Leadership conference brings women together

Astrid Lium

On the heels of International Women’s Month was a women’s leadership conference at Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center.

Sponsored by Simmons College, the 33rd annual Leadership Conference last month featured an array of inspiring women from different walks of life. The longest-running women’s leadership forum in the country, the event reached its maximum capacity and attracted about 2500 attendees.

The theme this year was “Innovation and Impact,” and a list of notable women discussed various ramifications of those overarching concepts. The speakers represented a variety of backgrounds, from entrepreneurs and athletes to money managers and media personalities. A unifying factor was the encouragement of women to excel in any field.

According to Joyce Kolligian, the conference’s executive director, “This year’s roster included some of the nation’s most visionary change-makers who recognized and seized opportunities that have altered the course of their industry or profession.”

The 2012 keynote speakers of the all-day conference included Meg Whitman, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP) and former president and CEO of eBay; tennis pioneer Billie Jean King; Robin Chase, former CEO of Zipcar and founder of GoLoco; and Michele Norris, co-host of National Public Radio’s (NPR) program “All Things Considered.”

Previous guests of the conference hail from a range of fields and have included Oprah Winfrey, Toni Morrison, ABC News’ Christiane Amanpour and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

In the Corporate Marketplace area were booths set up by the conference’s business and media sponsors, including Cisco, TD Bank, Philips, EMC² and HP. Held in the ballrooms and conference rooms were different talks, which Whitman kicked off with opening remarks at 8am.

The following 10 hours included discussions, book signings, lunch and lectures. Over the course of the day, a dozen influential women shared their insights and tips on leadership, business, success and balance in life

Norris, the first African American female host for NPR, opened the afternoon talk with thoughts on feminism, race relations and recent advancements toward equality. Noting the sheer size of the cavernous room, she commented on the seemingly endless space filled by strong women. “It just keeps going and going!”

The 50-year-old radio personality underscored the importance of not taking such advancements for granted. “Even within some of our lifetimes, it would have been hard to imagine a room like this,” she said.

Before delving into the topics addressed by her 2010 “accidental” family memoir, “The Grace of Silence,” Norris balanced the serious talk with a light-hearted anecdote. The mother of two explained how her kids plead over dinner, “Mommy, can we have the radio voice?” Norris joked that she provides the coveted “radio voice” only after they have cleaned their rooms.

The bulk of her talk related to the discussion of racism, particularly within her own family, as it appears in her book. “I wanted to write a book about how other people talk about race,” she said. When Norris listened to the conversation closer to home, she realized how little of it she had heard before. “I was writing the wrong book,” she concluded.

The result was a collection of first-hand accounts from her parents and extended family about racism. Her family faced discrimination in a predominantly white Minnesotan neighborhood; her grandmother traveled the country as an “itinerant Aunt Jemima”; her father was shot while on his way to take a class about the Constitution.

Other speakers at the event included Vernice Armour, third-generation Marine and the first African American female combat pilot in U.S. military history; Carmen Wong Ulrich, a finance expert, author, public speaker and former host of CNBC’s program “On the Money”; and Rhonda Kallman, who helped launch The Boston Beer Company (makers of Samuel Adams Boston Lager) and New Century Brewing Co.

Moderators of the conference included Jill Avery, assistant professor of marketing at the Simmons School of Management, and Dr. Teresa Nelson, the Elizabeth J. McCandless Professor of Entrepreneurship Chair and director of the School of Management’s Entrepreneurship Program.

Proceeds from the Leadership Conference go toward Simmons graduate scholarships.


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