More than 5,000 women and their allies from every corner of the globe gathered on March 14, 2023, at the 44th Simmons Leadership Conference and explored the theme of Renewal and Innovation. It was the Institute’s first-ever hybrid conference, and some 1,000 attendees braved a nor-easter to join us in Boston for the spectacular event that featured world-class speakers who shared personal stories, wisdom, and inspiration and offered insightful advice on navigating the new norm as women leaders. Read highlights from our Main Stage presenters.
Enthusiastic Welcome from Our Co-Hosts, a Dynamic Duo
Co-hosts Joyce Kulhawik, the Emmy Award-winning journalist and Simmons University alumna, and Kristen Palson, COO of the Simmons University Institute of Inclusive Leadership, set the tone for the day with an enthusiastic welcome, encouraging attendees to take advantage of new opportunities to expand inclusivity in the post-pandemic era.
“We are all actively looking to reinvent how we do things, how we connect with each other socially, emotionally, personally, professionally,” Joyce said. “We are rearranging how we communicate with each other in the new norm — hybrid working and learning across more inclusive and diverse communities.”
Kristen contextualized the theme of the day. “We’re here to celebrate renewal and innovation. Sharing stories about how we have moved forward to reinvent and renew ourselves, our work, and the way we lead.”
A Call for Inclusion by Institute CEO Susan MacKenty Brady
Susan MacKenty Brady, CEO of the Institute for Inclusive Leadership, followed Joyce and Kristen, and called on organizations to maximize their efforts to achieve gender equity and racial inclusion.
“The kind of innovation required right now to bring about a new era of inclusion is rooted in capabilities all humans are prewired for,” Susan said. “Leading in this new era will take from us, the people attending this conference, humility, courage, compassion, curiosity, vulnerability, and most especially, the willingness to share our learning generously with others.”
Pearls of Wisdom from Powerhouse Carla Harris
Powerhouse Carla Harris, senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley, made an exuberant entrance as the opening keynote speaker. In her presentation, “Lead to Win,” she drew on her decades of experience as a Wall Street executive to offer insight on how to be a more intentional and impactful leader. She shared her trademark “pearls” of wisdom about courage, authenticity, leadership, and inclusivity. “Your authenticity is your distinct competitive advantage,” she said.
Beating the Odds: A Remarkable Story of Renewal
Amy Purdy brought the audience to tears with her remarkable story of perseverance, grit, and vulnerability. She recounted how at age 19, she beat a deadly virus that claimed both legs below the knee and her spleen and required her to undergo a kidney transplant. Amy shared that rather than let these obstacles set her back, she embraced her challenges as an opportunity for renewal. She said she visualized herself walking gracefully, snowboarding, and pursuing her passions. “I didn’t just see it, I felt myself carving down the mountain.” And succeed she did, at every stage of her multifaceted career. She won three Paralympic medals in snowboarding and came in second place on Dancing with the Stars. “It wasn’t my legs that disabled me. If anything, they enabled me. They forced me to rely on my imagination and to completely believe in the possibilities.”
International Superstar Gloria Estefan’s Personal Take on Renewal
In one of the most anticipated sessions of the day, Grammy Award-winner and international superstar Gloria Estefan sat down with Susan MacKenty Brady in an intimate fireside chat. She reflected on her childhood in Cuba and credited the strong, intelligent women in her life — her mother and grandmother — with instilling in her the value of education, kindness, and an indomitable spirit. “If we always come from a place of strength, kindness, openness, and inclusion, it’s a much better way to lead…Ego is a waste of time.” Gloria stressed that we should all be life-long learners and constantly fine-tuning our skills. “Hone your skills, you need to sharpen every tool you have,” she urged. In discussing the near-fatal bus crash that resulted in a broken back, Gloria said she survived through determination and by imagining and visualizing her body healing incrementally. “Focus on what steps you have to take daily to make your life better and closer to what you want to achieve.”
Visionary Leader Award
Helen G. Drinan, the eighth President of Simmons University, presented Indra Nooyi the Visionary Leader Award. “Indra embodies the Institute’s vision of manifesting equity in leadership in our lifetime,” she said. “As the first woman of color and immigrant to run a Fortune 50 company, she understands first hand the challenges of achieving equity and equality on Wall Street, in boardrooms, and C-suites. She is a revered role model for women and immigrants and celebrated for her empowering messages on inclusivity.”
