Celebrating Women’s Leadership

Legendary White House journalist Helen Thomas headlines GW’s 10th annual Women’s Leadership Conference.

Helen Thomas speaks at Womens Leadership Conference as seated attendees look on
April 12, 2010

By Jamie L. Freedman

Four generations of women leaders, including renowned White House journalist Helen Thomas, gathered on the Mount Vernon Campus April 9 for the 10th annual Women’s Leadership Conference, “Generation to Generation.”

An annual highlight on the Mount Vernon Campus, the springtime conference celebrating women leaders brought together more than 100 professional women, alumnae and students to discuss topics such as career building and development, entrepreneurial leadership, and the personal and professional challenges facing women in the 21st century.

Julie Silard Kantor, national vice president of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, kicked off the conference with a motivational keynote speech titled “I Said Yes” based on her new book about youth entrepreneurship in America’s inner-city schools. Ms. Kantor shared her life story with participants, emphasizing the importance of following your heart and seizing opportunities as they come your way.

“My father came to this country from Hungary as a refugee in search of the American dream, but many of our own young people aren’t living that dream,” she said, noting that alarming high school dropout rate for urban youths. Through her organization, she has taught entrepreneurship to tens of thousands of inner-city youth since 1992. “At first, I felt like I was pushing a 500-pound boulder uphill, but, over time, people joined me in the journey and lightened the load,” she said. “When you follow your intuition and dreams, magic can occur.”

Next on the agenda were parallel professional development sessions on women’s entrepreneurial leadership. Kathy Korman Frey, associate director of GW’s School of Business’ Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence, led one of the workshops, “Me, the CEO,” accompanied by four student panelists from her current women’s entrepreneurial leadership class at GW. The panelists shared their business venture plans and emphasized the importance of being passionate about their work. The session culminated with participants brainstorming ideas for their own businesses.

The other session, led by Sara Melita, managing director of GW’s Staff Learning and Development Team, focused on “Managing Up: The Secret to Exceeding Expectations, Navigating Transitions, and Steering Your Career.” The interactive workshop offered practical tips and action plans for building stronger relationships with supervisors. Ms. Melita, whose team provides professional development programs for GW departments, provided participants with strategies for growing their careers and turning their bosses into mentors.

Post Hall was packed for the conference luncheon featuring keynote speaker Helen Thomas, the pioneering White House correspondent who has covered every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy. The outspoken journalist—who was born the year that women won the right to vote in the United States--regaled the audience with insights, anecdotes and advice drawn from her 68-year Washington career.

“I’ve been very privileged in my life to have a front row seat in the theater of history,” said Ms. Thomas, who was the first female officer of the National Press Club and the White House Correspondents Association, as well as the first person to close a presidential news conference with the traditional “Thank you, Mr. President.”

She addressed a wide range of topics during her talk and subsequent question-and answer period—from politics and presidents to breaking the gender barrier. Ms. Thomas painted a grim picture of the times we live in. “We’ve lost our way in the United States,” she said. “There is so much anger, so much hate and national rancor. People are starving in this country, losing their homes and have no medical care. I haven’t heard the word peace in the White House in years. We have lost our moral compass.”

As bleak as things appear, Ms. Thomas said she’s hopeful the nation will recover if people stand up and do the right thing. “We shall overcome, but it will take time,” she said. She called for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and underscored the need for more comprehensive health care reform. “Don’t ever accept the unacceptable,” she said. “It is up to us to shape a better world.”

Shifting gears from politics to the presidents she has covered, Ms. Thomas said her favorite was John F. Kennedy because “he was inspiring, learned from his mistakes and knew the art of compromise.” She also lauded Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson for their domestic policies.

The “first lady of the press” urged others to join her in speaking out against the world’s wrongs. “If you don’t speak up, especially when something is wrong, then you’ve lost the moment,” she said. “You have to stick your neck out. It might not make you many friends, but it’s the right thing to do. ”

Prior to Ms. Thomas’ address, GW President Steven Knapp greeted the conference participants and announced the creation of a global women’s institute at GW. “The status of women is at the heart of so many critical issues that face us around the world--from economic development to human rights to education,” Dr. Knapp said. “We are, therefore, pleased to be developing this important initiative at the university.”

The conference concluded with a lively panel discussion titled “Leadership: Generation to Generation,” moderated by Laura Taddeucci Downs, B.A. ’92, M.A. ’95, president of the GW Alumni Association.

The candid, insightful panelists, who spanned the generations, included Rev. Gloria Berberich, MVC A.A. ’48, a retired Episcopal priest; Mary Futrell, M.A. ’68, Ed.D. ’92, former president of the National Education Association and dean of GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development; Claritza Jimenez, B.A.’05, a recipient of the Fellowship in Investigative Journalism at American University and an alumna of the Women’s Leadership Program; and Lorraine Voles, B.A. ’81, GW’s vice president for external relations, who has more than 25 years of leadership experience in corporate and political communications.

Rachelle S. Heller, associate dean for academic affairs on the Mount Vernon Campus and director of the Elizabeth Somers Center, called the 2010 conference the best yet. “Our steering committee has been working on the conference since last July, and we couldn’t have brought together a more accomplished, intergenerational group of women,” Dr. Heller said. “It’s a power-packed event that just keeps getting better.”

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