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Simmons Leadership Conference celebrates ‘Women Leading Change’

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
Simmons Leadership Conference celebrates ‘Women Leading Change’
(L-R): Afternoon keynote speaker America Ferrera star and co-producer of the NBC sitcom “Superstore” and star of ABC’s “Ugly Betty, with Helen Drinan, president of Simmons College. (Photo: Photo: Carla Osberg Photography)

Authenticity and owning your power were two of the central themes at the 37th Annual Simmons Leadership Conference held at the Seaport World Trade Center and Hotel on March 29. These themes were best exemplified in the opening keynote by the dynamic Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Wealth Management, Managing Director and Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley.

Having been on Wall Street for nearly 30 years, Harris feels strongly about giving back and helping others along their career path — especially women. Known for delivering “pearls,” or the lessons she’s learned along the way, Harris emphasized “bringing your authentic self to the table,” in your career and in life.

“Most people are not comfortable in their own skin,” she said, “and those that are will be the ones that other individuals naturally gravitate to.”

Author: Photo: Carla Osberg PhotographyAnita Hill, Brandeis University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s Studies and a faculty member of Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Management, giving the luncheon keynote address.

The “pearls” were so impactful that they seemed to permeate the sold-out conference, which included more than 3,000 (primarily) women attendees. Upon arriving at a morning business session titled “Leading Change Outside the Lines,” moderator Susie Gharib, an award-winning business news journalist, began by saying how she was inspired by Carla Harris’ address.

It was evident that Harris had hit upon an issue that’s in the zeitgeist. On the topic of “what makes a great leader?” panelist Liz Kelley’s response was “to be inspiring” and that one of the ways to accomplish that was “by being authentic.” The vice president at Hewlett Packard Enterprise added that humility is important in being a great leader. Laura Gentile, Founder of espnW at The Walt Disney Company found her confidence through sports, and said that “the notion of empowering others” is one of the attributes that makes for a great leader. The third guest on the panel, Elizabeth Phalen, senior vice president at EMC Corporation, spoke about how being authentic has increased her ability to be a leader.

The official theme of this year’s conference was Women Leading Change. It featured keynote addresses by Anita Hill, University Professor at Brandeis University; Geena Davis, an Academy Award-winning actor; and America Ferrera, actor, producer and activist.

Davis, founder and chairwoman of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, discussed her profound interest in how women and girls are depicted on screen. She cited a startling fact: Despite women making up 50 percent of the workforce, only 11 percent of films cast women and girls in speaking parts; and that even though women make up 40 percent of the global workforce, they make up only 25 percent of working roles on film.

Over the past 20 years, according to, her Institute has amassed the largest body of research on gender prevalence in entertainment, and over the past 10 years they’ve been collecting data on the number of female characters in children’s programming. Part of Davis’ work has been to dive deeper into this issue and to make an impact at this level first.

Author: Photo: Carla Osberg PhotographyGeena Davis, actress and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, giving the morning keynote address at 37th Annual Simmons Leadership Conference.

“We should be showing girls and boys sharing equally in the sandbox,” she said. Davis has also advocated for women and girls in part by playing roles that resonate with women. In 2005, she starred in the television series “Commander in Chief,” where she played the first woman president of the United States. Data that her Institute collected noted that 68 percent of people were more likely to vote for a female president after viewing one season of the show.

During the afternoon keynote, Anita Hill spoke of reimagining equality through the context of what women were facing in the housing crisis. She chose the setting of home because “it’s a place that allows us to grow and develop” and “it’s a place where we hope that our contributions are going to be recognized and rewarded,” said the professor.

She also connected reimagining equality with Title IX and how it can be a tool to provide women with an equal chance, not just in sports but also in education and in the workforce.

Master of Ceremonies Joyce Kulhawik moderated the closing keynote, “A Conversation with America Ferrera.” Kulhawik began by noting how the day-long conference seemed to be filled with certain recurring themes such as “being authentic,” “being comfortable in your own skin” and the “power of media images.”

During the one-hour conversation, Ferrera discussed a range of issues, from what drives her on camera and behind the scenes to her first film role in “Real Women Have Curves,” to her television shows “Ugly Betty” and “Superstore,” as well as the impact of media images on America’s youth.

An avid film and television watcher growing up in the San Fernando Valley in California, Ferrera was acutely aware of the lack of images of individuals who looked like her on screen.

Despite the lack of images, she had a strong role model in her mother who told her that she could be and do anything that she wanted to be. But when she told her mother she wanted to be an actor, her mother’s response was “not that.” However, Ferrera felt this pull “to tell stories to empower people” and that she was “young enough and naïve enough to believe what my mother told me; that I could be anything I wanted to be.”

Throughout the conversation, Ferrera was insightful, engaging, and passionate about being part of the solution, especially in the media and political landscape. When asked about playing Betty Suarez in “Ugly Betty,” Ferrera said Betty never doubted her own value and her own worth despite what other people saw externally. She explained, “It still boggles my mind that the biggest insult you could give a woman is that she’s ugly. It’s like ok, and then what? What does that have to do with anything?’”

The actor and activist strongly believes that moving forward is about finding common ground.

“We have to find a way to build partnerships. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” she said.

The 2017 Simmons Womens Leadership Conference will celebrate the theme Leading With Purpose with keynote speaker Diana Nyad, the first person in history to swim 111 miles nonstop from Cuba to Florida. For more information, visit www.leader