More than 600 people discussed the definition of success, the similarities between people and plants and the need to live a multi-faceted life at the 20th Anniversary Leadership Conference last weekend sponsored by The Women’s Center.
From the opening words of Cynthia Huheey, executive director of the center, through the inspiring story of former Essence Magazine editor Monique Greenwood, personal happiness should be nurtured to create personal success was the underlying theme of the day.
“For women, the road to success is riddled with doubt and uncertainty,” Huheey said. “We at the Women’s Center try to give women the tools and support needed to reach their potential.”
U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11), one of the few male speakers at the conference, said it has become a “yearly pilgrimage.”
“It is no wonder The Women’s Center was named the top non-profit organization in the Vienna-Tysons region,” he said. “This is an indispensable organization, providing educational programs and counseling services to those from all walks of life. We elected officials hear concerns and problems from our constituents as well, but we come at it from different directions.”
SHARON MCDONALD, a member of the center’s board of directors, spoke of the horrors of domestic violence against women, noting that one in three women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. Two silhouettes of women who had experienced abuse from their husbands were brought out, with recorded voices telling their stories. One was a survivor who got help and got out; the other was killed by her husband, who was found by their 11-year-old son washing his hands calmly in the kitchen after stabbing her over 60 times.
“If we focus only on the bigger, outward signs of domestic violence, we miss the bigger picture and the negative effects it has on our communities,” McDonald said. “When a woman becomes isolated, she has no other voice to block out the batterer’s insults. She starts to believe the abuse would stop if she changed, if she was smarter, if she somehow got better.”
Supporting and showing the victim that she is believed can go a long way toward helping her leave the situation, McDonald said.
“Success for a domestic violence victim comes when she is able to leave the situation and make her life the best she can,” she said.
THE FIRST KEY SPEAKER of the morning was Jean Otte, author of “Changing the Corporate Landscape: A Woman’s Guide to Cultivating Leadership Experience,” in which she compares the development of a person’s life with the growing of a garden.
“We are living in an age where so much is open for women, so many opportunities are available now that weren’t options before,” she said. “In the 1950s, women were trained first and foremost to be a good wife, then a good mother. Our job choices included being teachers, secretaries, nurses.”
Many times in life, however, things don’t go as planned or expected, Otte said. “Sometimes, however, the thing you thought you wanted to be, or the thing others thought you out to be, isn’t what you were meant to be at all.”
Her love of gardening began with her father, who shared this pastime with her, but always hoped his daughter would become a teacher.
“With a garden, you cannot just throw the stuff out and expect a garden to grow, it’s so important to create the environment for the plants to grow,” she said. “If you put plants in an area of the garden that’s not right for them, they may never achieve all they’re meant to achieve.”
Otte went through school and received training to be a teacher, but it was not her passion. So she did something else.
“I’ve uprooted myself, shaken off the dirt from my roots and replanted myself in a place where I could grow better because it was the right thing to do,” she said.
It’s also important, Otte said, to be watchful of weeds in life that can choke a plant, or a person, and can “cripple a plant from growing. There are lots of weeds in this world, some we create ourselves out of our own perfectionism.”
Striving to be perfect all of the time is what holds many women back from getting promoted in the workplace or from having full, happy lives, she said, because women are unable to say no and will take on more work to prove their worth.
“So many women in the workplace look like Miss Gulch from the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ you know, on the bicycle with Toto in the basket,” she said. “It’s just a job! Sometimes women get this overblown sense of responsibility. I don’t know what it is that you do that makes you think the entire world will collapse if you don’t handle the task yourself.”
Taking on extra work only to prove she's capable of it does nothing to help a woman, Otte said. “What good is being brilliant if no one knows you’re brilliant?”
“The single most important thing to have is a good sense of humor,” she said. “If you don’t have a sense of humor, you’re better off staying home.”
