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Learning to Lead

Women in Leadership Conference co-chairs hone their management skills and build lifelong relationships

By Aliza Gutman, MBA 10
and Stephanie Roy, MBA/MPH 10

Aliza Gutman (left in above right photo), MBA 10, and Stephanie Roy (right in above right photo), MBA/MPH 10, served as co-chairs of the 14th annual Women in Leadership Conference on March 13. Here they share this valuable experience with CalBusiness readers.

I (Aliza) have a handful of favorite quotes posted on my refrigerator. One that has been there for years is from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead: “To get things done, you must love the doing.” That sentiment has resonated strongly with me from the moment I read it, and, as I reflected on planning the 14th Annual Women in Leadership (WIL) Conference, it seemed to perfectly sum up our experience.

To spoil the ending, the conference was a hit. Tickets sold out nearly a week in advance of the event; nearly 600 people attended. Three outstanding keynote speakers inspired the audience with their own personal stories: San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, Hewlett-Packard CFO Cathie Lesjak, MBA 86; and Bare Escentuals CEO Leslie Blodgett. Over 75 panelists, moderators, and workshop facilitators participated, and more than 50 volunteers recruited speakers, secured sponsorship dollars, marketed the event, and oversaw the logistical details. Collectively, all of the volunteers’ hard work and endless enthusiasm resulted in an amazing conference.

We were fortunate to be able to begin planning almost immediately after the 2009 WIL Conference. We decided on a theme -- Trailblazers: Defining Your Own Path -- and fixed the schedule for the day before the end of the 2009 spring semester, almost a year before the next conference. The March 13, 2010, conference date was confirmed in early July, and later that month we invited our first keynote speaker, Bare Escentuals' Blodgett, who was unable to speak a year earlier. Several Haas contacts recommended HP's Lesjak, a Haas alumna herself. As she explained in her keynote, we were lucky that her daughter had to take the SATs that morning and was willing to give up her limited weekend mom-time as her daughter recovered. Lesjak was even able to stay to mingle with attendees during the networking reception at the end of the conference.

Lucky Break
Our third speaker, Harris, the San Francisco DA, came to us thanks to a little bit of luck. We wanted a female trailblazer a little outside the world of business – someone who could perhaps be a little provocative. Fortunately, a fellow MBA student happened to mention to us that he had a friend working in the DA's office, who could potentially facilitate the invitation. We jumped at the opportunity. While we were extremely glad she accepted, we did wonder how heavily her re-election campaign would play into her talk.

We had no need to worry. Harris gave a personal, polished speech about her climb to her current position to a jam-packed crowd of women in Andersen Auditorium. She kept it on point by discussing how she had to innovate when she arrived at the DA's office, and she talked about the role business can play in public-private partnerships.

Juggling Act
Of course, serving as conference co-chairs was a great opportunity to gain more experience managing a team. Managing an all-volunteer team of students who are busy juggling classes, looking for a job, and, in some cases, raising a family, is a tricky proposition. Knowing well these challenges from my (Aliza's) previous planning experiences, we understood the importance of outlining expectations, developing a detailed plan, and agreeing on a timeline in advance so that each member of the team could manage their schedules and commitments accordingly. Most second-year MBA’s have offloaded their club responsibilities by the spring semester and their focus is, well, let’s just say, elsewhere. But our WIL Conference executive board, composed almost exclusively of second years, remained engaged. We felt extremely fortunate to be working with a very capable and committed group of women.

Still, like any event, the conference inevitably involved setbacks and challenges. Even with all of our planning, we still were surprised when the conference sold out -- we had to turn people away -- and we ran out of programs by mid-day. We credit this to our team's great marketing efforts, led by Heather Houston, MBA 10, who organized industry-specific campaigns and targeted companies such as Google and Hewlett-Packard.

While everyone's contribution was valuable, our speakers committee , led by Christine Mucker and Amanda Murnane, MBA 10, really shined. They created a panel-in-the-box package with sample emails and frequently asked questions for team members to solicit speakers. After the panels committee held a brainstorming session at Jupiter, the group fine tuned the solicitation process by assigning volunteers to industry panels where they had a particular interest, which contributed to the high-caliber of the panelists at the conference.

Work-Life Balance
One of the most inspiring moments for me (Stephanie) at the conference came from a speaker during the Entrepreneurship Panel. First, I was surprised to learn that all of the panelists had children when they started their own businesses. It was heartening to hear women could take risks in their careers while at the same time have full personal lives. One panelist -- Heidi Ganahl, founder and CEO of Camp Bow Wow -- was particularly moving. She talked about how she dreamt up the idea for her dog-care business with her first husband before he died in a flying accident. She admitted to drifting after his tragic death for awhile, until she got back on track and decided to launch the business. Since then, she has sold more than 250 franchises in North America.

It was inspiring to hear speakers like Ganahl, and very satisfying to see the entire event come together on March 13th. Planning the conference led to many valuable opportunities that enriched our experience at Haas, the most important being the chance to build relationships with a fantastic group of classmates.

The event was a success, in part, because we loved the doing. And we hope we created an experience that enabled each of our volunteers to love the doing as well.