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7th Annual Women’s Leadership Conference Dares Us to Be Extraordinary

By Lizz Panchyk and Joanna Reid

March 9 marked the 7th annual Women’s Leadership Conference at Adelphi University. The theme was The Era of Embracing Change: Dare to Be Extraordinary.” This conference welcomed men and women, students and high schoolers to attend workshops and roundtable discussions, network and be inspired by two remarkable keynote speakers. 

Kendra Bracken-Ferguson encouraged attendees to have their own brain trust. Photo from Erica Burns Photography

The day included many other opportunities, such as professional headshots. It was also the debut of the Career Closet, an opportunity to donate dry-cleaned professional clothes, which are then offered to Adelphi students and faculty to use in professional situations. The Career Closet was taking donations during the conference but accepts donations year-round. (Contact for the most up-to-date information and drop-off locations.) 

The first event of the afternoon was keynote speaker Kendra Bracken-Ferguson, founder and CEO of Braintrust and author of “The Beauty of Success: Start, Grow and Accelerate Your Brand.” She is also one of 100 Black women to ever raise more than $1 million in investments for a first company.

Throughout the day, there were six different panels, each with a networking session to follow. One of them was “The Power of Women in Philanthropy: Leading for Impact.” The discussion was led by Marian Conway, executive director of the New York Community Bank Foundation; the panelists were Alissa Desmarais, Mari Eva Mendes and Carrie Wen ‘17. Philanthropy is a strategic long-term approach that all three panelists are currently taking part in. They shared that it can assist in what you believe in, and requires resilience, networking, engaging with the right people and passion. Desmarais said that a big way that philanthropy can be spread is through social media, because it is how we spread awareness to others. “There’s a way for you to make a difference,” she said.

In “Leading Inclusively: Building Diverse and Equitable Workplaces,” Cassandra Alvarez ‘09 introduced panelists Alex Gilbert, Channing Martin and Jovi Stevenson ‘95. Their emphasis was on fostering workspaces that practice operational equity not just in hiring, “but in a workplace culture conversation and strategy and tying into your business to your revenue,” Martin said.

Jennifer Hyman describes her passion for Rent the Runway, which she co- founded 15 years ago and heads as CEO. Photo from Erica Burns Photography

Another panel during the second breakout session was entitled “Breaking Barriers: Success Stories of Women of Color.” The panel was moderated by Humera Qazi ‘93 who was joined by Bita Sultan Mir ‘01, Irene Quarshie ‘98 and Jennifer Rosado. These women highlighted how they embraced their culture because it was often the thing that set them apart from others. Rosado discussed how difficult it was to straddle two worlds as her mentors often did not look like her, though she added that finding a mentor who differed from her helped her to see new perspectives. Sultan described how she initially planned to go into law, but she found a passion in mental health work. Because she did not have a mentor at the time, she had to make a big decision all by herself.  “Sometimes you have to be your own guiding light,” she said. 

Another panel, “Tech Trailblazers: Leading in the A.I. Age” focused on the changing technology. Panelists Linda Chan MBA, Kevin Goodman ‘00, MBA ‘02 and Kees Leune PhD ‘07, explained the importance of using AI to assist employees and students in beneficial ways. Their message was that although AI can’t take away basic artistic humanity, it has skills that the average human doesn’t, like efficiency and speed. Chan, who is vice president of Information Technology Amphenol, said that students should be fluent in the technology as it can be a big help with job recruitment on websites like LinkedIn. 

The panel “Career Revolution: Embracing Your Path” was an inspiration to the many young people in the room. College is all about finding not only what you’re good at, but what you enjoy doing, and these panelists, Barbara Boschert ‘13, MBA ‘14, Cynthia Pong, JD and Erika Stehl, MSW ‘94, reassured the audience that not knowing is okay. They said that as long as you find something you’re passionate about and take up as many skills as possible, your future will be locked. But the biggest reminder during this panel was that it’s not just okay, but normal to switch career paths.

