A few weeks ago, I had the remarkable privilege to attend the 2012 Dynamic Women in Business Conference, hosted by the Women’s Student Association at Harvard Business School.
The energy of the conference was vivacious: some 1400 women leaders and MBA students attended, representing a diverse group of backgrounds, career interests, work experiences, and passions. Conference topics ranged from industry focuses on healthcare or sports, to professional discussions on boardroom perspectives and e-commerce, to personal topics covering starting over/transitioning and global careers. There was no shortage of spirited chatter among attendees during panels, or during breaks gathering over coffee.
I was lucky enough to sit in on a number of conversations, from entrepreneurs such as Mary Wittenberg, Founder of New York Road Runners, on the importance of keeping a personal scorecard and pursuing your passions, listening in on women in tech discussing the latest social media trends.
These forums were lively: the conference prominently displayed a cool new app called Twitterfountain, which “mashes up” different Twitter mentions. It was awesome attending panels and seeing participants tweet about their experience on their projectors. Not only did it contribute to the conference buzz, it also allowed people to learn the key highlights of other panels they couldn’t attend at the same time!
The highlight of the conference for me was the keynote address by Ann Mukherjee, CMO of Frito-Lay. The conference was over a month ago, but I can remember Ann’s remarks clearly. They weren’t just pithy. They weren’t just inspirational. They were actionable. They were awe-inspiring.
Four themes radiated from her remarks:
#1 Are you going to be Woman A or Woman B?
Ann opened her speech putting up two slides: Woman A and Woman B. Woman A had a tough life: history of abuse, mother killed as a teenager, eloped at 19, culminating in a turbulent and unhappy marriage. Woman B’s life was markedly different: attended a top university, graduated from elite MBA program, in a happy marriage with two beautiful children.
“Who do you think is more successful, Woman A or Woman B?” she asked the audience.
A few hands went up for Woman A. Most went up for Woman B.
“Well, a few of your hands went up for Woman A, who probably thought that there was a trick to this question,” she said. “There is a trick.”
Then she courageously said: “Woman A and Woman B are the same woman. And that woman is me.”
My key takeaways from that powerful opening were two things. First, we can choose to make our lives about our failures or we can make our lives about our successes. Ann exemplified a woman who didn’t indulge in feeling sorry, but instead, embraced her past and was a shining star in the present.
Second, no amount of obstacles and tragedies should keep you from who you want to be. The history of the world is of leaders who have persevered through adversity, and this was a great reminder of that.
#2 Are you putting your best self forward?
Being phenomenal, Ann said, is not about power, control, position, being perfect, or being a realist.
Instead, “being phenomenal is not about power but about embracing your whole self.”
I liked Ann’s discussion of putting your “best self” forward, because it was an opportunity to reflect that there is no recipe for success but about figuring out what makes you you, what your best attributes are, and believing that you can be phenomenal as you.
#3 What is your elevator story?
Many of us in business school have developed elevator speeches to pitch a product, service, concept, or company…yet I’d venture that most of us have not thought about what the elevator speech is for our own lives, and the message that we want to leave others with.
For example, how many times have you been in a large group where people were going around in turn to make an introduction, and you struggled with what you would say about yourself after your own name?
Ann talked about this disconnect and spoke persuasively about why having an elevator story for your life is important. Part of it is about “knowing thyself, loving thyself.” Part of it is that if you don’t have a cohesive story for others, it’s hard for them to help you. And part of it is to force yourself to reflect on your life and the themes that emerge across time.
#4 If not now, then when? If not you, then who?
Throughout her speech, one key emotion that emerged was passion. It was clear that Ann was passionate about her work and the companies she worked for, and she loved what she was doing.
She also spoke a lot about being “change agents” and not “[settling] for mediocrity because it is easy to do.”
It was incredibly powerful that she closed her speech with having the audience envisioning the things that we were passionate about and the causes we wanted to fight for.
She asked: “If not now, then when?”
And then: “If not you, then who?”
That moment sunk in for me, as I’m sure it did for many others. In many ways, it was like Part II of the ubiquitous HBS question: “What is the difference you are going to make in the world? If not now, then when? If not you, then who?”
Standing ovation for keynote Ann Mukherjee, CMO Frito-Lay
At the end of her speech, she left each attendee with homework, which I’d like to share and pass on:
Do your personal SWOT analysis
What is your elevator story
Define your legacy
Be curious: active listener and master observer
Imagine the future – by defining possibilities
Celebrate and trust people
Be PASSIONATE – it’s contagious
The WSA conference was an amazing experience to hear from so many speakers on so many topics, personal and professional. I’m already excited to attend again next year!