More than 800 women met to connect, dialogue, share experiences, and offer support at the Women’s Leadership Symposium at the Cleveland (Ohio) Public Auditorium in April. Co-hosted by the alumni associations of Ohio University and Cleveland State University, the daylong event featured seven panels led by 44 panelists, all women from myriad professions and backgrounds—teachers to bankers, college presidents to arts administrators. Eight additional breakout sessions and two keynote speakers rounded out the sessions. Speaker highlights follow.
Morning keynote speaker: Rachel Talton, “chief transformation officer” at Flourish Leadership and Flourish Conference for Women in Leadership. She earned an MBA from Cleveland State University and a doctoral degree in management from Case Western Reserve University. Flourish supports women entrepreneurs and girls through leadership development, career training, and grants. Its vision: “positively transform the lives of 10,000 women by 2020.”
Talton made her opening remarks pointed, noting the time that had already passed in 2016.
“What have you done with the 104 days so far?” she asked. “What are you going to do with the 262 left?” Talton then invited the audience to “believe, plan for your purpose, and stay hungry”—to consider how, like followers of Talton’s Flourish endeavors, to “have it all” and “bloom where you are planted.”
Noon keynote speaker: Nancy Frates, mother of Ice Bucket Challenge co-creator Pete Frates. He was 27 years old when diagnosed in 2012 with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease), a nervous-system disease that weakens muscles and that cannot be cured. His choice to use the diagnosis to raise awareness and research dollars through the challenge has inspired many. Nancy Frates’s earlier TEDx Boston talk about his impact has more than 950,000 views.
“I urge you to be very aware of opportunity,” Frates said in her remarks to the Cleveland attendees. “And, once you take hold of it, don’t let anything get in your way.”
Panels and sessions
Topics ranged widely about issues facing women today: from entering corporate leadership positions to battling breast cancer to making it as an entrepreneur. Panels and sessions included an audience Q&A at the end; excerpted clips from a selection follow.
In the 'C' suite: leading women in northeast Ohio share their insights
Q: How has your career changed as you moved into the “C” suite?
As I climbed up, I thought discrimination was behind us. It wasn’t until I went from senior vice president to president that it became so blatant.—Lori Varlotta, president of Hiram College
I had to spend time proving my competency as a woman and an African American. I had the choice to be annoyed or suck it up.—Barbara Danforth, chief executive officer of Summit Academy Management
Q: How do you manage work-life balance?
I’m not a poster child for balance. Some days are good, some are bad. You should strive to be true to your values. And use your support network.—Geralyn Presti, executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary for Forest City Realty Trust, Inc.
I like to work but see the need for a time out. Technology and the pace of life is more difficult. I’m working hard to manage that.—Sally Farwell, president and CEO, Achievement Centers for Children
Q: Share a story about not being taken seriously because of your gender.
When I interviewed for a president position in California [at a higher education institution], I got a call. The person said the bad news was that I wasn’t selected. The good news was that I just “had to change my hair and wear make-up.”—Lori Varlotta
I interviewed for a director job. A man offered me the position but said he wasn’t going to offer me much money “because your husband makes enough.” I said no, but then he came back with a better offer.—Sally Farwell
Women of Color: Aspiring and Inspiring
Q: Who encouraged you and how? Who discouraged you and how did you handle it?
My parents and my network of women [did the former]. Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy. So I push out the negative and keep positive people around me.—Jamie Elwell, leadership development consultant, Progressive Insurance
Q: How do you practice self-care?
I have two kids so I struggle with it. I spend 60 to 70 hours a week at my job. Whatever I have left, that’s my self-care.—Jamie Elwell
I’m 28 years old. I take the day off on my birthday. I turn every electronic thing off. Work will always be there the next day.—Shanette Buford-Brazzell, special events manager, United Way of Greater Cleveland
Q: What advice do you have for college students and young professionals?
Know what you are good at. Know what you don’t like. Lead with agility. When there is a five-point skill requirement on a job description, men think they need to be able to just do one. Women think they need to do all five. Don’t do that.—Jamie Elwell
List your quarterly goals. Surround yourself with people that will lift you up. Go for what you are passionate about.—Shanette