‘Thank you very much. All of this money will go to feed the cows.’”

It’s that kind of vulnerability that propels her business.

“Just having that direct connection to see the results of all of our efforts to grow a company that does good for people and makes giving feel good was really moving,” she says. “So of course that involves emotions. That involves joy, and sharing a hope and high-fiving when you get there.”   

It’s Sara’s full understanding of what it means – what it feels like – to give, and sharing that understanding with her customers, that makes her businesses a success.


We often hear that women’s emotions are their points of weakness. Implicit in this message is that they don’t make good leaders, because leaders shouldn’t show their emotions – and certainly not at work.

Recently, though, the idea that women are too emotional to be good business-owners is being overturned by research that shows emotional intelligence is integral to running a great company.

The emerging research shows that, on average, women have slightly higher emotional competency scores than men do. This means that they’re often more tuned in to their own emotions, other people’s emotions, and how to leverage both into success.

Women are, on average, 45% more likely to be seen as (AKA their colleagues and peers perceive them as) showing empathy consistently. Women are also a whole 86% more likely than men to be seen as demonstrating emotional self-awareness on a consistent basis.

Anabel Jenson is the president of Six Seconds, a non-profit that promotes emotional intelligence. She signs her emails with “xo.”

Anabel says women can definitely use their emotional intelligence as an asset in business, but she doesn’t think it’s an inherent female trait. Instead, she says, like most other ‘gendered’ traits, women are socialized so that they’re able to express their emotions more eloquently.

Regardless, the advantage is there: women are very often well positioned to use their emotional intelligence to make better, smarter business decisions.

Anabel says the main component of emotional intelligence that can influence everything from better leadership to smarter business decisions to more effective design is empathy. She uses the example of the Stanford design school, where empathy is actually built into the lesson plan.

“The important thing before you invent something is to practice empathy. So the first thing you do when you think you have a wonderful new idea about, let’s say, a better grocery cart, what you need to do is have several conversations with people who use grocery carts. What would they like to change about the grocery cart? What would they find more convenient? … So the whole idea is that you have to put yourself in the other person’s position.”

Sara adds that this kind of awareness has allowed her to make more authentic connections with her clients.

“When we communicate with our customers, we just try to be real people. People are emotionally intelligent. We read each other’s emotions without even thinking about it every day, and when that’s lacking in a customer relationship, it leaves your customer feeling like a number or like a dollar sign – and not like a person.”

Sara hasn’t always felt comfortable being vulnerable, but she’s since accepted that the way she does business works, and it works well.

“I don’t have to hide anything – I’m doing a good job. And this is how a lot of people are getting it done, so why should we hide? Why should we be ashamed of it?”

The bottom line is this: women make money, even if — and maybe even especially when — they cry at work.


What about you?
Do you think vulnerability at work is a liability or an asset? When’s the last time you cried at work? Comment below or join the conversation in the official Dream, Girl facebook group.

Erin Bagwell