Don’t doubt your potential, alumni women executives told the next generation of talent at the fifth annual Women Leading Women conference March 31, 2016, at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. "I ended up in this role because someone saw something in me that I would not have seen in myself," said panelist Kristen Welch ’90, MBA ’96, senior vice president of global content operations for Discovery Communications.
She was joined on stage by panelist Lisa Anders, MBA ’95, vice president of business development for McKissack & McKissack, a woman/minority owned architectural, engineering and construction services firm, in a discussion moderated by Smith School Senior Associate Dean Joyce E.A. Russell.
Brenda Freeman ’87, MBA’91, the chief marketing officer for National Geographic Channel, shared additional insights via video. All three alumni were previously honored as fearless women leaders at Women Leading Women. The executives offered at least five takeaways for the audience of mostly young women.
Assemble your team: Women sometimes discount their worth to an organization, but having a strong team of mentors can help counteract the self-doubt. Freeman said these advocates function like a “personal board of directors.” Welch, who manages Discovery Studios, global content and U.S. networks corporate financial planning and analysis, said the key is to follow through on the advice that comes. “When a mentor gives advice or suggests you do something, do it,” she said.
Do it your way: All of the experts agreed on the need for networking, but they took different approaches in their own careers. Welch uses an organic method, making connections through her normal social channels. Anders, currently the project director for the construction of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, built relationships with the largely male leadership in her industry. She also practices her conversational skills with strangers in elevators and grocery stores. Russell said she works to find common ground, even with strangers. "When I'm going to another city for work, I'll talk to the cabdriver and try to find out something that's going on, so I have a topic of conversation," she said.
Seek feedback: Welch encouraged women to be assertive about seeking performance feedback, not just to grow but to position themselves for higher-profile projects and opportunities.
Advocate for yourself: Once women recognize their worth, they need to speak up. "Don’t wait for the promotion to come to you," Anders said.
Take control: Welch said women should not be afraid to make decisions. "It might be the wrong decision, but make that first move," Welch said. "That’s how you build your power." Freeman urged young women to take risks, fail fast and “enjoy the ride.”
Overall, nearly 300 women faculty, staff, students and alumni from the Smith School and UMD’s College of Arts and Humanities and the A. James Clark School of Engineering attended Women Leading Women. The forum is part of a weeklong series of events celebrating Women’s History Month, including a self-defense class, a personal finance workshop, and an executive women's networking event. The 2016 program was sponsored by Textron and organized by Sharon Strange Lewis, senior director of the Smith School’s women and diversity programs.
Smith’s support of women includes the 50/50 by 2020 initiative, a commitment to reach gender parity in the school’s MBA programs by 2020, the 100thanniversary of women’s suffrage. In fall 2015, 38 percent of Smith’s incoming MBA students were women. Smith was one of just 16 elite business schools to surpass 35 percent female enrollment, as reported by the Forté Foundation.
- Rebecca Winner, Office of Marketing Communications