“I’m here because someone lifted me up,” said Donna Blackman, a 2010 graduate of the executive MBA program and senior vice president of business operations at BET Networks. “Once you get to where you are, reach back. Advocate and mentor other women. Make yourself available to talk to others.”
Blackman talked about her career path and leadership philosophy on March 1, 2018, as the honored guest at the seventh annual Women Leading Women at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Approximately 250 female students, alumni, faculty, and staff from the Smith School and across the University of Maryland, along with guests from the surrounding community, attended the event. The discussion was moderated by Nicole Coomber, associate clinical professor in Smith’s management and organization department, and in attendance were four former honorees: Andrea Brody ’87; Marguerita (Rita) Cheng ’93; and Kristen Welch ’90, MBA ’96.
“If it doesn’t open, you break it, and that’s exactly what Women Leading Women does,” said Sharon Strange Lewis, EMBA ’05, the Smith School’s senior director of women and diversity programs. “We are breaking down barriers that trap women into thinking they don't belong in leadership positions, in the C-suite or on corporate boards. Women Leading Women was created to empower women to realize their full potential.”
Here are six key takeaways from the conversation. Watch the discussion on YouTube, compliments of Women’s Business Report. Photos are on Facebook.
1. Find your passion
Blackman’s journey took her from her hometown in the Bronx to North Carolina State University, where she became the first member of her family to graduate from college. She was smart, and that meant she was expected to be a doctor, a lawyer or a computer scientist. Feeling the pressure, she started as a computer science major, but she felt out of place. “I wasn’t passionate about it,” she said. “I wasn’t excited about it.”
Blackman later took an accounting course and loved it. “I know that sounds really geeky,” she said. “It was something that was interesting and easy for me. I enjoyed it, so I decided to major in accounting.”
“Donna is undoubtedly gifted, and knowing that she was diverted from a course that others suggested for her and onto the one that was destined for her proves that when you walk in your purpose, no one can hold you back,” said Helena Moore, EMBA ’10. Moore is an executive MBA classmate of Blackman’s and was thrilled to be at this year’s event. “I almost forgot how empowering it is to be surrounded by progressive, successful, dynamic phenoms,” she said. “So refreshing!”
After graduation, Blackman returned to New York to work at KPMG. Then she fell in love, got married and moved to the Washington, D.C, area. Initially, she stayed with KPMG but eventually moved on to a job at Marriott.
2. With education comes responsibility
While at Marriott, Blackman found that she needed an MBA to advance into the kind of position that she wanted to pursue. She started the executive MBA program at Smith in 2008. She found that she could apply what she learned immediately to her job, and she was especially drawn to the course on transformational leadership. She came to Smith because she needed an MBA, but she what she got out of it was so much more.
“I got the opportunity to be in a classroom with other executives who had a wide range of experience, and we could push one another,” she said. “We didn't always think alike, We didn't always agree. I met some amazing people who I can call on about any idea, and we cheer each other on.”
She encouraged students not to just earn their degrees and say, “It’s all about me.” Instead, she advised them to mentor, tutor and help others within their communities. “Be mindful that people are looking at you for inspiration and guidance,” she said.
One Terp alumna said 2018 has been an important year for female empowerment, and she was inspired to see a new generation of women ready and willing to play such a critical role in shaping the landscape of new norms in the workplace for women.
3. Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness
“Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness,” was a statement that resonated with many attendees. Blackman said that she’s compassionate, but she can also make tough decisions. If you’re in a leadership position, people are counting on you to lead by example, she said.
“I took this to mean that a woman’s compassion can and should play a role in the workplace,” said Allyson Butler, a marketing manager at the Smith School. “But that in no way precludes a woman from confidently standing her ground, whether she’s negotiating her value for a new job or taking a hard stand for what she believes to be right.”
4. Lift others up and look out for your team
Giving back and mentoring others was a theme of the evening. “My success comes from hard work and determination, but also, people took a chance on me,” Blackman said.
“I really liked Donna's recommendation to successful women who have made it to the top to always send the elevator back down to younger women,” said Carol Cron, founder of Résumés by Carol.
Bhrugi Badheka, Smith MBA candidate 2018, agrees, saying that the key takeaway for her was to “always send the lift back down for the other women on your team and around you.”
5. #MeToo Matters
Blackman is inspired by the women who have come forward with stories of workplace abuse in recent months, launching a national conversation. She said that she doesn’t know a women who hasn’t experienced racism or sexism in the workplace. She said that 75 percent of women who are harassed in the workplace and report it receive some kind of retaliation. However, the overwhelming majority of women who are harassed in the workplace never report it.
“I’m sensitive about the advice I give to people,” she said. “Handle it in a way that makes you feel whole, that enables you to look at yourself in the mirror and say ‘I’m okay with the decision I’ve made,’” she said.
Blackman also reminded people that how they react to a situation will impact the next person.
“I liked the fact that she didn't give a ‘one size fits all’ response to the #MeToo question,” said Millicent Locke, a marketing manager at Smith. “She seemed to be saying that it's important to speak up, but to count the cost, given that some women like herself may be fine financially with a job relationship ending if it comes to that, while for others, that may not be feasible. So I'm thinking a woman has to be strategic, but wise with how she handles discrimination, gender bias or just uncomfortable situations.”
6. Be kind. Be humble. Be grateful.
During the lightning round of questions, Blackman described what a billboard about her would say: “Be kind. Be humble. Be grateful.” When asked to give three adjectives to describe herself, she answered, “compassionate, persistent and driven.”
“The key takeaway that I've learned attending Women Leading Women events this year and last and in business school is this: All successful leaders share a common attribute: Gratitude for the men/women who believed in them enough to create space and the passion to reach back down the ladder to pull others up the ranks with them,” said Janna Fernandez, MBA/MPP candidate 2019. “We can only change the world of business and change the role of women in business by making sure more of us make it to the decision-making table,” she added, also saying that she loves the power and magic in the room at Women Leading Women.
About Women Leading Women
Women Leading Women is an annual event designed to showcase, celebrate and empower the fearless female alumnae and other women in business. Hosted by Smith’s Office of Diversity Initiatives, the moderated discussion encourages open dialogue among women in business from the classroom to the C-suite. This year, the forum kicked off the month-long celebration for Women’s History Month. Smith Women’s Month featured a series of female-themed events and highlighted research by Smith faculty members: For more information visit the Smith Women’s Month website.
- Alissa Arford, Office of Marketing Communications