The Women's Empowerment Conference

On the last Saturday of February, I spent the day attending the Women’s Empowerment Conference at Harvard. The women who attended this conference were CEOs, investment bankers, social workers, revolutionaries, and most importantly, students of the lesson being taught that day: Women’s Empowerment. While the conference focused on the theme of empowerment, every speaker shared with us the role of being a woman in the workplace and how that affected the work-life balance.

The day was centered around keynote speakers, punctuated by a few different panels. The opening keynote speaker was Jeanne Jackson, CEO of NIKE. Jackson shared the journey of her career and personal life of the past 25 years. Throughout those years, she has worked for multiple major corporations, had two children, moved all over the country, and let her in-laws move in to help take care of the house while she and her husband worked. She showed us, through her presentation, that her sense of empowerment came from her family and the encouragement they gave her when she wanted to quit her job and everything she worked for. She quoted Beyoncé and Serena Williams on their ideas of female empowerment and how the two pop icons have inspired her to continue working on her dream. Jackson created an atmosphere of inspiration that made it seem like a woman could do everything she wanted, but then she shared a quote with us by Ray Kroc: “Luck is the dividend of sweat. The more you sweat, the luckier you get.” Jackson reminded all of us who were listening that the only way to succeed was to do everything with unprecedented effort because as women, the work we show will not only affect us, but all future women to come. She did not sugarcoat any of the sacrifices she made to have a family and a successful career in retail, the late nights nor all of the moving each of her jobs required. She reminded us that while she did everything she wanted to do in her personal and professional life, it was never a balanced route.

Afsaneh Beschloss, the CEO and founder of Rock Creek Group, was the next keynote speaker of the day and helped build on Jackson’s point of there not being such a thing as a work-life balance. Beschloss’ resume has been extremely impressive throughout her career and her mentors even more jaw-dropping. These women shared their life experiences, their successes, and their mistakes with Beschloss as the same sets of choices came up in her life. Through their mentorship, they shaped Beschloss’ idea of female empowerment in the workplace. She learned through these women how to encourage and how to be encouraged by other women in the workplace. As she shared her thoughts with the audience, she also emphasized on the issue of work-life balance throughout her career even with all of the encouragement she received. She explained how she first saw many women like her in the workplace, with the same career aspirations as her, and with the same limited opportunities as her. As she went through her career, she told us that most of her competition was taken out of the equation when the struggle over family and career started because the majority of her peers chose to focus more on their families than the careers they were building.

At this point, everyone in the audience froze for a minute, thinking about how in the future these choices would be passed down to us and that we would face the same struggle. Beschloss showed us that she did everything she wanted to do out of life and asked the audience to take courage from her when it came to making the same decisions that separated Beschloss from her peers.

These two speakers set the tone for the rest of the panels and workshops hosted by the conference. In each panel, the topic of balance took the forefront of the discussion.

I heard women working in investment banking explain how throughout their careers, they found mentors and sponsors in the workplace to speak up for them in meetings and promotional discussions. They explained how balance did not exist in any of their lives because their careers demanded as much attention as their personal lives did, and these women refused to compromise on one aspect of their lives to focus on another. These women shared with us that the key to all their success stories was in their never-tiring drive, passion, and ambition to move forward in their lives through career achievements and life milestones.

Another panel focused on 21st Century CEOs and the struggles they have faced as women entering the entrepreneurship world. These women talked about all the struggles of being a female CEO running a company aimed at the needs of women. These problems included the normal problems of funding and shared living space that all startups face, a lack of knowledge of certain women-related problems such as menstruation bra-wearing, and extra discrimination from female VCs who were extra hard on these companies because the female VCs did not want to be seen as being more lenient towards women-headed organizations. These women explained how they work around the clock getting investors and customers to believe in their companies, and then go home to their families every night and focus on that aspect of their life.

Over the course of the day, I heard the stories of dozens of unprecedentedly successful women and learned two things I wanted to share with all the readers of this article:

1. The concept of a work-life balance does not exist and that is okay.

2. Being a woman in the workplace will always consist of some struggle, but it can always be overcome.

In sharing these two takeaways, I hope that everyone who reads this article feels equally inspired to pursue all their personal dreams and career aspirations because as long as they work for it, they will receive it.