Women’s Leadership Conference Examines ‘Success’

Renowned food critic Phyllis Richman and choreographer Liz Lerman headline annual event.

Panelists Sharon Hadary, Carter Kay, Nancy Griffith Hooff, Sara Ricklen Alter and Sabrina Islam address students at the Women's
Panelists Sharon Hadary, Carter Kay, Nancy Griffith Hooff, Sara Ricklen Alter and Sabrina Islam address students at the Women's Leadership Conference held on the Mount Vernon Campus of the George Washington University.
March 31, 2014

With a theme of “Measuring Success,” the 14th annual Women’s Leadership Conference attracted more than 100 professional women, alumnae and students to the Mount Vernon Campus on Friday.

Attendees of the sold-out conference examined what success means to women and by what standards women measure success. Rachelle S. Heller, associate provost and director of the Elizabeth Somers Center, framed the discussion in terms of a simple, yet loaded question: “How do we know we’re successful?”

During her keynote address, Phyllis Richman, award-winning author and 23-year veteran food critic for The Washington Post, discussed her road to success. Leaning toward the microphone, she shared words from her column, “Answering Harvard’s Question about my Personal Life, 52 Years Later,” in which she replied belatedly to questions raised when she applied to graduate school on how she planned to combine a professional life with her responsibilities to her husband and a possible future family.

“While I ended up with a rewarding and varied professional life, your letter shows just how much Harvard — not to mention my husband, our families and even myself — didn’t give my career the respect it deserved when I was just starting out,” said Ms. Richman.

Ms. Richman further shared her experiences working for other women – “women bosses could be empathetic or they could be demeaning to other women” – and her ingredients for success: confidence, a good support network of friends and family, an outlet for relaxation, and the persistence to “pursue your dream job – it won’t pursue you!”

“I’m a firm believer in persistence,” she said. “You’ve been rejected? Try them again. Eventually a nuisance becomes familiar.”

Attendees then had the opportunity to participate in workshops on “Managing Your Money: Implications of Your Decisions” with Tawana Mensah, State Farm Insurance Agent; “Entrepreneurship: Starting Your Own Group” with Veronica Davis, co-creator and principal planning manager at Nspiregreen LLC; “Personal Safety” with Tara Nielson, training coordinator for the GW Police Department; and “Food and Nutrition: Separating Fact from Fiction” with Kim Robien, associate professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Following the luncheon and resource fair in West Hall, the conference participants filled the Ames Hall auditorium for an engaging afternoon address, “Hiking the Horizontal: Making Rules and Breaking Rules,” presented by renowned choreographer, educator and GW alumna Liz Lerman. 

A GW alumna and 2002 MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow, Ms. Lerman originally conceived of the National Civil War Project, a nationwide collaboration that includes GW to generate original theatrical productions and innovative academic programming, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Part of the project, her dance work, “Healing Wars,” explores the connections between wartime and physical and psychological healing.

“I would like to add the subtitle, ‘kindness as an act of genius,’” said Ms. Lerman upon introduction.

Kindness and the concept of openness to influence were touch points throughout the hourlong presentation, in which Ms. Lerman wove the tale of her influences from accompanying her father to his tire shop in Milwaukee, to the chanting of famed kumu hula Raylene Lancaster, to her mother’s death, a pivotal moment that inspired her graduate work at GW choreographing pieces with the elderly at the Roosevelt Hotel for Senior Citizens.

The audience was treated to video clips from Ms. Lerman’s repertoire, including an emotionally charged piece depicting the relationship between father and son that brought tears to the eyes of participants.

The conference concluded with a panel discussion titled “New Measures of Success,” moderated by Sharon Hadary, principal of Sharon Hadary & Co. and author of “How Women Lead: 8 Essential Strategies.”

The panelists, all successful businesswomen, included Carter Kay, B.A. ’77 founder of Carter Kay Interiors whose work has landed on the covers of Southern Living and Atlanta Home; Nancy Griffith Hoof, B.B.A. ’78, a former co-owner of D.C. area exercise studio IMAGES and current assistant to Ms. Kay; Sara Ricklen Alter, founder and chief polish officer of Pretty Please Nail Polish; and Sabrina Islam, managing director of Tulip Garments Limited and director of Garments Ltd. and Osman Textiles Ltd. in Bangladesh, who studied small business management at Mount Vernon College through a Ford Foundation scholarship.

In defining what success meant to each of them, the panelists agreed that a continued passion for their work, ability to employ and inspire others, and striking work-home life balance are important measures of success.

Education, of course, played a strong hand in the success of the panelists, as well as audience members.

Summing up the thoughts of fellow alumnae, Cissy Baker, B.A. ’74, former corporate vice president and Washington bureau chief at Tribune Co., said, “Mount Vernon made me what I am today. Because of Mount Vernon I am a success.”

Phyllis Richman

Phyllis Richman, award-winning author and 23-year veteran food critic for The Washington Post.

Renowned choreographer, educator and GW alumna Liz Lerman speaks at the 14th annual Women's Leadership Conference.

Renowned choreographer, educator and GW alumna Liz Lerman.