Female professionals and MBA students from across the nation gathered for The Dynamic Women in Business Conference, organized by the Women’s Student Association (WSA), held at Harvard Business School on Saturday, January 27.
As one of the largest conferences on campus, more than 900 participants packed into Burden Auditorium, including a group of 17 young women from the Summer Search program. Conference chair Peggy Yu says, “The goal of the conference is to demonstrate the diverse personal and professional paths women may take, and that no path is typical and all are possible.”
“I really love the name of this conference but it feels a little redundant to me-have you ever met a woman in business who is not dynamic?” began Lois Quam, President of UnitedHealth Group’s Public and Senior Markets division, in her keynote speech. As one of Fortune‘s most powerful women in business, and a mother of three (including twins), Quam shared humorous anecdotes on being a working mom, including one where she received a same-day meeting request from the governor of Minnesota for a spot on the state’s Health Care Access Commission. Quam explained that any other day, she could have rearranged her schedule to meet with him, but on that particular day, she was still lying in the hospital just after giving birth.
The main focus of Quam’s speech was that of corporate social responsibility (CSR), a theme that echoed throughout the conference. She pointed out that while some say that business is all about profits and other considerations are a disservice to shareholders, Quam counters, “Saying the purpose of business is to make money is like saying the purpose of government is to hold elections.” Instead, she believes that, “business exists to address the problems of individuals and of society” and called on the rising generation of business leaders to embrace creative and sustainable solutions to society. Whether it means making CSR into a part of one’s core business or collaborating with government to unite the best practices of public and private domains, Quam emphasized that “this is not a gender-specific call to action.”
Quam’s powerful keynote was followed by three panel sessions dispersing wisdom on diverse topics such as the “Business of Sports” and the “5-year Reunion,” which provided perspectives on life after HBS by female graduates. For example, the session on “Power Couples,” which consisted of three marriages where both partners had high-powered careers, tackled the issues of work-life balance. Stephanie Mims, mother of two and a senior manager at Dell, offered the advice that we should realize that, “You can have it all-but you can’t have it all at once.” Although the road may be difficult to finding a sustainable equilibrium in a power couple, Leslie Campbell, a VP at Dell who leads a cross-country marriage, offered some encouragement, “It’s been great having someone who understands my profession…and he really keeps me grounded. It’s a great balance.” Partner NB Sadaf Saya says, “The concept of a power couple was really interesting-making it work requires true teamwork and partnership.”
As women flocked to Spangler during lunchtime, mingling and networking continued in the dining room where tables were staffed with panel members eager to discuss the day’s topics and also in the Williams Room, where recruiters were present during a job fair.
In the afternoon, second keynote speaker Addie Swartz, Founder and CEO of B*tween productions, echoed the conference’s theme of social entrepreneurship. She recalled how she created the Beacon Street Girls brand, a group of five characters that offer a healthier alternative to the MTV lifestyle for today’s young girls, after a shopping trip to Abercrombie & Fitch with her daughter. These girls provide positive role models that help youngsters deal with real world issues such as peer pressure and divorce. From her experience developing the Beacon Street Girls series of books and gifts, Swartz wanted to communicate that “you can do good while doing well” and that “idealism can coexist with profit.”
This conference certainly was a celebration of dynamic women in business, helping to inspire the newest generation of female business leaders. Molly McCarthy (NB) says “The thing that stood out to me is that all these women are very successful but they had very different career paths, so it’s kind of inspiring that as long as you are doing the things that you love, you will get there in the end.”