First Lieutenant Emily Núñez Cavness
1st Lt., U.S. Army
I picked up my rifle and reported to my unit's tactical operations center (TOC), where I was the only woman. Then I was off the base meeting with our Afghan National Army partners – you guessed it, only woman again.
My sister Betsy and I grew up in a military family. Together, we created Sword & Plough, a company which works with veterans to repurpose military surplus fabric into stylish bags. I remember calling the Sword & Plough team to plan our Kickstarter launch date -- a few hours later, I received a call from my division headquarters notifying me that my military orders were changing and I would be deploying to Afghanistan in three months. An abrupt change of plans to say the least!
Over the next two months, I trained for my first Army deployment and worked in my "free time" to launch Sword & Plough. Right before I deployed I attended a conference, where I told my advisor Bethany that I was making a list of audiobooks to listen to during workouts in Afghanistan. She recommended Lean In right away.
Fast-forward three weeks and I'm working out in a dusty, 108 °F tent in southern Afghanistan packed with old gym equipment and sweaty military men. Many of them wore headphones with blaring bass tones as they lifted weights and checked on their progress in the mirror. I wore headphones with Lean In coming in loud and clear – like it was speaking directly to me.
While I listened, I would often look around the gym and realize I was the only woman in the tent. After my workouts, I picked up my rifle and reported to my unit's tactical operations center (TOC), where I was also the only woman. Then I was off the base meeting with our Afghan National Army partners – you guessed it, only woman again.
I realized that these were all ideal situations to practice leaning in to leadership. I stopped backing away from sitting at the table for the commander's update brief. I focused on sounding more decisive. And when I received praise, I practiced saying "thank you" instead of fighting it.
Since returning from Afghanistan, I've tried to lean into all areas of my life. Last September the Army released a message stating that women were going to be allowed to attend the Ranger Training Assessment Course, and potentially Ranger School, for the first time in history. I submitted a packet to attend and spent the next five months rigorously training with three of the best Special Forces Master Sergeants in 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
Our training group of two women and three men quickly embodied many of the characteristics of a Lean In Circle. We talked about challenges we faced and tried to help each other by sharing personal experiences. One of the particularly well-decorated sergeants was not sure if allowing women in Ranger School was a good idea, but within two weeks he became one of our most dedicated supporters. I did not make Ranger School myself, but I am proud I went for it – without leaning in to this opportunity, I would not have had the chance to learn from these experienced Special Forces sergeants.
In my life as the CEO of Sword & Plough, I led our team as we leaned in to apply for Intuit's Small Business Big Game competition for a chance to win our own Super Bowl commercial. Out of 15,000 submissions, Sword & Plough is currently one of the top ten finalists and one of the few women-led businesses in the running! The winner will be determined by public voting here and we would sincerely appreciate your support.
I am currently deployed overseas, but I am looking forward to starting a Lean In Circle at 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) when I return. From living at West Point to sharing Thanksgiving dinners with hundreds of soldiers at mess halls, the military has always been essential to who I am – and I am excited to keep leaning in and to help other women in our armed forces do the same.