Women’s Leadership Conference inspires undergrads

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Photo by Maria Zepeda.

The halls of Yale Law School on Saturday were filled with powerful people — the founder of Zipcar, the vice president of the National Association of Women Artists, the former chief executive officer of the New York Times Company and more.

The speakers had two things in common. They were leaders in their respective fields, and they were all women.

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Yale Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) brought together 38 speakers from diverse backgrounds to speak at Yale’s sixth annual Women’s Leadership Conference.

Nearly 600 people registered for the event, which organizers had been planning since summer 2013, and roughly 330 attended.

The theme for the day — “It starts with us: Paths from Yale to the world” — was reflected in the two keynote speeches and 14 panel discussions. According to WLI President Elle Brunsdale ’15, the event aimed to bring together successful women to create a sense of community with their shared experiences, and also to inspire undergraduates to pursue leadership in their prospective career paths.

“I am excited for many leading women to be in one place together and explore the plethora of paths that exist for women,” Conference Committee Chair Stephany Rhee ’16 said. “At the same time, we will not only learn how to adapt to changing work and social pressures but know that we have the responsibility, agency and leverage to spearhead the betterment of women across the globe.”

The day began with a keynote address from Robin Chase, the founder and former CEO of Zipcar, a company that provides convenient car reservations by the hour. Chase, who integrated her desire to reduce carbon emissions and stop global warming with a product that fills a necessary need and reduces excess space in people’s lives, gave the audience advice on how to look at problems and entrepreneurial options from a different perspective.

Chase told audience members to “plant yourself where you will thrive,” as each person has a natural talent to deliver specific messages.

Janet Robinson, former CEO of the New York Times Company, delivered the other keynote speech, addressing the struggles of adapting newspapers to a quickly changing landscape of media. The New York Times did not look at the Internet as a threat, but as an opportunity to expand and grow, she said. She emphasized that leadership is about fomenting a positive, diverse environment in which people are not afraid to express their ideas.

The panels were diverse and unique to specific interests including careers in law, sports, finance, art, government and the general fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In one panel, Lisa Gilley, a former Pentagon analyst and team leader, said she saw sexism as she moved up the ranks in the U.S. Army in 1989.

“At first it’s very equal, but then as you move up you start to see women silenced a little bit,” Gilley said. “Don’t give up. Be persistent and determined because eventually you will press forward.”

In another panel, the popular feminist “Lean In” movement was challenged by Amity Shlaes, writer of three best-selling books and a syndicated column for Forbes. Shlaes questioned the movement’s approach toward restructuring corporations for women to battle their way up the corporate ladder, instead advocating for a push toward more creativity and independence.

“I was really inspired by Shlaes’s idea of creating rather than rearranging,” conference attendee Natalia Perelman ’17 said. “Instead of trying to reform what’s already existent in your workplace, think about entrepreneurship and new creations that can completely change the landscape rather than simply reorganizing it.”

Sue Rodin, President of Stars and Strategies — an organization that provides strategic sports marketing — admitted that the sports industry is still very male dominated. Rodin offered specific tips for women working in sports, such as continuously staying up-to-date with weekly sports statistics and networking with influential figures in the industry.

“My personal mantra is professional persistence,” Rodin said. “Keep your eyes on the prize and do all that you can do to make what you want happen, and do it in a way that distinguishes yourself but is also respectful to the people you’re reaching out to.”

Attendees had the opportunity to hear the history of women and their experiences at Yale in a panel called “Then and Now: Women at Yale since 1969.” Brunsdale, the WLI president, deemed this panel important for reminding undergraduates on how far women at Yale have come, but how far they still have to go. Though the University holds many bright opportunities for women, Brunsdale said, sexism is still present at internships, research labs and other work environment.

This year’s Women’s Leadership Conference was sponsored by the Yale Department of French, the Department of History and the Yale School of Public Health.

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