The lights came down, a hush fell over the audience, and three words flashed across a television screen: “Look around you.”
This was the introduction that kicked off the first-ever Leading Ladies gala, hosted by the Yale Women’s Leadership Initiative in the Silliman dining hall on Saturday night. The short video at the beginning of the gala urged women to look around and draw inspiration from one another, because many attendees could go on to become future senators, Nobel prize winners or multimillionaire founders of new startups.
The event — which featured rousing speeches, a slam poetry performance, musical renditions from all-female a capella group Whim’n Rhythm and a keynote speech from entrepreneur Katie Rae SOM ’97 — aimed to promote the appreciation of women at Yale, recognizing female undergraduates for their leadership roles and encouraging more women to become leaders in the Yale community. Rae urged the audience to become leaders by surrounding themselves with supporters, finding their voices and learning how to work well with others. WLI Outreach Chair Jade Shao ’15, a co-organizer of the event, said the planning for the gala began at the start of the semester.
“We chose Katie Rae to speak because she embodies support,” said WLI Business Chair Tina Yuan ’16, the other organizer of the event. “Often women try to destroy and attack each other so we can see ourselves as better, but Katie exemplifies what it means to be a mentor. Like Katie, we all need to work at tearing down those institutional and even internal barriers and celebrate support for one another.”
Rae, the managing director of a tech startup accelerator in Boston and the founder of a firm that invests and assists in early startups, said that 96 percent of venture capitalists invest in male entrepreneurs and only 4 percent choose to invest in female entrepreneurs.
Rae added that she tries to play an active role in changing the gender imbalance in the startup world, as she understands that the stereotypes for women have to be remedied at the ground level.
“The awful truth that I have heard from powerful men about why they don’t see more women in entrepreneurship is that they say women don’t create the big ideas,” Rae said. “The stark reality is that you don’t see more women in business because they don’t stay in the game, and even more startling is that women of privilege stay in the game less often.”
Organizers of the gala said events celebrating the role of women are important even at Yale, in order to remind women of how far they have come but also how much there is left to do.
The gala featured a variety of undergraduate speakers from diverse backgrounds, who recounted their difficulties in achieving success in a male-oriented world and gave advice on how to become a leader. Nicole Hobbs ’14 spoke about her journey from being a shy, inadequate-feeling freshman to becoming the Yale Democrats President. Her favorite bumper sticker, she said, reads, “A women’s place is in the House and the Senate.”
Clemantine Wamariya ’14, who lived in eight different African countries when she was a child as a refugee from Rwanda, spoke about the role models in her life that gave her the strength to lead. She dared the female members of the audience to keep fighting forward, as women at Yale “have no excuse [and] have been privileged.” Wamariya added that “the world is crying” for strong women to implement change.
Ifeanyi Awachie ’14 performed a slam poem that centered on the internal barriers women put in place for themselves. She identified her own struggles with body image and conformation to other people’s ideals of beauty — speaking to loud cheers and snaps from audience members.
All attendees interviewed said they felt the gala was a success.
“This was a marvelously organized event,” said Yale College Dean Mary Miller. “It’s fun to be at an important occasion where men are in the minority because we are all working for that moment when a majority of women leaders feels normal.”
Ethan Kyzivat ’15 said that he believes events such as the gala are important, even at a place like Yale where women are already empowered. But some WLI members said they still see imbalance in their lives at Yale.
WLI member Joyce Chen ’16 said that although it has become more acceptable in society for women to hold leadership positions, women still have difficulty getting their voices heard. Chen recalled a recent consulting conference hosted by WLI in which the majority of attendees were women, but all the questions were asked and answered by men.
The gala — which took place in a packed room with over a hundred attendees — was accompanied by refreshments and a jazz group.