Dynamic Women in Business Conference – 2003

Female alumni, students, and members of the business community descended on the HBS campus on Saturday, January 25th to listen to keynote speakers and attend industry panels at the “Dynamic Women in Business 2003” conference, hosted annually by the Women’s Student Association. From far and wide they came to share strategies on building rewarding and successful careers, in addition to “best practices” for managing the continual balancing act between work and family.

Maria Bartiromo, anchor for CNBC and New York Times best-selling author, kicked off the conference with some pointed advice on how to expertly manage through the information overload in today’s turbulent economy. Bartiromo, who co-produces her own show and reports daily on the latest business news straight from the floor of the NYSE, offered her advice on how investors can separate “the news from noise” and successfully invest in winning companies: watch the fundamentals; scrutinize management, and trust one’s instincts.

Bartiromo also suggested that the media should not be let off the hook.

While there were some troubling signs in 1997, 1998, and 1999, the media did not often enough ask the basic question – “How do you actually make money?” in part because as stocks continued to climb, asking exactly how a company earned revenue almost seemed an irrelevant question. The lesson learned however is that evaluating a company’s health and performance is clearly not all about the stock. As a result, Bartiromo pointed out, the media today is far less reticent about asking the fundamental question, “What is this company doing and how are they delivering value to their customers?”

As her role provides her with the opportunity to meet with the world’s leading thinkers on today’s economy, Bartiromo reported that she is hard pressed to find anyone who thinks the economy will bounce back in the next twelve months, but rather that it will continue to take its time letting all the excess out. Bartiromo cited the continued excess in CEO compensation as one example. While in 1960, a CEO made twenty times that of the average blue-collar worker; in 2001 the multiple had climbed to five hundred times that of the average blue-collar worker – a clear gap that has yet to be corrected.

Bartiromo however remains confident that America continues as the world’s most competitive country and that we will eventually see it climb out of recession as companies begin to invest again. Bartiromo cited the morning of September 17, 2001, the day the markets reopened after 9/11, as a true testament to the resilience of the American economy and people.

Following Bartiromo, attendees were greeted by none other than Betsy Holden, President and CEO of Kraft Foods (Kraft). Holden discussed Kraft’s consistent performance and her personal views on successfully managing a career through the halls of corporate America. She cited in particular the importance of building leadership within an organization over the long term as a critical contributing factor towards any company’s success. “Companies that rank in top 20% in leadership practices consistently outperform and generate higher profits that their competitors,” remarked Holden. The key to developing long-term sustainable leadership, explained Holden, lies with aligning the vision, values, strategies and game plan of an organization, which has been fundamental to Kraft’s long history of success.

Holden also cited Kraft’s long-term commitment to diversity as a key source of competitive advantage for the company. Kraft, she further noted, has evolved from defining “diversity” as relating primarily to race and gender, to a more inclusive definition that in addition accounts for diversity of approach, style and perspective, resulting in a more creative, dynamic and competitive work-force.

For those looking to build a guiding career strategy, Holden recommended creating a “personal mission statement”, written as if one were looking back at the end of one’s life and reflecting upon what one had hoped to accomplish. Once this is complete, Holden advised to keep the strategy consistent with the mission statement and be sure to make a concerted effort to not over-commit.

In addition to the keynote speakers, participants had a choice of attending a number of different panels on such topics as careers in finance, career decisions/transitions, corporate governance and work-life balance. One particularly well-attended session was the Entrepreneurship Panel, hosted by Henry R. Byers Professor Lynda Applegate, during which panelists addressed a wide range of issues including financing, building an effective board of directors, and the right timing for starting one’s own business. Responding to one woman’s question of how she should distribute ownership share in her venture, the panelists advised that women too often easily say yes and that women generally need to improve upon their ability to say no and say so with conviction and without need for explanation.

Responses from the approximately nine hundred attendees of the conference included such remarks as “They really got me thinking, ” to “It’s wonderful to see so many women supporting and learning from each other.” If you are fortunate enough to attend next year’s “Dynamic Women in Business” conference, don’t be too surprised to see many of this year’s attendees as panelists in 2004.