As a first-time attendee of the WSA Dynamic Women in Business conference, I was blown away by the conference committee’s ability to organize and seamlessly execute a conference of this magnitude on campus. The day overflowed with enthusiasm, inspiration and passion for the future, and there was often standing room only with a sold out 1150 attendees.
This year marked the 25th annual conference, so it was only appropriate to think about and discuss how the next 25 years will go, and where women will be when we reach the next milestone. How will we get there? What obstacles do women face today and how can we eliminate them and learn to approach them constructively? Read further for more insight on the day’s themes as discussed by the panelists and keynotes about 1) How they started, 2) How they forged their path and rose to the top, 3) If they think women can “have it all,” and 4) How we will lead the next generation.
How They Started
This year’s keynotes and panelists were all impressive kick-ass women (and several men!). They know that the only stupid question is the one left unasked, and at the beginning of their careers, they all asked smart, thoughtful questions to smart, thoughtful people, then listened to the answers and took action.
Tracy Britt Cool, CEO of Pampered Chef and opening keynote speaker, told us the story of how she wrote Warren Buffett a letter when she was 24 years old detailing their similarities and why he should want her to work for him. That may sound like a big leap of faith, but Warren must not have gotten many other letters that year because Tracy got the job and worked for him as a Financial Assistant.
Another way to psych yourself up for a cold (or warm) intro is to realize that Diane Darling, the Branding Yourself workshop leader, was right when she said, “you’re not a stranger, you’re just someone I haven’t talked to yet!”
Nearly every speaker at the conference advised that you’ve got to reach out and ask for specific help, or a specific role, or in a specific industry, and ask them for what you want. Point out your similarities and your passions to the recipient so they can act effectively on your request. Have more than one passion? “There are many right answers, you just need to pick one. Don’t spend one-to-two years wallowing in indecision, which you will deeply regret later in life,” said Steve Wunker, HBS alum and Managing Director of New Markets Advisors on the Work-Life Balance panel.
We learned that seasoned professionals are open and excited to speak with and help those shaping our next 25, we’ve just got to ask them. It takes zero energy to daydream about how you want to shape your next 25, and really, it takes almost as little effort to send a letter. As Diane Darling said, “there is no shortage of interesting people but there is a shortage of people who don’t follow up.” And that knowledge friends, is the difference between the full-time daydreamers and the full-time ass kickers.
How They Forged Their Path and Rose to the Top
Once Tracey Britt Cool was on Warren’s team, how did she stay there and shine bright like a diamond? For starters, she never stopped asking questions; she routinely asked, “what is that? I don’t know that,” and always listened to and applied the answers to her work.
It also doesn’t hurt to earn the respect of your peers, hone your communication skills, continually refine your goals, become approachable and know how to approach other people. Several speakers stressed the importance that your first job out of school above all else should teach you how to be a Professional before teaching you the intricacies of your chosen field.
Let’s say you already are an approachable Professional that asks questions and leads a team. Melanie Whelan, CEO of SoulCycle, told us that you can’t move forward from there if you don’t have a strong team with the right people. Look for people who see challenges as an exciting opportunity to tackle something rather than people who only see the challenge in it. “No one wants to be managed. People want to be inspired and encouraged,” Melanie says. Her unwavering passion for what SoulCycle is doing was palpable during her closing keynote – she is 110% committed to the belief that SoulCycle is not scaling t-shirts, not scaling salads, but scaling an experience that changes lives. Gusto like that gets you to the top and keeps you there.
Can Women Have it All?
“‘Having it all’ and ‘work/life balance’ are overused. Find a relationship between work and the rest of life that suits you in any moment in time – it will always be changing,” said Jody Greenstone Miller, Co-Founder and CEO of Business Talent Group, also on the Work-Life Balance panel. Steve Wunker agreed with Jody and said, “the work cycle does not equal our life cycle,” and Melanie Whelan further agreed by saying, “You don’t go to work then go to life.”
So if our culture’s affinity for working long hours (Steve Wunker thought during his time at Bain that he was slacking off he worked 80 hours a week or less) does not coincide with “having it all” outside of work, what are women supposed to do?
“You can have it all, you just need to define what ‘all’ means to you,” said Melanie Whelan. Those speakers with partners conceded that having support from their partner gave them more flexibility in their own careers because they approach life as a team. Those without a partner said they sometimes had to rethink their work so there would be a different, more accessible route to the top, and were smart about jobs that required them at a moment’s notice.
And from the mom-to-be opening keynote speaker Poppy Harlow, CNN Newsroom Weekend Anchor, “Life is long. Step back and just breathe.”
How to Lead the Next Generation
Today, men typically apply to new opportunities if they meet 60% of the criteria listed, while women only apply if they meet 100%. We’ve got to start going after those opportunities, and encouraging the generation behind us to go after them, too.
Katrina Lake, CEO & Founder of Stitch Fix, told an inspirational story about her grandma, who in the face of personal loss and stacked odds, refused the cards life had dealt her and successfully raised her family as a single working mother. She taught Katrina by example that she could do anything under any circumstances, all she needed was courage.
Now Katrina is living her dream, and passing on her grandma’s wisdom for the next 25: invest in relationships, make connections and keep them up, find a good mentor and then be a good mentor, and invest in women any way that you can.
Emily Dohse (Class of 2016 Partner) is a Harbus contributor and an Executive Assistant at Egon Zehnder. She enjoys reviewing HBS events, attending themed parties with her fiance Ed Kennedy, and is an avid fan of Dateline.