As I approached the registration desk for the 27th Annual Stern Women in Business (SWIB) Conference, a woman handed over my nametag and a brochure. In proud, bold capital letters, the brochure boasted this year’s theme: “Through Her Eyes: Navigating the Jungle Gym.”
I immediately envisioned the time-worn, wooden playground on which I experienced so much laughter as well as a copious amount of splinters during my school days. Yet, I struggled to connect a jungle gym with my career.
Keynote speaker Colleen Taylor, Executive Vice President at Mastercard, skillfully aligned the metaphor with her professional journey, describing triumphs and obstacles alike in fitting terms such as “climbing the ladder,” “hanging from the monkey bars” and even “sliding.”
She encouraged the audience with twelve pithy pieces of advice, which included “be purposeful about your brand,” “seek diversity in work and personal life,” “don’t be the change register, be the change embracer” and “know what you’re worth.” The result was a newfound eagerness to take this career playground by storm. But first, I held off to attend some of the other conference events.
I joined the “Doing Well by Doing Good” panel, which consisted of a group of five inspiring founders, innovators and directors. These incredibly admirable women are taking action by creating environmentally friendly and stylish shoes, assisting nonprofits with digital transformation and leading grant-making strategy for conservation initiatives. Despite the abundant challenges they face daily, such as balancing stakeholder priorities, they continued to demonstrate their commitment to ethics and social responsibility. Hearing from them definitely made me want to grab the chains, pump my legs and swing high.
I was excited for the fireside chats with Trish Donnelly, CEO of Urban Outfitters, and Annie Edwards, Director of Global HR at Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT). Both women spoke with exceptional poise and humbleness, echoing many of the themes I heard throughout the conference while providing their own unique perspectives. Like the prior speakers, they emphasized the importance of recognizing diversity, being ambitious and understanding culture.
Edwards also brought to light an important gender difference that she recognized as a manager. Around the performance review period, her male subordinates entered her office ready to discuss salary, equipped with research including competitors’ rates. I scribbled this in my notebook while simultaneously scanning for Taylor’s advice, then felt myself starting to slide — I suddenly realized that I did not know my own worth.
While I still feel a little naïve and frustrated that I haven’t done enough due diligence for such conversations in the past, I now feel empowered to be able to climb up the ladder and confidently arm myself with a greater understanding of my worth in time for my next performance review.
The final session of the day was a hands-on meeting with Executive Coach and Business Consultant Kate Gardner. She challenged us to envision our ideal future through an “Oh my gosh, it’s the year 2024 and you’ll never believe what happened…” exercise. The blue sky session was incredibly challenging and helped me realize that I often set smaller-scale, achievable goals, perhaps due to a fear of failure or imposter syndrome. Dreaming bigger and developing my five-year plan will take more work but the session gave me the tools to begin my journey and explore opportunities in my career and personal life that I hadn’t considered before.
Equipped with the advice from such a diverse and inspiring set of female leaders, I now feel ready to play on the jungle gym. Although at times I’ll fall off the monkey bars and scrape my knees, I am confident that I will dust myself off and climb high.