Courtesy of Sophie Foster

The voices of the 14th annual Yale Women’s Empowerment Conference rang out this Saturday in Woolsey Hall, with a handful of women seated in the auditorium as others tuned in at home from computer screens.

The conference, which was held this year in a hybrid format, brought together women from the Yale community with women leaders across the nation. Started in 2006 by the Yale Women’s Leadership Initiative, the annual conference aims “to empower women to become leaders and change-makers in their industries and beyond,” according to the WLI website.

At the start of the conference, co-directors Amy Zhou ’23 and Julia Zheng ’23 stepped up to the Woolsey Hall podium, clad in black pantsuits.

“Today is a reminder of our potential, a chance to gather as a community of empowered women,” Zhou said as she looked out from the podium. “When we come together for our collective empowerment, there is no limit to what we can achieve.”

Speakers for the event ranged from U.S. representatives to the first lady of Yale to the former CEO of the Girl Scouts, and featured panels from fields such as journalism, law, technology and finance. While the opening and closing statements, a lunch catered by Havenly Treats and a conversation with Afghan film director Sahraa Karimi in Tsai CITY were held in-person, much of the rest of the conference was held over Zoom.

Along with the virtual and in-person aspects, the intended audience for this conference was different than in years past. According to the organizers, the focus for this year’s event was on Yale students, instead of people in the larger tri-state area. This choice, the organizers said, was effective especially for the hybrid format, and resulted in over 200 people registering for the conference.

To open the event, after welcoming remarks by Zhou and Zheng, Rep. Jahana Hayes, who represents Connecticut’s 5th District in the United States House of Representatives, spoke.

Hayes said that the first time she had been inside Woolsey Hall was when she was a teacher at Hillhouse High School. Now, she stands as the first Black woman to represent the state of Connecticut in Congress.

As students looked on, Hayes told her story: from a young girl in love with school growing up in the housing projects to a pregnant 17-year-old high school drop-out to a dedicated teacher to a House Representative. 

“I share all those things not because I am bold and strong and a trailblazer but because I was weak and broken and hurt and vulnerable, and I want people to know that weak and broken and hurt and vulnerable girls grow up to be strong, emphatic and passionate women,” she said.

At the end of Hayes’ speech, she emphasized the responsibility for women to stand together, to show compassion for each other and search for opportunities “to be the giver.” 

At places like Yale, she told the News, this sense of responsibility is often “heightened.” 

“Education is nothing anyone should ever feel guilty about, but it also provides opportunity, and people have to ask the question, okay, what will I do with this,” Hayes said. 

Zheng told the News that in some ways the hybrid model increased accessibility, allowing attendees from Europe and around the country to attend the event. Sophie Foster ’25, the speakers director for the conference, emphasized her own appreciation for the hybrid model in allowing the “excitement and connection” of an in-person event, while still giving the option for participants to attend via livestream or Zoom.

Despite a few technical hiccups, the Women in Technology panel, which was moderated by panel director Carolyn Qu ’24, featured Senior Director of Engineering at Duolingo Karin Tsai, co-founder of the menopausal empowerment product Thermaband Markea Dickinson SOM ’20, Google software engineer Bridget Rossbach and Google Maps software engineer Nisha Rajesh. The women shared stories of finding their place in the male-dominated fields of coding and technology — a task that has not always been easy, they said. 

Tsai shared that she was one of three women in her undergraduate computer science class, an experience similar to the other women on the panel. Many of the panelists also explained the inner turmoil of questioning their ability in the field, and feeling like they had to present themselves as incapable, or unsure.

“Imposter syndrome is real,” Dickinson said during the panel. “We throw that term around but when actually living through it, it’s difficult. It’s important to find a tribe.”

After the first set of panelists there was a break for lunch, where California Rep. Barabara Lee spoke. Afterwards, attendees joined more career panels, speaker events and a yoga and meditation workshop led by Bernasha Anderson, psychologist and certified yoga teacher.

In the Women in Writing and Journalism panel, moderated by panel director Sunniva Warrington ’25, best-selling economics author and journalist Katrine Marçal, award-winning fiction writer and journalist Saima Mir, professor and award-winning New Yorker staff writer Sarah Stillman ’06 and New York Times reporter and author Robin Pogrebid spoke on the added pressure of always having to know “twice as much” – or “four times as much” for women of color, according to Mir – as the male reporters in the room, and the difficulty, although sometimes secret journalistic tool, of often not being taken seriously in the field.

“I think one key point is that the onus should never be on the people or communities being undermined … to have to tolerate being shut out or diminished, or to bear the full burden of fixing exclusionary systems,” Stillman wrote to the News after the conference. “But I think it helps to recognize that we all do have the power and the imperative to help shift culture, and to help change the institutions and communities of which we’re a part.”

Mir emphasized the importance of change, and that always trying to be recognized and respected as a writer and journalist and woman of color is “exhausting.” 

Pogrebid said that she has often found that women fall into the practice of apologizing for taking up the floor, or hedge their opinions with doubt and comments of lack of confidence. 

“Remember that you deserve to have your opinions and views heard and considered just as much as any male in the room,” Pogrebid said.

In closing, attendees were invited back to Woolsey Hall, where Marta Moret YPH ’84, first lady of Yale and president of New Haven-based Urban Policy Strategies, gave a speech titled “The Making of a Public Health Policy Wonk,” detailing her journey from a low-income Puerto Rican community in the South Bronx to an expansive career in public health.

At the end of speech, she addressed the gathering of women who looked up at her.  

“You will be the flag wavers, the protesters, the heads of institutions, the heads of industry and the venture capitalists of the future,” Moret said.

Moret told the News that the women at Yale, the women who led the conference, give her hope. 

After the event, the conference’s organizers – Zhou, Zheng and Foster – expressed to the News the pride and excitement they felt for the finished product.

“The significance I feel is to create a space and event where it’s just women supporting women,” Zheng told the News. “I wanted to create a space where the women leaders of today are able to connect with the women leaders of tomorrow.”

The livestream for the opening and closing of the conference are available via YouTube.

Tigerlily Hopson covers diversity and inclusion at Yale. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a junior in Berkeley majoring in English.