On February 23, over 1,000 attendees gathered on campus for the 28th annual Dynamic Women in Business Conference, hosted by the Women’s Student Association. This year’s theme, “Our Mosaic: Stronger as We,” aimed to celebrate disparate stories and backgrounds and explore ways in which business leaders can actively and intentionally leverage diversity to drive success. The conference featured four keynote presentations and 20 panels, focused on themes as varied as “Work/Life Balance,” “Impacting Investing,” “Diversity in the Great Outdoors,” and “Design: Creativity, Impact, Production.”
“I’ve come to a number of the WSA conferences and this year I felt like the topics of the panels were more diverse,” remarked attendee Moha Shah, who manages innovation initiatives at Liberty Mutual. The conference’s 120 speakers shared personal and professional anecdotes, inciting discussions that feel more critical than ever.
Despite being the most diverse class in history, only 21% of the current U.S. Congress are female, and only 11% are women of color. In 2017, an ABC News-Washington Post poll found that more than half of American women have experienced “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances.” At its current rate, the gender pay gap will take over 200 years to close. In so many arenas, progress has stalled, leaving significant gains on the table; research repeatedly shows that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones. But far too often, hiring and promotion are exercises in pattern-matching. When marginalized populations are denied opportunities to demonstrate success, subsequent candidates face a systematic disadvantage.
Some speakers offered practical advice. On the Emerging Tech panel, Dara Treseder, CMO of Carbon, and Andrea Coravos, CEO of Elektra Labs, reflected on hiring practices. “If you have an open role, keep the list of requirements short,” remarked Coravos (MBA ’17). Too often, added Treseder, “women will apply if they check nine-and-a-half boxes. Men will apply if they check five.” A small consideration of language can translate to a big impact on hiring.
Across sessions, several speakers emphasized the importance of conviction and fearlessness in pursuit of growth and opportunity. In evaluating personal and professional choices, “the difference for me is when I make a decision out of confidence versus a decision out of fear,” stated Coravos. Keynote speaker Shan-Lyn Ma, CEO of Zola, reflected on the trepidation she felt in evolving from a product leader to a general manager in earlier jobs. During the transition she sought guidance from mentors. “The best advice I got,” she said, “is this: ‘[Mess] it up. Get over it. Whatever you don’t know how to do, find someone who does, and ask them.’” The simplicity of the message inspired boldness in her ensuing career decisions.
Other panelists highlighted the significance of paying it forward. “These days, I don’t go to meetings without bringing someone who wasn’t invited,” said Natalie Neilson Edwards, Global Director of Inclusion and Diversity at the Estée Lauder Companies, during the Beauty in Diversity panel. Invoking congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s remark, “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” Edwards continued: “reach behind you and invite people in,” but never neglect to “pound on the door with a folding chair.”
Coordinating an event of this scale is no small feat, but the conference organizers embodied the ethos espoused by the day overall: that a team is best-positioned to deliver exceptional results when complementary strengths converge. “Much like running a company or launching a startup, it 100% depends on the team. As much as this was a challenging role, I loved my team so much that I’d absolutely do it again. By the end, we could read each other’s minds,” remarked Sarah Scalia, conference chair and member of the class of 2019.
The WSA concluded the weekend with the announcement of next year’s co-presidents, Sophia Clementi and Catie O’Sullivan, class of 2020.
Emily Batt (MBA ’20) is a joint MS/MBA student with the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She was previously a design engineer and product manager in hardware and software technology companies. She was trained as a physicist, loves the arts, and always has too many tabs open.