Women now make up more than half of the incoming classes in the top U.S. universities, but still only comprise a small fraction of CEOs, board directors, NGO and government leaders. While women are increasingly getting into the game in equal numbers to men, they are not yet breaking into the upper echelons of management. That’s why we convened the Kellogg Global Women’s Summit, a day-and-a-half event in which hundreds of Kellogg alumnae, students and business leaders gathered to engage in thoughtful conversations about the roadblocks women face on their route to the C-suite.
Created by Kellogg women for Kellogg women, the event brought together nearly 800 people in Evanston to learn from each other, make meaningful peer and mentor connections, and seek advice about the unique challenges they’re facing at their specific career stage. Many other alumnae joined remotely from New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Hong Kong.
Below are four key lessons that I learned from this landmark event:
1) Empowered women empower women
As I sat in Gies Plaza and looked around at the hundreds of women from different careers, ages, and backgrounds, I realized that the most remarkable thing about the Women’s Summit was really the simplest: Our greatest inspiration lies in each other. I didn’t need to hear the backstory of each and every woman sitting around me to know that she is unstoppable in her own way – she has overcome obstacles and forever changed the organizations for which she’s worked. Women in the home-stretches of their careers took delight at the fresh ambition of current Kellogg women, while those of us just at the beginning reveled in the battle stories of the women years ahead of us on their paths. We inspired each other, and our sheer presence combined with the significance of the gathering (850 women!) made everyone leave feeling empowered.
2) Times are changing
The barriers women faced 20 years ago are clearly different than what women face today. And our approaches are different, too. Edith Cooper ’86 never worked for a woman for the first 25 years of her career. For some of us in school, we’ve been lucky to have an equal or greater number of female bosses than men. There are countless examples of how the times have changed, but what I really noticed changing is the attitudes women are bringing. Instead of the asking the question about whether they can have it all, many of my peers are simply insisting on having it all. We are continuing to change the way society operates – creating flexile work schedules, finding supportive partners who share the burden of household and family responsibilities and instituting corporate cultures that embrace diversity and balance. The women of my generation are inspired by the past and dedicated to creating an easier future for ourselves and our daughters.
3) Be bold
If I had to pick one thread that connected all of the women I heard from at the Summit, it would be that at one point in their careers, they took a risk. For some, it paid off – like when Sherry Lansing decided to quit teaching and move to L.A. to become an actress. For others, there were some rocky times. But regardless of how it went, they never regretted the risk. In fact, it was almost always the most pivotal moment in their career. Roslyn Brock ’99 put it best: “When you’re willing to take bold courageous moves, others are watching you. People will come and support you. Do your homework: Know your risks and your opportunities. Why work so hard and make the sacrifices if you can’t enjoy the journey?” Sometimes the risk is moving somewhere new, switching careers, or taking a job you feel wildly unqualified for. But these ladies taught me that at the end of the day, the risk pays off in one way or another.
4) Be yourself
“It’s your life, and whatever you choose to do is correct, as long as you’re happy.” That’s one of the pieces of advice that Sherry Lansing closed with in her keynote speech, and I can’t get it out of my head. It seems so intuitive, yet so many of us lose sight of our own hopes, dreams, values and needs in the quest for “success.” But ultimately, Sherry explained, all that matters is to be true to yourself.
If there was ever any implication that there’s one “right” way to be a female leader or a successful executive, this Summit clarified that the only right path is one of authenticity. At times, panelists disagreed with each other on their approach to career questions like how to balance a family life or what to do when you fail. But there was consensus that the best approach to any dilemma is to be yourself. Camiel Irving ’14 (of P&G Ventures) knocked it out of the park with her approach: “I lean into myself. I do me. I spend more time outperforming and less time out-pretending.”
Lauren Levine is a first year in Kellogg’s 2Y program majoring in finance, and she will be interning at a Chicago-based impact investing firm this summer.
This article also appeared in the Inside Kellogg blog.