At the “Empowering Leadership: Building Allies and Mentors” panel June Collison ‘81, Sharon Cunningham ‘90 and Eu’nice R. McCoy ‘14 were all asked what leadership meant to them. Collison said it was about setting an example for others. “It’s about taking risks; leadership is not always comfortable,” Cunningham said. And to McCoy it was about empathy, trust and authenticity; giving others a reason to follow you. Collison also mentioned the importance of leading with love.

During dinner, the Student Government Association (SGA) and the Women’s Giving Circle recognized Adelphi students and other members of the community at an awards ceremony. They are: SGA winners Sloane Somerstein, who won the SGA Faculty and Staff Award, and Amita Radakichenane and Monjot Kaur. Women's Giving Circle Award winners were Victoria Rodriguez, who received the third annual Women’s Giving Circle Endowed Scholarship; and Alyssa Rashid, winner of the 11th Annual Women’s Giving Circle “Courage to Inspire, Strength to Empower” undergraduate essay contest; and Jonay Jackson, winner of the 11th Annual Women’s Giving Circle “Courage to Inspire, Strength to Empower” graduate essay contest.

Following this was the closing keynote, moderated by Anna Zinko, assistant vice president for student affairs. She interviewed Jennifer Hyman, co-founder and CEO of Rent the Runway, who spoke about her business, the endless cycle of fast fashion and how to find balance in all aspects of life. 

Women and men come to this conference to learn and meet amazing people. “It is a space to uplift women in the workplace, amplify their voices and celebrate triumphs,” said Jonay Jackson, a graduate student and recipient of Women’s Giving Circle award. “Attendees will walk away feeling not only inspired, but deeply empowered.”

Q&A With Jennifer Hyman

Following her keynote, Delphian editors sat down with Jennifer Hyman, co-founder and CEO of Rent the Runway, for an interview to specifically ask for her advice and experiences aimed at Adelphi students.

Q. What is the most important advice you received when you were in college and getting work experience?

A. “I don’t think that I got enough advice in college. But the advice that I would give to a college student is to focus less on the industry that you’re going into, and more on what you will functionally be doing every single day. Try to marry what you do every day with interests that you might have outside of work.”

Q. Who would you say was a big female influence for you that inspired you to work towards your career?

A.  “My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was someone who went to college and graduated school way before that was commonplace for women. It was particularly interesting because she came from a very poor family and still found that striving for education extremely important. And she also worked her entire life, while being married and raising a family which was also very uncommon at the time. And I always feel that had my grandmother been born in a different generation that she would have achieved unbelievable things.”

Q. What challenges do you think are specific to today’s college women and what advice do you have for them to counter that? 

A. “I think that one challenge is that we live our lives on our phones and live our lives immersed in social media, which has two effects. One is that there’s a difference between the lives people lead on social media and reality, so there’s a confusion on what is reality and what is not reality. The second is that it makes you feel that you may have closeness to people when you don’t in real life.

“Social media is not a substitute for personal human connection. I think that one of the issues with being a college student today is how difficult it is to kind of disconnect yourself from your phone, disconnect yourself from social media, and invest the time you’re here in building as many authentic connections and relationships with friends as humanly possible. Because this community of people will be a huge part of your life for many decades to come.”

Q. What did you expect the outcome would be when you founded Rent the Runway? What has been the most unexpected aspect of its success? 

A.  “I think that my expectation at the time was I was doing something that I was passionate about, I loved and I thought was fun. And that has continued every day for the last 15 years. Fundamentally I think that’s how everyone should choose their career. We spend so much of our lives at work, you fundamentally need to feel joy every day and I  feel that you end up being the best at the very things that you are most passionate about. So there’s a higher probability of success if you also choose something for your career that you love.”

Q. What are you most proud of about having created a business that makes designer fashion more accessible to women?

A. “It’s really a privilege that something that I started has showed up at all of these incredible personal moments in the lives of millions of women throughout the country and whenever I see a woman toting around a Rent the Runway garment bag, I just feel so proud that we’ve created an experience that hopefully has changed even just her day.”

Q. What advice would you give to women who want to start their own business?

A. “Do it.”

–Lizz Panchyk and Joanna Reid

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