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Two Powerhouse Women Share Their Secrets for Success

How Barbara Corcoran and Laila Ali used their female intuition to climb their way to the top in male-dominated industries.

What do Barbara Corcoran and Laila Ali have in common?

On paper, the women are from two very different worlds. New York real-estate tycoon, Barbara Corcoran, turned a $1,000 loan into a $5 billion real estate business, before taking her expertise to the small screen, serving on the panel of investors on ABC’s Shark Tank. Laila Ali followed in her father’s footsteps, becoming the most successful female in women’s boxing as a four-time undefeated champion before adding TV host, author and speaker to her resume.

Yet despite (or perhaps because of) their unique career paths, TJ Maxx enlisted the help of both women to talk breaking stereotypes and accomplishing lofty goals to a ballroom full of hopeful entrepreneurs.

T.J. Maxx surveyed hundreds of women across the country and found that 80 percent feel stereotyped by society into specific roles.

Last year, T.J. Maxx spoke to hundreds of women in stores across the country and discovered that 80 percent feel stereotyped by society into specific roles and expectations. So they launched The Maxx You Project aimed at helping women break those barriers.

Which Corcoron and Ali know a thing or two about: They may be at the top of their games now, but it wasn’t a smooth road to success for either woman. Corcoran earned straight D’s in high school and college, hopped between 20 jobs by the time she turned 23. Ali entered one of the most male-dominated industries and had the added struggle of carving out her own place beyond the shadow of her global icon father.

To say the two are brimming with hard-learned advice is an understatement.

So we sat down with the two powerhouses to talk overcoming failure, navigating success and trusting their gut instincts in business and relationships.

What inspires both of you to do what you do every day?

Laila Ali: I'm inspired on a daily basis by my personal goals. I make it a habit to write down what it is that I want to accomplish. And I check that list. I keep myself accountable. My kids inspire me, of course. My ambition inspires me. I want to win at everything that I do in life. I understand that it takes hard work to reach my goals and I'm prepared to do it. My confidence comes from preparation. So I spend a lot of my time preparing.

Sometimes your worst hits in life wind up being your best advantage. If only you could believe that when you're getting hit.

Barbara Corcoran: Much like Laila, over preparation is my key to confidence, but I don't get my inspiration from that. I really get my inspiration from just sheer curiosity. "What will happen if I do this? What won't happen if I don't do this?" That curiosity gets my feet on the floor in the morning, because I can't wait to see what the day brings. When I don't feel that way on certain days, I pretend I feel that way. Then I start falling for my own baloney and I get inspired again.

Tell us about a hurdle or a roadblock in your career that ended up making you better in the long run?

Barbara Corcoran: The hardest thing that happened to me was when my business partner and boyfriend left me and married my secretary. I ended the business a year later, but for that year of my life — being the third wheel — it was terrible, because I didn't have the confidence to leave. I felt shot down, uninspired. But amazing things happen. Sometimes your worst hits in life wind up being your best advantage. If only you could believe that when you're getting hit, which is the hard part. But getting back up and starting the business all over again, minus the partner, was a very, very difficult year.

Laila Ali: I would say one of the toughest times I've had in my career was when I was in boxing, I was at the height of my career and decided I was going to get a divorce. I was divorcing not only my husband, but also my manager at the time and the person who taught me everything I knew about boxing. I didn't think that I could do it without him. So I became concerned about the future of my career and had to take the time to step back and say, "Hey, you have all the knowledge and expertise. You have all this experience in the ring. You can definitely do it." So I surrounded myself with a new team of people and continued on with my career. It was really just getting my mindset in the right place because everything kind of took off from there. I did what I needed to do and I had to face that fear and find the courage to get rid of my husband and my manager and continue on with my career and it worked out.

You felt like you really made it when …

Laila Ali: I felt like I really made it when I won my first championship title. It really felt good, because when I entered the sport of boxing I wanted to be one of the best and be undefeated. And I was able to attain that, not just one championship title, but four.

Barbara Corcoran: The one point that I felt like I made it was my eleventh year of business. I finally made a profit. I had close to $42,000 in profit that I was not expecting. So I immediately went out and I bought my mother and father each a new car; they had never had a new car and I had it delivered to Florida where they were retired. I felt like the queen of England. I felt so cool about myself. I made much better money than that in ensuing years, but nothing ever measured up to the ability to give back to a parent and take them by surprise.