LILLIAN VERNON, founder of the mail order catalogue of the same name, started her business with $2,000 in wedding gift money while awaiting the birth of her first son. The catalogue featured handbags and matching belts that could be personalized for free.
“Once you say you’re going to do something, do it, even if it gets a little rough,” she said, encouraging women to become entrepreneurs in their own lives.
“My work has become my passion,” Vernon said. “There’s something wonderful about the way a woman’s brain works when she sells something.”
While raising her family, she learned to prioritize her life, keeping her home life more important than her job.
“The world does not change if you don’t do something,” she said. “It is crucial to have a mate who will understand that he needs to help out too, they’re his children as much as yours.”
The risks associated with creating your own business match the thrills of a successful venture, Vernon said. “If you’re a true entrepreneur, you’re not afraid of anything. You need a spirit of adventure and daring … . Always remember that it’s very defeating if you badmouth yourself in front of others. Confidence is so important,” she said.
THE DAUGHTER of Cuban immigrants, Cari Dominguez started working at age 14 to help support her mother and two younger sisters while her father worked in Cuba early in the Fidel Castro days.
“You know, I never thought I’d quote Dolly Parton, but she once said ‘If you want to see a rainbow, you’ll have to put up with a lot of rain,’ and it’s very true,” she said.
Dominguez's first job was dusting pianos in the music department of a local university. “Both my parents expected us to work hard, to get a good education and give back to others, and we’ve all done that,” she said.
Her dream of becoming a foreign service officer was abandoned when she met her husband and she took a job with the Bank of America, one of the company’s first Hispanic women hired.
“When you’re the first of anything, we’re judged by what we do and what we represent,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of progress but we still have a long way to go.”
Currently, Dominguez is the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, investigating claims of discrimination on any level with the federal government.
The glass ceiling is still in place, she said, but the thickness of the glass is diminishing with each year. But challenges are still waiting to be overcome.
“We women are our own worst enemies,” Dominguez said. “I was working as a headhunter, basically, and called a woman who I thought was a great candidate for a comptroller position. She said she wanted to leave the company but was in the middle of too many projects that it was a bad time.”
She received a call the next day from a man who had heard of the position available and asked to meet her for lunch. “He proceeded to tell me that he wasn’t interested in that particular position, but if something were to come up with the same company in Salt Lake City to please keep him in mind because that’s where his wife was and he wanted to relocate,” Dominguez said. “He saw this as an opportunity to network and get his name out, whereas she saw it as an inconvenience.”
MANY OF the women who attended the conference were using the day as a networking opportunity, either for their companies or for themselves, looking for career changes.
“I’m a career changer,” said Holly Condon of Fairfax Station. “I used to work with the federal government then became an at-home mom but I just finished my degree in counseling.”
Condon was inspired by the morning speakers and hoped to take some of their encouragement to heart.
“They had so much to say based on their experiences,” she said. “Jean was right, we do need to have confidence in ourselves to follow our dreams. As a future counselor I hope to be able to encourage people to grow.”
AS A SINGLE MOTHER of three, Taundra Hayes of McDonald Bradley, Inc., came with her company to explore ways to hone her leadership skills.
“I think the glass ceiling is still an issue for women, I know I’ve run into it with other companies and in the thing I do outside work,” she said. “I think we will be able to overcome it with hard work and effort.”
Hayes planned on taking the information she gained that day and relaying it in her two daughters, the oldest of which is heading off to college in the fall.
“I want to instill in her to follow the path she chooses and not what others think she should do,” Hayes said.
Tom Green of Reed Smith, a legal firm that offers pro-bono services to The Women’s Center and its clients, said he’d brought his daughter to the conference last year and they both enjoyed it.
“This is a great catalyst for women to work towards success,” he said.
Being one of the few men at the conference, Green was able to find some wisdom in the women’s words.
“All the advice they gave today has been gender neutral,” he said with a laugh.
Karen Brown, one of the founders of Brain Injury Services, said she was glad she’d finally attended the conference after years of trying.
