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2019 Edie Hunt Inspiration Award: Charlie Burnett

Thank you so much. The people are what make Forté such a great organization, and thank you to the incredible team who made this conference possible and most importantly for your investment in women. I’m so honored to be here today and receive the Edie Hunt Inspiration Award. But before I started, I thought it was only fitting that I share with you my power word, but it’s actually a power phrase and it’s “Own It.” And I think it’ll make a little sense after my story.

To start, I want to share with you a story of a classmate that I personally was inspired by. Her name is Angela. And if you read Angela’s resume, a few things are clear. She’s incredibly smart. Graduating with her master’s in financial mathematics. She worked for over 10 years in equity and derivatives trading for an investment bank and she can speak four languages. I on the other hand, can only speak one.

Always eager to network, I decided to ask Angela to lunch one day. And the hour lunch cramped between our pack core schedule, I learned there was even more to Angela than was on her resume. For starters, she was all ready a mother of one with another on the way. Angela’s path to business school was unconventional. She grew up in the Republic of Georgia and lived through the Georgian Civil War, where she was displaced and lived in a refugee camp from the age of 11 to 13. Despite that, Angela scored the highest on university entrance exams and was awarded a scholarship to university. Angela remained unwavering on her path and it’s not surprising that she went into labor during our accounting final exam, where she finished the exam, and then drove to the hospital to deliver her beautiful baby boy.

I realized that Angela did something I could learn from. She embraced what made her unique. During this serendipitous moment over lunch, I realized that her story was so compelling because she owned it. But she owned it not just because of what she did, but rather how she embodied her story and her willingness to get uncomfortable, try new things, bring fresh perspectives and stand out.

It taught me the importance to own my own story, which meant leveraging my unconventional background as the second oldest of nine kids, an army veteran, an army paratrooper, and now an MBA graduate who is pursuing a career in finance.

Today is not about me. It is about each one of you. Each of you have an incredible story to tell. Each of you have experiences that are meaningful and life changing. Each of you has competence, drive, and what it takes to contribute in a significant way. Someday you will have the opportunity to share your story and your story is important. There are women who will be forever changed because you shared something that connects with them.

And ultimately, it comes back to embodying the words of Michelle Obama, “Even when it’s more real than you want it to be, your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something you own.”

So similar to Angela, myself and several of my peers, many of us agreed on two guiding principles to owning your story, which I will share with you today.

First, get uncomfortable and try something new. You’ve probably heard it all ready, MBA’s over commit, myself among them. When speaking to several of my female counterparts, we noticed a common trend. We got involved, rolled up our sleeves, and contributed to our community. However, many of us stuck to areas in which we all ready had competencies and we were missing meaningful opportunities to grow.

At UNC, Carolina Women in Business conducted a study of club leadership, and we found that female club leadership was underrepresented in clubs in traditionally male dominated industries, investment banking, private equity, real estate, and corporate finance, for example. More interestingly, their respective boards also lacked diversity compared to the clubs with female leadership. This finding represents a larger microcosm of society. Women remain underrepresented in male dominated industries and in a recent study it was found that only 12% of global CFO roles are filled by women.

As women MBAs and Forté members, I challenge you to run for student body president, to be club leaders, to explore new industries, to do case competitions, to lead your study teams, and most importantly, to get uncomfortable. Use your next two years by being willing to dive into areas that you might not have prior experience and you will find that you will undoubtedly grow more than you can ever imagine.

With that, remember, growth and comfort do not coexist. And as important as it is to get uncomfortable, Meryl Streep said it best with, “What makes you different or weird, that’s your strength.” Diversity is your strength, bring it. Nowhere is the diversity of thought more important than in business.

When I started my MBA journey, I never thought my gender would play an important role, especially since women in MBA programs are three times more represented than women in the army. Much to my surprise, I realized that certain aspects in the army such as wearing a uniform, equal pay, and even a formal rank structure made experience with regards to gender less significant compared to the nuanced world of business.

When someone shook my hand in business school, instead of seeing an army captain, they saw a woman. I realized that woven into the challenges of my gender, there were opportunities for me to leverage my experiences and strengths. And for me, this meant applying my leadership experience in the army to lead Carolina Women in Business.

When you’re on a study team or in a case competition and often one of a few women seek opportunities to provide a different viewpoint, your perspective is needed and important. For example, with a significant minority of venture capitalists being women, what opportunities are being missed to make a meaningful difference in the world because they lack diversity on their investment teams. It is more important than ever that we celebrate what makes you unique, whether it’s how you approach a problem, a unique perspective, or an intense passion.

In fact, economists have found that teams that operate in parity are more creative and productive. The effects of diversity on the startup world are undeniable, where women-founded companies outperform companies founded by men by 63%. I highlight these facts not to make the argument that women are better than their male counterparts, but rather to demonstrate that you are an integral part of this equation.

Every single one of you has a unique story. Know your strengths and vigorously seek opportunities to apply them. So there will be times throughout business school when you will question, “Should I be here?” The answer is simple. Yes, business needs more perspective, people questioning the status quo, and most importantly, people who are willing to use business to make a positive impact. What makes you different or weird is your strength.

So don’t conform. Celebrate how you are different and never stop being uncomfortable. Congratulations on beginning your journey. I can’t wait to see how you own your story in the next two years.

Learn more about the Edie Hunt Inspiration Award.

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