Professional development

Women seeking mentors, support and inspiration flock each year to Bryant's campus for summit

EAGER FANS: Hoda Kotb of NBC News, the luncheon speaker at the 2015 Women
EAGER FANS: Hoda Kotb of NBC News, the luncheon speaker at the 2015 Women's Summit, pauses to take a selfie with people who signed up for her book signing, before leaving campus. COURTESY PAM MURRAY
By Mary MacDonald | MacDonald@PBN.com
3/16/17

Almost 20 years ago, when Anne Szostak led what was then Fleet Bank Rhode Island, she had the demanding career of an executive and a family that included two children.

Over time, she came to view the pursuit of a work-life balance as an illusion. To her, it presented a false promise that the two could and should be in balance, when a more realistic goal is work-life integration, where on varying days one or the other would capture more time and energy.

This was the gist of one of her first addresses to an audience of mostly women at the Bryant University Women's Summit, first organized 20 years ago. The idea is to integrate work and family life, and recognize there is no perfect ­equilibrium.

"When you say work-life balance, you're always feeling like you're not doing something right," Szostak said in a recent interview. "You're either shortchanging your family, or shortchanging your job."

The hard truths about working in difficult jobs, trying to advance through obstacles and maintaining a sense of purpose and humor all find their way into the program of the summit.

It began when officials at what was then Bryant College, a school recognized primarily for business studies, considered how they could encourage more women to pursue business careers. The idea of an annual summit, at which everyone could meet in one place, took shape, said Kati Machtley, director of the summit since its inception.

Initially, expectations were modest. She expected about 200 to 300 people would attend. Instead, about 350 people came.

The first summit ended after a luncheon keynote address. By the next year, it was a daylong event.

Then, as now, the college had a disparity between the percentage of female and male students. At the time, men made up 60 percent of the enrollment. After it edged up for a few years, female enrollment dropped again. It's now back to the 40 percent mark.

Asked about the gap, Machtley said it speaks to women facing similar pressures as they did years ago. "I think they're still struggling with work-life balance. The women we speak to here, and our graduates … seem to be happy and thrilled that they are doing so well right out of college. But the majority of the population still is shying away from business and engineering. They are going into medicine. They are studying law. There are higher percentages of women than men in those professions."

Machtley said the summit was designed to both attract women to the campus itself, and to the pursuit of business degrees.

"[We decided to] call it a summit, to bring everyone together in one place, and emphasize areas that would help to advance women," Machtley said.

Twenty years later, the summit attracts more than three dozen sponsors each year, and sells out within hours. At this year's summit, held on March 17, nearly 40 corporate and small-business sponsors will participate, including Providence Business News. More than 1,000 attendees are expected. The location is the largest venue on the campus, the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Wellness and Athletic Center.

Although more people could attend if the summit were moved to a larger setting, Machtley said it is better held at Bryant because it is a way of attracting people to the campus, in still-rural Smithfield, and holding the event on campus keeps costs low.

This year, in addition to the keynote speakers, who are the only paid participants, the summit will feature 23 breakout sessions and 44 speakers. They are drawn from business, education, the entrepreneurial sector, hospitality and nonprofits.

The morning and afternoon sessions are interactive and participatory, designed for audiences of as few as 50 people. One of the sponsors, TIAA, will conduct a financial-planning session and has asked the attendees to sit at tables for a hands-on demonstration.

The four keynote speakers are chosen to represent a variety of themes, Machtley said. Health and wellness, finance and business, and media or culture and the arts are commonly represented.

The summit, although a part of Bryant University, is self-funded, and always has been. Machtley said the goal is to break even. She declined to say how much the function costs to produce.

The planning for the event begins each summer. It is always held during spring break.

The focus of the breakout sessions varies, but the organizers try to keep the subjects topical.

This year, for the first time, the summit includes a session on cybersecurity, for example, something that wouldn't have happened 20 years ago.

