“My hope is that after leaving here, you will feel transformed,” Elissa Sangster, Forté Foundation’s executive director, stated as she welcomed attendees to the 2016 Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference. The June 17-18 event in Austin, Texas, drew 478 attendees from 33 U.S. states, 11 countries, and 43 MBA schools to hear insights from women business leaders and to network with fellow MBA students.
Introducing the theme of this year’s event, “Let’s turn it up: Transform the power trip. Propel your career,” Elissa likened the two-day conference to a journey and an opportunity to learn from other women and transform their existing ideas and networks into something even more powerful.
In her opening keynote address, “Leadership Lessons,” Lindsey Pollak, bestselling author, explored the traits of great leaders. She noted four key elements of a strong leadership brand, including visibility; differentiation; consistency; and authenticity. She also shared leadership lessons, such as the importance of:
- Keeping a finger on the pulse of one’s industry.
- Having deep knowledge and expertise of one’s chosen work.
- Understanding how colleagues want to communicate since technology has rendered a wide array of communications styles.
- Tackling “big rocks first” when faced with competing priorities.
- Performing “small goods” that consider how to help others and not just oneself.
The two-day event included insightful Career panels; candid Dialogue with Leadership sessions; a Career Expo & Networking reception; professional development workshops; a ceremony to honor the 2016 Edie Hunt Award winner and finalists; the first-ever Power Pitch competition, where budding entrepreneurs proposed business ideas; and an inspiring closing keynote, “Courageous Leadership,” delivered by Cindy Solomon.
Throughout the conference, attendees were asked to think of one word that exemplified their aspirations as business leaders. Attendees posted their words to the “word wall” in the conference entryway and ordered “word” bracelets to serve as a reminder during their career journeys.
Themes emerged throughout the conference that frequently were reflected by “one word” choices, including:
Sue Mahony, senior vice president and president of Eli Lilly Oncology (London Business School MBA), emphasized during the Dialogue with Leadership session the importance of aligning passion with purpose. Her passion lies at the “intersection of science and business,” and her job to develop medicines for people with cancer sharpens her focus. Sue carries a card that reminds her of her primary purpose, which asks, “would a patient with cancer care?” As Alison Schambach, director of the Healthcare practice at Tata Consultancy Services and panelist during the Consulting career session, put it: “find what you love because if you’re passionate, you’ll do well.”
Having an open mind can lead to success in unexpected ways, said Pam Klyn, vice president of the global products organization at Whirlpool. During her introduction of the opening keynote speaker, Pam said that she has frequently accepted roles she did not plan for, but her willingness “placed [her] in a position for them to be offered.” Taking a role as product lead for Whirlpool’s cooking products was a challenge because it required that she move to Italy, and cooking was not one of her strengths. During her tenure, however, Whirlpool’s earnings in this category tripled.
Christine Laurens, chief financial officer of AT Kearney, said that being open to opportunities requires a proactive approach that will differentiate an employee. “Show you’re curious and ambitious and what you want to do…very few people do that,” the HEC-Paris alumna said.
Many conference attendees cited authenticity as a guiding force. Chakilla Robinson White, group vice president of operations for DaVita, said that being true to herself has been key to her success. As she advised attendees, “If you want credibility with your team, let them know who you are.” Katherine Mei, a first-year MBA at the University of Illinois, said that she fears talking sometimes because English is not her first language, but attending the conference helped her recognize the value of “being yourself and embracing who you are.”
The conference was an exceptional opportunity to network and build relationships. Iris Birungi, vice president for diversity campus recruitment at Bank of America, appreciates Forté because it “provides access to a sisterhood, a population of women who are willing to help other women.” Alejandra Chavez, MBA student at the University of North Carolina who is originally from Ecuador, met women during the conference who helped her realize that her dream “to be a role model for Hispanic women is possible.”
Attendees left on Saturday with fresh insights, new information, and a growing network. Most importantly, they realized that truly anything is possible. As Kirstin Scott, MBA student at the University of Texas, said, the conference allowed her to realize that “there are so many pathways and opportunities,” and an MBA is a “great springboard” to any career.