All hands in the audience rose when Spragins asked who wanted ‘success and happiness.’ (Matthew Mance/ Photo Assistant)
The leaves were falling, the autumn air was crisp and heels were clacking around campus on Nov. 9.
Women of all ages suited up to attend lectures in the Library Auditorium and the Brower Student Center at the School of Business’s first-ever female leadership conference.
Co-hosted by the New Jersey Small Business Development Center, the “Women Take Charge: Building Leadership” Conference attracted 50 registrants who paid the $75 registration fee, as well as 45 speakers, sponsors and other presenters.
Including alumni speakers, attending the conference were 17 alumni and 13 current students, most of whom worked as volunteers and had their registration fee sponsored by Prudential Insurance Company of America.
“Over the past two years, we have placed a great deal of emphasis on student engagement, which means more activities outside the classroom,” said Dean of the School of Business William Keep, who said that he wanted the conference to become an annual event. “We definitely want female students to attend as well as professionals. We will definitely find a way to offer a reduced registration for students.”
From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., those present attended four panel discussion sessions and a keynote address by speaker Ellyn Spragins, New York Times bestselling author of “If I’d Known Then: Women in Their 20s and 30s Write Letters to Their Younger Selves.”
Panels included “Career Paths and Transition: How Do You Sustain Ambition?” and “Venture Capital: Stepping Up to Successful Entrepreneurship.” Social media and technology were also topics of panel discussions.
Among the distinguished speakers were 1996 College alumna Jennifer Graf, head of operations of Renaissance Technologies and former vice president of Goldman Sachs, and 2001 alumna Kellie Miller, key accounts manager of L’Oréal Paris.
In addition to four moderating female business professors from the College, those sitting on the two- and three-speaker panels included the former chief financial manager for the wireless-communication service giant Virgin Mobile USA; the president of The Women’s Initiative Network & Connection, LLC, a consulting company; the CEO and president of Digital Brand Expressions, a Web-focused marketing firm; and the social media strategist of Tyco International Fire Protection Business Segment, which manufactures, sells, installs, and services fire detection and suppression systems.
The event was conceived as an opportunity to “further connect with the local/regional business community,” according to Keep, who said he proposed the idea of a women’s conference to the director of the TCNJ Small Business Development Center, Lorraine Allen.
“Last year we tried to put together a conference on sustainability in business but were unable to build much interest. (Allen) immediately felt a conference directed at women would have potential,” Keep said. “We then formed an all-woman committee with (Allen), Professors Michele Naples and Susan Hume, and in my office, Assistant Dean Tammy Dieterich and Manager of Operations (Patty Karlowitsch). They made it happen.”
Keep noted that the School has held smaller female-centric events before, but the low level of female student participation at the conference appeared to be part of a larger trend.
“Twice we have had an on-campus panel discussion entitled ‘Women and Work’ that drew some interested students, though fewer than I expected,” Keep said. “We have discussed among staff a ‘Women in Business’ student organization but have not seen much interest among female students, which would be necessary to make that work over time.”
For those career women and students who attended the conference, the event was a good networking opportunity, according to Associate Professor of Economics Michele Naples.
“The No. 8 woman ever on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, a woman from Goldman Sachs … You meet people who are managing the March of Dimes, a gymnasium for autistic kids,” Naples said when interviewed. “These are some of the people I’ve met here today — women at all different stages of their career lives.”
According to evaluation-form feedback, Spragins’ talk was one of the most popular events at the conference, Keep said.
Hitting on broad issues such as the fear of failure and the guilt that can accompany the attempt to balance work, self and family, Spragins summarized some of the letters famous women had contributed to her book.
The letters included those of novelist Nora Roberts, Food Network star Paula Deen and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said that she had once considered herself a “failure” and a “fraud.” The audience gasped as Spragins revealed that Deen had once been an agoraphobe, afraid to leave her house for 20 years.
After sharing the painful experience of her mother’s unexpected death, Spragins encouraged her audience to embrace the sides of themselves they hid for fear of jeopardizing what she called their “presentable side.”
She also shared a collection of “tongue-in-cheek” rules for success and happiness. “Don’t be men in pink … If you want to be successful, be selfish. Don’t take that literally, of course,” said Spragins, as the audience laughed.
In an interview with The Signal after the conference, Spragins had some advice for College students.
“There are some themes in the messages (of the letters), and one of them is to follow your gut,” she said. “Doing that as a student now is really important. Is it butterflies? Is it a nauseous feeling? Learn to read these messages from your gut as opposed to your brain, and practice with the small things to see if it can be trusted.”
Ellyn Spragins (Matthew Mance / Photo Assistant)
Several individuals interviewed at the event said that they enjoyed the varied and personal nature of the conference’s presentations.
“A lot of women are very inspiring, especially as a student trying to be successful balancing social life,” said junior finance major Laura Turner. “I really liked the first session, hearing women talk about how they could ‘do it all in their own way’ … And the keynote speaker, I was really touched by her feeling about how we are all connected by our personal struggles. We’re not alone in our hardships.”
However, while applauding Spragins’ talk, Danielle Gletow, 33-year-old founder of the nonprofit organization One Simple Wish, said that she would have liked a more diverse representation of women in the “Sustaining Ambition” panel discussion.
“It was all financial up there,” she said. “I would’ve liked to see more diverse views of what success means. Not just talking about big paychecks and achieving a title and being a CEO.”
While the event attracted mostly women in the midst of their careers, several attendees said that they felt that an event like this would have broad appeal.
“Even though (the event) has been tailored toward woman, it’s been eye-opening for me,” said David Simons, digital media manager of the recycling company TerraCyle and the sole male panelist at the event. “When (Spragins) was talking about looking at the younger you, it really made me think about my mother and how hard-working she was.”
“I wish they did this at the high-school level as well,” said Nicole Nagle, a graduate student serving as a school counseling intern in the School of Business.