Lauren Black, class of 2019 accounting and information systems double major, writes about the Women’s Empowerment Institute at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Only 6.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Out of these 32 women, zero are African American or Hispanic. As a minority woman, there are countless challenges facing leaders in a male-dominated climate. To address these concerns, the Women’s Empowerment Institute was born.
The Women’s Empowerment Institute is designed to empower women from underrepresented populations within the Robert H. Smith School of Business. This 10-month cohort style program exposes young business women (African American and Hispanic) to business leaders like them, who promote the advancement of women personally and professionally.
This program fosters a unique learning environment for students to learn from top businesswomen at leading firms such as EY, IBM and JP Morgan Chase. Workshops and discussions focus on topics such as first impressions, networking and personal power. Through this, these undergraduate women are given the voice and confidence to enter the business world ready to prove that women are equally qualified to triumph in a business setting. The program centers on transparent feedback from top business mentors, as they give these underrepresented students a glimpse of what their professional careers may look like.
It is incredibly important for women to have a strong support system to help them prosper as successful business leaders. More often than not, these women will be the only minority females in the room. Many black and Latina students struggle to find other students and mentors that have gone through similar experiences. WEI is taking large steps towards ensuring men do not overshadow these bright individuals and is helping these women become comfortable being the inevitably “different” one in the room.
Faculty advisors Sharon Strange Lewis, senior director of women and diversity programs in Smith's Office of Diversity Initiatives, and Beatriz Winn, associate director of strategic engagement in the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets, were enthusiastic to start WEI and make a difference in these young lives. Strange Lewis knew the importance and impact of introducing the program, as she wanted to enhance the confidence of these underrepresented groups. “Everyone has an important role to play as a student, an intern, an alum and most importantly, as a woman,” Strange Lewis explained. “I want every member to walk away being bold.”
Winn was equally as eager to see this program start and watch the female students within it grow. “Today we are training and empowering a strong group of future CEOs,” Winn stated. “Remember you are capable and resourceful, so stay curious, ask questions and speak up.”
In addition to these passionate faculty advisors, the program is also run by four Smith upperclassmen who have had to overcome these difficulties first hand. Cece Ukejianya, senior accounting and finance double major, serves as the CEO for the program. She wanted to work with WEI to abolish the stereotypes women face in professional settings. “Women often speak up less than men and play it a bit safe...we have to learn not to do that,” Ukejianya stated. The kickoff meeting for WEI was on Feb. 5, 2018, where the cohort spoke about the importance of first impressions. They had candid conversations about how to make the best first impression, and ensure you are taken seriously and well respected. “First impressions of women are often skewed towards adjectives synonymous with emotional, indecisive and ineffective,” Ukejianya explained. “It is important to learn how to avoid these impressions in our first seven seconds.”
Having a community of women who can understand your circumstances and uplift you is one of the most powerful ways to succeed. WEI is giving women just that, pushing them out of their comfort zone to see the great work they can achieve. Young women need to be fearless, seize their future and be courageous, and the Women’s Empowerment Institute is the perfect environment to do so.
Learn more about Smith's Office of Diversity Initiatives.