How did you stay motivated to keep working during that 11-year period?

Barbara Corcoran: I never measured my business by profit, because that's not what I was in for. I just wanted to see how far I could go. I set my dream, day one, "I want to be the queen of New York real estate." And I pictured myself just like the Pope with everybody kissing my ring and adoring me. And I had that little idea in my head. So when I was running hard, day after day, hour after hour, I never really thought about making money. I made money by accident eventually. But any money I saw coming in, I plowed right back into the business. I don't even think I had discouraging days where I thought, "Oh God, we're not making money." I just figured something was going to work out. The worst that could happen is I lose my company and go back to being a waitress. I made great tips and I was happy then. I could be happy again. So I don't think money's a great aspiration for a lot of people that succeed. They they have other motivations that turn them on. And [money] was not one of mine.

T.J. Maxx Event in NYC
"Money is not a great aspiration for a lot of people that succeed, and that was not one of mine," says Barbara Corcoran, New York real estate tycoon. Ilya S. Savenok / Getty Images for T.J. Maxx

Do you have advice for someone who has those big dreams, but the money factor is holding them back?

Barbara Corcoran: When I started making a lot of money, I had money to invest in real estate, but I didn't have the time. I was building a business. And so I found myself five different partners, who were specialists not even in the brokerage business, in different neighborhoods around the city, who knew their streets inside and out. And I approached them and said, "You know this neighborhood. Find me the best building. I'll give you the money and you be my partner." The lesson here is if you've got the money, you need people to make money with your money. And if you have the talent, you can always merchandise your talent to someone who's got the money and make money. There's two pieces to it: talent and money. And unless they're together, nothing really big happens. So I wound up doing very well, as did my partners, over all the years with these great investors that I would have never had if I hadn't had the confidence to get some scrappy person who really wanted to hustle. You can always get the money if you believe that you have a talent and you know your piece of the world better than anybody else.

Let’s talk morning routine: What are two or three things that you do every single morning that set you up for success?

Laila Ali: I don't know about you, but there are lots of times in my life where I feel overwhelmed, just being a mom, a businesswoman, a wife … all the hats that we wear as women. And I came to a point in my life where I really had to establish a morning routine. I like to wake up and just feel gratitude. Gratitude for waking up, for my health, for my kids, for my family. A lot of times in the evening, I'll write down what my goals are for the next day; When I wake up, I look at that list again. I meditate. Sometimes I journal. I always have a cup of coffee. I always work out first thing in the morning, because if I don't, it won't get done. To me, it really comes down to your priorities. Because those are the things that are important to me: my spirituality, centering with the universe and God, and then getting my workout in and putting my health first. That makes everything else feel easy. Anything that comes up, I feel like I can conquer it throughout the day.

Over preparation is my confidence builder. But I bear it out of thinking I'm going to fail, every time.

Barbara Corcoran: I do prioritize. I just go through my to-do list, which is endless and ridiculous. And I put down what my A's are. What are the real priorities? And I try to be okay with just accomplishing the A's.

What do you do to psych yourself up for a big meeting?

Barbara Corcoran: I picture myself failing. As weird as that is. I think, "Oh my God, I'm going to fail." I scare the living daylights out of myself and that gets me running hard. I picture whoever is going to compete with me, and I'm so fiercely competitive by nature, because I'm one of ten kids and we could never get my parents' attention. I get competitive. And I always arrive very over prepared. Over preparation for me is my confidence builder. But I bear it out of thinking I'm going to fail, every time.

Laila Ali: It's amazing that we're so opposite on that. We're two successful people and it just goes to show how different things work for different people. For me, I like to imagine being successful. I like to imagine the end, which is success. I envision it, where I can actually see it happening. Going into the ring, seeing the fight happen, seeing me winning that belt, seeing me back in my dressing room celebrating with a slice of cake, which I always had. And the same with meetings. I do prepare though; that confidence comes from preparation, because that fear is in the back of your head of not doing well, of not saying the right thing or having the right information. That's where the preparation comes in for me. But I always go in seeing the end result.

Both of you have seen so much success in your own careers. How are you paying it forward?