The enduring subjects – managing stress, managing time, balancing work and life – speak to the pressures women still face in their careers.

Women are living longer. Even if they marry, almost half are the breadwinners for the family. Their financial security remains a subject of concern. For several years, the summit has had financial-services sessions, aimed at women.

"They're looking at where they are now, and what they have to do to plan for retirement," Machtley said. She cited a Pew Research Study in which 40 percent of the respondents with children under age 18 were the primary providers.

"That's just the way it is," she said.

Young women choosing a career will need to consider that prospect.

"They need to find something that they love to do, because they're going to be working for a long time," Machtley said.

PERSONAL STORIES

Speakers who have a longstanding relationship with the summit, including several who were at the first one, say they have appreciated the event for what it is, a chance to reflect on their careers, share advice, learn from other women, and feel the energy and comradery of other professionals.

The sharing of personal stories, in particular, is something that women say they enjoy and respond well to. They want to hear how another woman persevered through obstacles. Speakers are often candid about their failures.

One of the more memorable was Sallie Krawcheck. Now the CEO of New York-based Ellevest, which provides financial advice for women, she discussed having been fired from her position as a top executive with Citibank.

"She talked about it very openly and publicly. She talked about [how] not only was she fired, but it was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal," Machtley said.

Another recent standout was the actress Viola Davis. Machtley was able to get her to commit to the summit between her role in "The Help," and her hit series "How To Get Away With Murder."

Davis, who grew up impoverished in Central Falls, spoke candidly of the experience and how it motivated her. She and her sister, now a teacher, had to fend off rats in their apartment building. "That was another one where nobody moved," Machtley said. "It was like watching a movie."

Szostak, who now works for herself as president and founder of Szostak Partners LLC, worked for more than 30 years in management and executive roles at FleetBoston Financial Group, now Bank of America. She sits on several corporate, nonprofit and philanthropic boards, including at Bryant University.

Her involvement with the summit came early, when she spoke on CEO leadership issues and on work-life integration.

In one of her first addresses, she shared a study, conducted through Radcliffe College, which merged with Harvard University in 1999, that she had overseen as an executive at Fleet. The study focused on the experiences of employees in the underwriting department in Framingham, Mass.

What it found, as it sought to determine why underwriters were leaving: the efficient ones were assigned larger volumes of work, leading to resentment. Many were frustrated because they didn't have enough clerical support. And sales staff in the field were frustrated because when they would call in to check on a loan status, they were directed to voice mail.

As a result of the study, Szostak said she hired more clerical staff to reduce the paperwork. She assigned set "call hours" so the sales staff could reach them, and then "quiet hours" for the underwriters to think and process the loan requests in uninterrupted times.

The follow-up study found that employees reported reduced stress and better sleep patterns. As an executive, the fixes cost nothing, or were nominally expensive. It led to greater satisfaction among workers. What she took away from the experience is that not everything that needs to be changed will cost more money. And that management should be responsive when employees in high-demand fields, such as underwriting, are saying they feel stress.

"The summit tells stories," she said. "Tips and advice to employers, to leaders and companies, so they can come back and make changes. At the same time, it empowers people and women to speak up and make changes in their own respective organizations."

‘THE RIGHT FIT'

Cheryl W. Snead, the CEO and president of Banneker Industries, a supply chain and logistics company, said one of the aspects of the summit that she most appreciates is that it brings together women from different points in their careers, and among different professions.

Why is it still necessary to hold a gender-specific summit? It gives women an opportunity to learn from each other, away from the pressure and deadline of daily work requirements.

"Though women are climbing the corporate ladder, they're starting and running their own businesses, and they're moving forward in their careers. I think women love the opportunity to learn from other women. It's a source of inspiration and motivation to them," she said.

The summit also provides an opportunity for networking, for women who may be just getting started in their careers, or for those whose industries are male-dominated. They can meet and bond with women in other sectors who nevertheless have similar experiences.

