How to Be a [Woman And A] Leader: Lessons I Learned at this Year’s LEAD Conference

This November, I had the opportunity to help organize the 9th annual LEAD Conference, put on by Latinas Unidas, here at Harvard. I remember back in April, I came for Visitas and met the two women in charge of the conference and they were influential in my decision to come to Harvard. Right from that day, I knew I wanted to be involved with this event. The conference was a wonderful experience in many ways and the best part of it all was getting to hear many AMAZING and influential women who are leaders in their fields speak. There were many potential takeaways from the LEAD conference, but here are the lessons that I learned from listening to our speakers:

 

“I am unique and that makes me powerful!” – Liliana Gil Valletta

 

Lili is a superstar entrepreneur, TV media contributor, and President of her cultural innovation company XL Alliance.  She was one of our three keynote speakers at the conference, and her upbeat presentation and energy no doubt left everyone in the room inspired to be proud of who they are and to not let others squash their identity. Towards the end of her presentation, Lili made everyone stand up and yell to the world, “I am unique and that makes me powerful!” She serves as a reminder that no matter the color of our skin and no matter the environment we grew up in, we all have something to bring to the world that makes us stand out against the competition or against our own circumstances. We must remember not to let our identities hinder us from achieving success; we must remember to let our identities shine and set us apart as unique and powerful individuals.

 

“Work like crazy. Don’t take anything for granted. A pretty face means nothing.” – Hon. Sila María Calderón

 

Hon. Calderón was the first and ONLY female governor of Puerto Rico, a position almost as significant as the POTUS. She was our opening keynote speaker for the conference and her story of her struggle to power touched the hearts of the audience. Because she was so inspiring to me, there are two of her quotes on this list. The first one reminds us that even though we may spend a good amount of time worrying about our appearances in the work world, they shouldn’t be our main focus when it comes to success. There’s a common misconception in our society that only “pretty people” become successful and get what they want. Hon. Calderón, though very beautiful herself, busted the misconception that may be holding a lot of young women back from pursuing their goals. I know that body positivity and self esteem are big issues in the lives of young women that have been brought to the forefront of society, but with an image-driven society, it can be hard to focus on the positive aspects of ourselves. While it is important to look presentable in the work force to climb the ladder of success, hard work and self-confidence are even more important to achieve our dreams.

 

“Take charge of your own narrative.” – Lisa Garcia Quiroz

 

College women are in an awkward transition phase from sheltered home life to being thrown into the “real world.” In this difficult time, it can be easy to let others make decisions for us when we aren’t sure of the right decision to make. In her keynote address at the LEAD conference’s kickoff dinner, Lisa, the Senior Vice President of the Time Warner Foundation, shared a time in her life where she “took charge of her own narrative” and because of her choices, found her way to Harvard. I know personally that making my own decisions is tough and I try handing off my problems to my roommate or a friend, but listening in on Lisa’s speech made me realize that in order to get where I want in life, I need to be in charge of my own life and my own decisions.

 

“Illuminate qualities that you cannot buy off the shelf.” – Dr. Nicte Mejia

 

Going back to the whole uniqueness idea that Lili spoke about, Dr. Nicte Mejia (Assistant Professor of Neurology at HMS and Massachusetts General Hospital) emphasizes the need to set yourself apart from the rest of the crowd. In life, there will be many equally qualified women who are just as driven as you are who are all applying for the same job or looking to start similar businesses or campaigns. There will always be competition to achieve success. Nicte reminds us that some qualities are just not inherent in everyone’s nature and they may be more valuable to an employer than we might think. For example, honesty is a quality that not everyone has in their possession, and one that might be too obvious to overlook in trying to put your best self forward, but knowing that an employer can truly trust you and your abilities can make you stand out from the rest of the group if you choose to illuminate that aspect of your personality.

 

“The minute you think you made it, you stop learning.” – Dr. Helen Cajigas

 

Dr. Cajigas, Founder, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Hispanic Medical Association, addresses an issue that many students may face at some point in their careers: becoming too comfortable where they are. Having the mentality that you’ve gotten to the point where you’re happy and comfortable with your life and choices can leave you closed to new opportunities for growth and promotion. As leaders, we should always be looking for the next high point in our lives, the next accomplishment that will make us say “I made it!” For me, this moment was getting in to Harvard. But am I going to stop there? Of course not. I have goals in mind that I will continue striving towards, and once I reach them, I know I’ll have more goals waiting at the back of my mind. This ensures that I will always be learning and growing as a person, and that is the greatest success that I can imagine.

“It is simply unacceptable.” – Hon. Sila María Calderón

 

As mentioned before, Hon. Calderón shared with us the story of her struggle to power. On her journey, she encountered a situation where she was not treated as an equal in the work force due to her gender. Her superior spoke to her with a disrespectful tone but she did not let it bring her down. She stood up for herself and while he tried to apologize for his misconduct, all she continued to say was “It is simply unacceptable.”

 

Hon. Calderón reminds us women that even in the 21st century in America, we can still encounter sexism in the workforce and that even though we shouldn’t HAVE to, we should be prepared for it. As women, we must stand up for ourselves and never let anyone talk down to us because we are all equal and the only thing that should hinder or help us on the road to success is our competency and abilities, not our gender or the color of our skin.

 

“A true leader is a person who makes those around them leaders.” – Bianca Caban

 

Who better is there to give leadership advice than the founder of the LEAD conference herself, Bianca Caban?! To end the lessons I’ve learned from the conference, I leave you with this message that is not an obvious one to keep in mind on your journey to the top: success is a group effort. How many people do you know have gotten everything they’re ever wanted all by themselves, with no outside help? I bet you can’t think of anyone because we are never alone in this journey called life. As leaders, we can’t just rise to the top and forget about everyone around us; we must simultaneously help others up along the way and keep ourselves grounded in our communities. The most rewarding aspect of being successful is sharing your story to those around you in hopes that they find the inspiration and motivation to grow into a leader as well. And so, the young women leaders of today are able to learn from seasoned leaders such as the speakers at the LEAD conference and can be inspired to continue this cycle of encouragement for younger generations. Doesn’t that sound like a beautiful world?