Laila Ali: I am so excited to be a part of the T.J. Maxx Maxx You Project, because I feel like this is a way of paying it forward and giving back. There's so many women that need to be inspired, encouraged to go after their dreams, their goals, their aspirations. Because we all have that champion within us. It really is about your mindset and having the tools that you need, surrounding yourself with the right people, people who have been able to achieve some of the things that you want to achieve.

Barbara Corcoran: One of the things that I think I do very, very well is inspire people. So in being asked to partner with the Maxx You Project, I was thrilled. I’m hoping to light the fire of individuality and the inspiration that we're seeing here in the faces of all these people and give them practical advice on how to move forward. A lot of people can start with a dream, and then somewhere along the way, they get lost. So we're going to try to focus them. Everything's practical we're teaching. Business planning, even something as simple as an elevator pitch, all the things that you need to build a business.

T.J. Maxx Event in NYC
Laila Ali partnered with T.J.Maxx to host The Maxx You Project Workshop encouraging women pursuing their dreams to let their individuality shine, on Saturday, July 15, 2017, in New York City.Ilya S. Savenok / Getty Images for T.J. Maxx

What specific advice do you have for women who working to succeed in male-dominated industries?

Laila Ali: I am in one of the number one male-dominated industries, boxing. And then coming behind my father, who was a global icon and the greatest of all time, was pretty intimidating. So for me, it was really about finding that talent, that courage, that strength within myself. The first thing I had to do was believe in myself that I could actually get in that ring and be successful. It wasn't about anybody else, but me in that moment, and there weren't going to be any limits on me, except those that I had on myself in my own mind. When you believe in yourself and you find your passion, nobody can stop you.

There's a long distance between being inspired and actually running it over to the finish line.

Barbara Corcoran: There's a long distance between being inspired and having a view like I did, "The queen of New York real estate," and actually running it over to the finish line. And there's so many talents you need in that in-between stage, which is every day of your working career. You don't have to be in the real estate brokerage business to need those talents. I'm sure in [Laila’s] field, you had to judge the right people, the right managers, when to start, when to stop, how much money you had, what you could enter, what you couldn't enter, how hard you wanted to work. These are all judgment calls. And I think I'm going to try to put a little flesh on the aspiration, for these women to really feel like, "Okay, I got it now. Let me run. And here are my top three priorities." If they leave with top three priorities to actually make it happen, I will go home tonight smiling as I go to bed.

What is sitting on your nightstand right now?

Laila Ali: Too much junk. Magazines, books, a little prayer angel, my journal. Probably a bottle of water.

Barbara Corcoran: My nightstand has a little green wind-up alarm clock, because I was trying to break the habit of looking at my phone first thing in the morning. So I got it. It was adorable. It has never run. And it's still sitting there. And I still have my phone on my nightstand.

What book are you reading right now?

Barbara Corcoran: How To Win Friends and Influence People for the eighth time, maybe the ninth. Why? It keeps you on the straight and narrow. I think it's still the best book written in the industry no matter what your dream is because you can't get to any of your dreams without people. And it resonates as real today as it ever did. I like to read it every once in awhile. Gets me straightened out again.

Laila Ali: I'm in nutrition school, so I'm reading a book called Wheat Belly. It just talks about eating grains and how they affect our bodies. I'm totally into it.

What is your best tip on navigating success and failure?

Barbara Corcoran: Ignore the naysayers. Naysayers come in all different forms. You have to eliminate them from your brain vocabulary. Steer clear of complainers. They suck your energy. I think of complainers as thieves. They come in the night, they grab your wallet and they leave. Naysayers in any kind of a team situation will ruin the team faster than you could blink an eye because people who are at a pity party need other people to feel sorry with. They suck other good people down. I'm excellent at avoiding anyone who's negative 50 miles away, because I plan on being positive and getting everything I want out of life and giving everything I can to life. And so why would I want to spend a minute with anybody like that?

Laila Ali: Be consistent. So many times, we're like, "We're going to be on the straight and narrow. We're going to do X, Y and Z." And people don't do it for long enough. Sometimes they give up just before they make it over that final hump. So I think that you have to stay the course. If you're passionate about something, you believe in it, then you have to be consistent. And you have to put in the hard work that it takes to be successful.

Barbara Corcoran: It’s a lot of hard work to be consistent. You know what being consistent takes? It takes finishing. You start it, you finish it. You start it, you finish it. So many people are good at starts and not so good at finishing.