The Women in Leadership conferences began with the question, “What could we accomplish if the women of influence in Oklahoma City worked together to make a difference for other women?” The answer is, “A lot.”
But first the women needed to get to know one another.
To that end, Donna Miller founded the Senior Executive Women’s Networking Group in 2008. SEWNG’s first event was lunch at the Governor’s Mansion with First Lady Kim Henry. (Donna won the lunch at an auction at Keystone, her kids’ school.)
Debbie Fleming, a vice president of a public utility and an early member of SEWNG, was one of the 14 women at lunch. “It was the first time many of us had ever met,” says Debbie.
“It’s probably difficult for younger women to imagine our lack of connection to one another at that time,” Debbie continues. “But most of us were pioneers. We were often the first women to sit at the executive table.”
Donna and Debbie agreed that women in leadership needed to develop a social network. They needed a safe place where they could discuss important issues outside their organizations with people they respected and knew they could trust.
Debbie hosted the next event at her home. An executive chef taught 25 women, including Dr. Barbara Crandall, how to create holiday hors d’oeuvres. Barbara saw a natural tie-in with Oklahoma City University’s Meinders School of Business, where she was a professor of management.
Barbara set up and attended a meeting with Donna, Debbie and Meinders Director of Communications (and multiple hat-wearer) Melissa Cory. “We talked about possible speakers, topics and how the University could – and should – participate,” recalls Melissa.
Marian Moon, who had recently retired as a senior leader in the energy industry, also hosted an event in her home. While the women talked about their lives, careers and key crossroads, Susan Morrison, an artist in residence for the State of Oklahoma, created a painting representing the major themes she heard.
The camaraderie increased with each SEWNG social event. The women created bonds, developed friendships, enjoyed networking and built trust as they learned how to pair wines, attended a Thunder game, took a preview tour of the Philharmonic Show House and picked the brain of an Internet guru.
“As women used to multitasking, we soon wanted to expand our efforts beyond socializing,” remembers Debbie. “We wanted to take on a cause to give us purpose and energy.”
The result? The First Annual Women in Leadership: Powerhouse Workshop & Panel was held at the Meinders School of Business in 2010.
The conference has been remarkable from the beginning. The topics are relevant. The conversations are candid and truthful. The atmosphere is intimate and trusting. The speakers talk openly about their successes and their failures, what they’ve learned and mistakes they’ve made. No one gets talked to or lectured at.
Meinders students attend the conference for free and submit essays to win $500 cash prizes. They benefit from learning about real-world experiences and from interacting with leaders they may never have met otherwise.
“Anyone can ask a question,” observes Martha Burger. “They will always get an honest answer.”
Now retired, Martha was a senior executive of an energy company when she joined the conference planning committee in 2011.
The benefits go well beyond the conference. It’s a win-win for everyone.
“The Women in Leadership conference helps us become better versions of ourselves,” notes Debbie. “We all have causes we’re passionate about. The conference and the relationships we’ve developed help us help other women and our community in meaningful ways.”
For example, Donna is an active member of the YWCA board. She has enlisted women in leadership positions to support the Y’s mission of eliminating racism and empowering women. “One in four adult women will be a victim of domestic violence,” cites Donna. “I truly believe that domestic violence and its impact on children is the root cause of most of society’s ills.”
Martha is a trustee of Oklahoma City University and a graduate of Meinders, which she says has been “a hidden gem” for far too long. “The conference is one of the reasons Meinders is being recognized as the important community, business and educational asset it is.”
The speakers, sponsors and organizers consider the conference a way to give back to the community, nurture students, recruit talent and promote their companies and institutions. It has given many women the opportunity to discover their voices. Employers also value the training and leadership development the conference provides.
SEWNG and its members have been absorbed into the fabric of the conference. They work on the organizing committee, suggest speakers and topics and solicit sponsorships. Martha and Lisa Putt, one of the core members of the planning team, have hosted the reception for presenters and sponsors the evening before the conference for several years.
Looking to the future, the conference organizers are investigating how to keep the intimacy and trust as the conference continues to grow and how to maintain relevance, especially for younger women leaders.
Not to worry. As we know, anything is possible when women work together to achieve a common goal.