Lessons Learned in the Company of Great Women

04/22/2013 11:54 am 11:54:37 | Updated Jun 22, 2013

As an alumnus of Harvard Business School, I recently had the honor of attending the Harvard Business School W50 Summit, celebrating 50 years of women at the school. While it was enlightening to be around more than 800 brilliant, powerful women, I was also left transformed through their experiences with an infinitely broadened perspective. It's always a great opportunity to get outside of your own business to be able to look inside. Here are some of the highlights of the Summit:

We've come a long way, but we still have a ways to go
History is always interesting. The first women on the Harvard Business School campus had to live "across the river" at the Radcliffe campus and walk back and forth to the business school each day. Once they were allowed to live on campus, the women of Harvard Business School were in rooms that were not retrofitted for women--bathrooms had only one stall and several urinals.

Now, almost 50 percent of students at Harvard are women (I was there from 1997-1999 and the percentage was around 25) and they have modern living quarters to boot. There is far more equality in both the classroom and boardroom than there was 50 years ago. In 2013, women can pursue higher education and an advanced career without sacrificing a family or other passions. But we are still on this journey of equality, both in pay and in anecdotal evidence. Women make 77 cents for every dollar that men earn, and in 2012, only 18 of the Fortune 500 were lead by women.

This message left me with a greater appreciation and respect for the messages of women like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer. Though it's not the life we all want, their visibility at the top--and the persistence and hard work that got them there--demands attention and respect for the capability and value women bring to the workforce and paves the way in the future, for young women and girls who have big dreams and a vision.

Sheryl Sandberg: Choose your success and get to it
I left with a transformed view of the mission and message of Sheryl Sandberg, author of "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead." A keynote speaker at the event, she stressed a few key messages that every woman professional--beginning, mature or not yet in the workforce needs to hear.
• Don't get in your own way for success. To me, this means not being afraid to go after what you want whether that means more flexibility, fair pay or a promotion, whatever. Fear of a "no," or the possibility of seeming selfish or ungrateful, so often holds women back ... otherwise, we would have asked for what we wanted already. Do your research and present your case with confidence. Hearing a "no" never hurt anyone. Your employer won't give you more money, more flexibility or a promotion if you don't ask. Trust me. Have the courage to ask, and the resolve to be okay with the answer.
• It doesn't matter what success looks like, you define it for yourself and go for it. This really resonated with me. I left a promising corporate career--what I thought I wanted my whole life-- when I had kids to define a new kind of success. It's not the path I envisioned when I left Harvard with my MBA, but entrepreneurship and the platform Mom Corps gives me to help other women, provides me with a greater level of "success" than I could have ever imagined. Truly what I want for every woman I know.

Other key messages from summit speakers
Timothy Butler, Director of Career and Professional Development Programs, MBA Program Administration, discussed "the path to career vision." Much of his talk was spent on the topic of finding meaning in your career, and the importance of making decisions first with your heart, and letting the rest follow. What an obvious point that professionals so often neglect. If your heart is not in it--perhaps a new high-profile position, or opting to stay out of the workforce for a while to raise children--why do it? It won't make you happier or "better" to do what the media, peers, or even your old self would want. Spend some time in reflection when a new career opportunity comes up. It will save much frustration and backtracking down the line.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter a Harvard Professor of Business Administration, focused her talk on the topic "from inclusion to influence to impact." She shared how power so often goes to the connectors and how you need to do the "extras" to move ahead in the workplace. This is and will continue to be a major handicap for working moms until the workforce goes through an evolution. Professor Kanter also spent a lot of time telling the women in the audience to "brag," "claim our vision" and "get our credit." All necessities for getting noticed and moving up.

Overall, I learned a great deal, met a host of new connections, and walked away more inspired than ever. There is much value in opening our minds and learning from others, and then sharing the wealth and wisdom. Did you attend this event or another talk or seminar where you feel you learned something valuable. I would love to continue the conversation.

Allison O'Kelly is founder/CEO of Mom Corps, a national talent acquisition and career development firm, with a focus on flexible work. Launched in 2005, Mom Corps has helped champion the view that flexibility is a benefit to not only professionals but to the companies that employ them.