“The more I can be a better leader the better I can serve my community,” she said.
Brown identified with Jean Otte’s presentation. “We need to have more confidence and so many times it’s frustrating. We feel we need to focus on one thing when there’s so much else going on,” she said.
She also took Dominguez’ story of determination and fighting to heart, applying it to the families of brain injury patients she’s dedicated her life to helping.
“People want to be seen as a whole person, not just their disability or gender or illness,” she said.
Joan Coltrane, at the conference with a group of women from Booz Allen Hamilton, said she was interested in becoming a member of the Women’s Center.
“I have a small business I play with every now and then in addition to my full time job at Booz,” she said. “I’ve been working so long and have had a lot of jobs, so I’m familiar with a lot of what the speakers were saying, but it’s always good to rejuvenate yourself.”
In terms of the legendary glass ceiling, she said she’s been fortunate enough to not have run into it.
“I think we’re fighting our way forward,” she said. “I haven’t had problems getting promoted. I was promoted three times at AT&T and I can see myself getting promoted at Booz, women tend to flourish there.”
SOMETIMES, COLTRANE SAID, women who find themselves limited by invisible barriers are “not effective” and “don’t belong in business in general. I’ve had a lot of different positions and I know effective people and who are not,” she said.
Keynote speaker for the event was Olympia Dukakis, this year's recipient of the Leadership Award.
The daughter of immigrant parents, Dukakis always felt a connection and responsibility to the Greeks of the world, refusing to change her name when stage managers and directors told her she’d never be “sellable” as an actress.
“All the ethnic bias and furor I witnessed created a real competitiveness in me, but it became like a wagon. It helped me tremendously, but I always had to pull it,” she said. “It held me back.”
It is crucial for people, especially women, to drop their need to be dominant and “learn to play in concert with other. This was not an easy thing for me but it is a part of my teaching to others. My work was and is of my life. My work was my living,” she said.
Madame Curie and Rachel Carson are Dukakis' mentors for their steadfast determination. “I saw a movie about Madame Curie and she had a career, a husband who loved and respected her and a family and I decided I wanted that too, I wanted it all,” she said.
“There are many ways women prevail in the world. Some know how to please, some know how to serve, some can see the rules and know how to use them, some know how to give,” Dukakis said. “But then there is always the question, what did you have to do in order to gain your power.”
As a child, Monique Greenwood always knew that her parents expected her to be the first person “in the history of our last name” to get a college degree, she said.
“That was success for my parents, but they figured I’d go on to get some big political job. I wanted to write about fashion,” she said.
“One day, I made my mom very proud, I became the editor in chief of Essence Magazine,” she said. “I grew up with this magazine on our coffee table, the only magazine where I saw my reflection on the cover every single month, that told me I was beautiful and worthy.”
Greenwood also started a bed and breakfast at her home but, after a while, found herself jealous of her guests, enjoying the Jacuzzis and taking the vacations she always wanted to take.
“Here I was writing a book called “Living a Life that Matters,” and I felt like a fraud,” she said. “I came upon my 40th birthday and when I started making up the guest list, I crossed off the names of people whose addresses I didn’t have. I was the only guest left,” she said.
Greenwood booked herself into a bed and breakfast at Cape May, N.J. and while relaxing on the beach she heard a voice that told her she had to quit her job.
“You know the voice, it’s the one you don’t hear when you’re too busy doing for everyone else,” she said. “That voice got louder and louder until I went back to New York City and resigned my position.”
“In life, you need to start where you want to end,” Greenwood said. “If you put yourself where you want to end, it’s all just working backwards, it’s already real for you in your mind.”
Having recently opened her fourth inn in New Orleans, she no longer is envious of her guests.
“When we live our dreams, we have true joy,” she said. “I don’t make as much money as I used to, but it’s not she who has the most toys, wins. It’s she who has the most joys, wins. I believe at the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves if we’ve made a mark or left a stain.”