Inspire to Rebuild

Silvia Adam, Contributor
Kristian Tran, Contributor

Silvia Adam (MBA ’21) and Kristian Tran (MBA ’21) report on the celebration of 30 years of Women in Business Conference hosted by the WSA.

On the 30th anniversary of the Women in Business Conference with the theme “Inspire to Rebuild,” we had a lot to celebrate: inspiring women that are role models even during difficult times such as the current pandemic. However, despite the progress made, we acknowledge that there is still work to do to achieve gender equity and, more broadly, towards embracing and providing equal opportunity to everyone. The more than 1,300 attendees heard from amazing and diverse speakers and below are key takeaways for those who missed out on the conference.

Colleen Ammerman (Director of the Gender Initiative at HBS) talked about how women students have influenced gender inclusion at HBS and beyond. There were eight women in the first cohort at HBS. They faced institutional barriers. For instance, they were not allowed to live in the resident halls or eat in the dining hall with the rest of their classmates. They also faced skepticism about why they were going to business school. Over the next years, actually 50 years ago (Happy Birthday!), women at HBS created an association that would become the Women’s Student Association (WSA), with an objective to pave the way and encourage other women to attend business school and become great leaders. The WSA also had a role in raising awareness of biases and injustices against women in the workplace. There has been a tremendous improvement for the generations of women that came afterward but we need to continue to be change agents and build on that.

Carla Harris (Vice Chairman and Managing Director, Morgan Stanley) shared some of her pearls. She spoke about how important performance currency is early on in your career. You generate performance currency when you deliver above someone’s expectations and this gets you noticed and promoted. However, there is a point in which this currency provides diminishing returns. From this moment on, relationship currency becomes more important. You trust your mentors, who know you well and provide tailored advice. But sponsors can have a larger impact on your career. They are those who will advocate for you in a meeting behind closed doors. Harris said, “fear has no place in your success equation.” She encourages us to not be afraid and to take risks. Even if you fail, you will learn from that experience.

Ann Shoket (Speaker and Author, Ex Editor-in-chief of Seventeen) says that Millennial and GenZ women demand transparency, flexibility, and diversity and seek collaboration rather than competition. She offers three tricks to step into your power. First, at the beginning of your career, say yes to all opportunities so you can unlock possibilities for yourself. Second, embrace the mess. If you say yes to everything your life will become a mess. This is momentum only, that helps you move forward. Third, build your squad. Build your relationship with other women. The table is bigger. We must bond together and bring more women to it.

Kathleen McGinn (Cahners-Rabb Professor at HBS) shared with us interesting and relevant results on her research on women leaders with different backgrounds and the strategies they pursued to achieve success. Her lessons can be summarized into four points. First, be there for others and they will be there for you. Great relationships are two-ways and open doors. Second, work hard and focus on work that matters. Three, take risks and get noticed. Sometimes, you need to speak and act loudly and boldly. Other times, you may need to say no if an opportunity is not right. Four, be ready when luck comes your way.

Mala Gaonkar (Managing Director, Lone Pine Capital) spoke about careers not taking a linear path and that the winding road is helpful for the diversity of perspective. A career in investing is challenging as the world is changing, so it is important to keep updating your assumptions—your assumptions today are the biases of tomorrow. Newcomers with a point of view in the financial services industry have the ability to break the mold.

Meena Harris (Founder and CEO of Phenomenal, NYT Bestselling Author) closed the conference with an empowering keynote and Q&A with Rachel Drapper (HBS ’21). Harris answered questions about her entrepreneurial efforts with Phenomenal and the importance of using your privilege to advocate for those who cannot. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. Take a step today to identify one cause/issue you truly care about and commit to it.

The two-day conference was a dynamic gathering of executives and founders who are leading to create a better future for society. The Women in the C-Suite Panel on Day One was a rockstar panel with speakers emphasizing the importance of sponsorship and mentorship by leaders and of taking calculated risks in one’s career. On Day Two, during the Women in Media and Entertainment panel, each CEO/COO spoke about the power of using storytelling to persuade and influence. Each of the nine breakout panels shared actionable ways to advance women in the workplace and to inspire a generation of women to strive to be at the top of their field.

Post Conference Zoom

It was an honor to be part of a team of 14 women students that organized and facilitated the conference. We received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the attendees and hope they were as inspired as we were to continue to learn with curiosity and to be change agents towards a more inclusive world. 

Silvia Adam (WSA Conference Chair, MBA ’21) is from Catalonia, Spain but her studies and work brought her to Germany, UK, and the US. Prior to HBS, she worked in strategy and brand management for Henkel. She has recently achieved a one-off personal record running along the Charles river at -10°C but definitely prefers warm weather.

Kristian Tran (WSA CMO, MBA ’21) spends her time between Boston, MA, and Washington, DC. Prior to HBS, she worked as a Digital Service Expert out of the Pentagon with the United States Digital Service. Her career spans experience in both the public and private sectors—launching and building products to move humanity forward. She graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in computer science, you can find her talking about all things tech + business on Twitter @ktran13.