01 Feb 1998

Not Your Typical Business Conference

NYC Networking Day Energizes Alumnae


The weather in New York City was dreary drizzle on a fall day last October 25, but on the third floor of 42nd Street's Grand Hyatt Hotel, there was pure sparkle in the air. More than one hundred HBS alumnae from all over the country and the world had gathered for a one-day conference, "Choosing to Lead: Women and Leadership," sponsored by the New YorkÐbased HBS Network of Women Alumnae (HBSNWA). The gathering included women from the HRPBA Class of 1958 all the way up to the most recent graduating MBA Class of 1997. All had set aside this particular Saturday, as HBSNWA chairperson and conference organizer Karen A. Page (MBA '89) put it, to "tell their stories, discover they're not so different from one another, and learn some useful ideas for making their lives and careers more successful and satisfying."

It was a simple formula, and one that delivered. From Value Line CEO Jean Bernhard Buttner's (HRPBA '58) informative talk on the importance of financial investing for women, to the three upbeat and entertaining panels on how to succeed in corporate, nontraditional, and entrepreneurial career pursuits, to a moving speech on the power of the human touch in business and in life by Maxwell House Coffee and Post Cereals president Ann M. Fudge (MBA '77), to a dinner organized by Beatrice ("Bunny") Ellerin (MBA '95), the day's events generated an energy that allowed speakers and participants alike to dispense with formalities and talk about what's really important to businesswomen in the 1990s. It was, in the satisfied words of one attendee, "not your typical business conference."

Buttner began the morning by urging women Ð who are more likely to raise children alone or survive their spouses than are men Ð to prepare financially for the long term by investing in equities early and regularly. According to a recent study, she said, 88 percent of American women invest primarily in low-yield vehicles such as savings accounts and CDs, none of which outpaces inflation. By not entering the more high-yield world of equities, she said, "women may safely be going broke."

"Above all, don't fear failure," she stressed. "Remember, the fear of failure is a sure formula for not achieving success."

The theme of risk taking was echoed throughout the day, starting with the first morning panel on corporate leadership with moderator Gail C. Coleman (MBA '80), director of Salomon Smith Barney; Janet M. Green (MBA '88), partner at Ernst & Young; Ann M. Sarnoff (MBA '87), senior vice president of Nickelodeon; and Nancy C. Walker (MBA '86), general manager of Mosby Consumer Health. Among their words of advice to women in corporate life: Pick the "right" company by paying attention to signals the CEO and the firm's literature send about company mission and values. Focus on getting a quality boss over a good job title. Don't be afraid to take seemingly circuitous career paths once inside the organization. Have passion for what you do, and show it. And, for those with children, don't let work supersede the important things in your children's lives.

Alumnae who have created unique careers shared their experiences during the second morning panel. Mary L. Burton (MBA '76) talked about the "soul-satisfying" work she has found through her own business, which helps others integrate professional and personal goals in making career choices. Christina R. Lane (MBA '82) took listeners on a humorous sojourn, recounting her adventures as an international management consultant to governments, businesses, and nonprofits. And Amy S. Langer (MBA '77) rounded out the morning with a moving story about her own bout with cancer, an experience that led her to switch from a fast-track investment-banking job to the nonprofit world as head of the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations.

On Being There

Excerpts from Ann Fudge's address: As we aggressively pursue our career goals, well armed with our Harvard MBA, let's not fall into the trap of letting our careers and our MBA define us. . . .I was fortunate enough to learn a critical lesson from the most important role model in my life, my mom: Work hard in your chosen career, be fully dedicated to it, but understand that when you die or retire, the company will simply state your name and how long you've worked there. She reinforced her point by telling me: 'Your job cannot hug you at night; your family will always be there.' Being there, for family, for friends, for community, does not have to be in conflict with career success. In fact, I believe that it enhances career success, because fundamentally business succeeds or fails because of people, because of relationships. If you can manage to stay focused on your career goals by being there for others, you'll find your career and your life more fulfilling. And make sure to take time to be there for yourself. . .to pause, to assess your life, yourself. And I leave you with four questions: How will your business be better because you worked there? How will your community be different because you lived there? How will your family and friends be better because you've been there? What will be the most important thing you've done in your life?

After a luncheon talk by Ann Fudge (see sidebar), who was honored with the HBSNWA 1997 Alumna Achievement Award, participants convened for the day's last panel on creating a new business. Moderator Julie A. Farrell (MBA '80), Yvonne V. Cliff (MBA '85), Rysia de Ravel (MBA '83), Kathy M. Reilly (MBA '91), and Lan Lan Wang (MBA '78) shared stories and lessons from the trenches about how to launch and sustain an entrepreneurial venture.

Karen Page, a one-woman powerhouse who is a marketing strategy consultant and award-winning author of three books on the food-service industry, was the conference's primary organizer. "I think everyone left with more energy than they had when they walked in," she said. "When you're dealing with a bunch of extremely busy women, that's a sign of success." If the buzz in the reception hall afterward as participants excitedly clustered together to exchange ideas and business cards was any indication, Page was right on the mark.


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