In accepting the award, Indra offered viewers three pieces of advice. First, she urged people to ponder their role in their organization. “The clarity of your proposition and its relevance to the company is what will get you noticed and moved ahead.” Her second piece of advice is to commit to being a lifelong learner. “The only way to be successful in this rapidly evolving environment is by becoming insatiably curious about everything around you.” Finally, Indra said the future looks bright for women and they must seize the moment. She emphasized that women need to “make the sisterhood work” and that men need to lean in and treat women as equals, both in the home and the office. “Men should participate equally in child rearing once and for all, declaring that family is not just female. Men who hold seats of power should stop looking at women as a mere diversity play and look at them as part of an incredible talent pool and help put an end to unconscious bias.”
How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World: Advice from an Expert
Dorie Clark, the Wall Street Journal best-selling author and expert at self-reinvention, explained that it is acceptable and necessary to be bad at something while you focus on achieving your long-term goal. “If you are truly going to be great at something, you have to be willing to decide what you’re going to be bad at…There’s power in deciding that because it gives you the energy, time, and momentum to choose where to extend your effort and be great.” She asserted that as humans, we tend to develop bad habits. One such habit is short-term thinking. Dorie emphasized the need to step back and ask ourselves if we’re prioritizing for the long term. She shared five strategies to help us embrace long-term thinking in a fast-paced world that craves instant gratification.
Coming Together to End the Gender Apartheid Regime
Despite valiant efforts to share the stage in person, the snowstorm grounded Masih Alinejad, the Iranian-born women’s rights activist and author, and Juju Chang, co-anchor of ABC News Nightline, in New York. They joined online in a compelling conversation about the current climate in Iran and Afghanistan, where women and girls are protesting against the compulsory hijab — and paying a price for their defiance, sometimes with their life. “When we say my body my choice, it should apply everywhere, to women in Iran, Afghanistan, America. We have to respect everyone,” Masih said.
Juju asked Masih what can we do to help end the gender apartheid regime, and Masih called on women throughout the world to protest publicly and passionately, as women and their allies are doing in Iran. “I believe the time has come for women across the globe to take to the streets in a women’s march. I want one day of action with school girls, teenagers, university students protesting for the women of Iran and Afghanistan.” She also called on leaders of democratic countries to take action to end the gender apartheid regimes in Iran and Afghanistan.
Juju echoed Masih’s plea for widespread action. “Whether you’re a journalist, a filmmaker, an academic, or a mathematician, whatever skills you can bring to shine a light into these dark corners is an important part of the fight.”
Closing Keynote: Collaboration Trumps Confrontation
The Emmy Award-winning stars of ABC’s smash hit Abbott Elementary Sheryl Lee Ralph and Quinta Brunson closed out the spectacular day, sharing the hybrid stage for a lively — and personal — discussion about their close relationship, collaborative style, and shared experiences as Black women in the entertainment industry. Sheryl, appearing in person, surprised — and thrilled — the audience when she took the stage and powerfully belted out a few verses of “Endangered Species.” She emphasized that as individuals we must believe in ourselves and have confidence in our potential. She noted that while change can be intimidating, it’s necessary for renewal and innovation. “Renewal delayed is not renewal denied. With that in mind, we must hold close the inevitability of hope and renewal,” she said. “Change is supremely inconvenient, uncomfortable, and naturally scary. Yet we only move through life through the process of change, reinvention, and renewal.“
Quinta, who joined remotely, offered an inside peak into her innovative — and meteoric — rise to fame. She credited her success to maintaining relationships with people she respects, and she underscored that collaboration and communication are far more effective than fighting. “It’s about nurturing relationships that are actually positive for you.” She shared that women like Sheryl have paved the way for a new generation of Black women in the entertainment industry and acknowledged that racism and sexism remain as barriers.
One for the Record Books
The 2023 Simmons Leadership Conference left attendees feeling inspired, refreshed, and motivated to embrace inclusivity and continue the fight for gender equity, without losing sight of the need to engage in self-care so we put our best selves forward every day.