Mentors are important, and there is an opportunity to find them, said Lisa Melton, assistant vice president for corporate communications at Amica Mutual Insurance Co. in Lincoln.

"Sometimes the challenge is finding the right fit for you," Melton said. "It's making sure you have that connection with someone. This is just another place to find that. If you haven't found it in your corporate culture, the summit is an amazing place to find that."

Learning from others is also a powerful motivator, Snead said. Although she runs a small business, and can't afford to shut it down for a day, she sends women employees to the event for half-day sessions, allowing some to go in the morning through the lunch speaker, and the rest for the afternoon.

"There are not a lot of professional opportunities I can take advantage of that are local, where it's one day," she said.

Snead goes as well, and has taken some of what she's heard from others to heart.

For example, a few years ago, she listened as Cheryl Merchant, president and CEO of Hope Global, told an audience that one of her challenges as an executive was getting more women to try for internal promotions that are within reach.

"When she posts a job description, men look at it. They may have only 25 percent of the job qualifications, and they go for it. They're confident they can do it," Snead recalled. "Some of the women who work for her, or are just looking at it, say, well, I don't meet all of those qualifications so I'm not going to apply."

The CEO's message: Go for it.

"I thought that was a great message and I brought that message back to my team," Snead said.

Patricia O'Brien, the associate provost for budget and planning at Boston University, has attended the summit for four of the past six years. O'Brien, a trustee at Bryant, oversees the budget process for 17 schools at Boston University.

She finds that the speakers and the audience are all facing similar pressures. She likes the day of stepping outside her responsibilities and talking and thinking, collectively with other women, about life.

A speaker she recalled as having changed her own habits was Arianna Huffington, the founder and former editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post.

She talked about sleep, and how women don't get enough.

"She has a sleeping room at her company," O'Brien said. "Now, I didn't go back and create a sleeping room. But she made her point loud and clear by talking about sleep. Since then, I think I've moved sleep up on my list of things that are ‘have to dos.'

"We all used to feel guilty about leaving work to the next day," O'Brien said. Now, she shuts it down when she knows she's fatigued. "I think, now it's the time to put this away and tackle it tomorrow. And not feel like this is a personal failure."

Kelly Conaty, who works in New York in ­commercial sales at The Associated Press, attended the summit in 2016 for the first time. She registered late, and essentially picked her breakout sessions at random. But she found they resonated with her professional interests.

One, called "Four Ways to Make Your Mark as an Entrepreneur," featured Eileen Kwesiga, an associate professor of management at Bryant, who in 2010 launched a jewelry business, Oh So African Designs. She explained that often women listen to the voice of doubt in their head rather than pursue an entrepreneurial idea with confidence that business issues can be worked out over time.

Conaty said that observation hit home, as she's found herself talking herself out of new initiatives.

Jessica Adams, a recent graduate of Bryant, is now working and living in Tennessee as an account manager. She earned a master's degree at Bryant in 2012, after earning her undergraduate degree there.

What she took away from the summits she attended is some practical advice: Be your own best advocate.

That was a lesson she learned as she moved further into her career, and away from Rhode Island.

"I guess I thought that hard work was what would get me noticed. And yes, hard work will get you noticed," she said. "But at the same time, you need to hear from other people that you really need to promote yourself."

Machtley, who has no plans to retire, wants to continue the summit as an ongoing, high-quality, educational conference.

The Providence Lady Project, which recently announced it would hold its first summit, is holding a daylong event eight days after the Bryant summit, but neither Machtley nor the Lady Project leader, Sierra Barter, see the two events as competing.

Barter, who started the Lady Project as a means of promoting more networking opportunities for younger women and entrepreneurs, said the now-national organization will bring more than 300 people to Providence for its summit. "There is certainly room for all events that help connect and support women," she said.

Machtley agrees. "All women need help in managing their lives and advancing their careers. The women's summit appeals to women of all ages with quality educational programs that provide for lifelong learning," she said. •