Written by Erin Luhmann ’08
While legislation in favor of equal pay for women failed to pass through the Senate earlier this month, 230 registered guests convened on April 10 to strategize their own path toward professional success at the student-led 4th annual Gustavus Women in Leadership Conference. This year’s topic was “Leadership for the Greater Good: How Talented Women Thrive.”
“I was so excited when I saw that my alma mater was hosting a conference on this topic,” said Sarah Cuthill ’85, one of this year’s keynote speakers. “It made me so proud. This is an important topic for the world, and for Gustavus students to be leading this effort was very impressive to me.”
Guests met at the American Swedish Institute to hear Cuthill, Margaret Anderson Kelliher ’90, and five other esteemed speakers reflect on their leadership values. What started as an experiential opportunity for female Gustavus students to plan and host a conference has grown into a highly anticipated event for networking and professional growth.
Cuthill, the national service line leader for Global Employer Services and principal of Deloitte Tax-Global Employer Services, kicked off the morning by exploring the cultural context of women in leadership and stressing the power of connection.
“Remember, we’re just as human as you are,” Cuthill told students as she walked on stage after an accomplished introduction. As if to underscore her point, her heel then wedged itself into a crack on stage.
“I just want you to relate to me,” she said, getting the audience to laugh as she wriggled free.
Facilitating personal connections, in all realms of life, is one of Cuthill’s strong suits. She paid tribute to family and fellow alumnae who exhibit values that help keep her grounded as she pursues her own ventures. Cuthill’s gratitude set the tone for the rest of the day as attendees discussed ways to continue their value-driven leadership journey – one that honors humility, generosity, resilience, courage and compassion.
While the banquet room was packed with pants suits and pumps, these values aren’t gender-specific. Sophomore Stephan Quie, an international business and Chinese double major, came for the first time this year with another male attendee who highly recommended the event.
“I’m enjoying it so far,” Quie said during a break. “The speakers are awesome. It’s definitely not just for women.”
Inclusiveness is central to the event. However, it was initially created to address a gender gap that Kathi Tunheim, Board of Trustees Endowed Chair in Management and Leadership in the Department of Economics and Management, saw affecting her female economics and management students at Gustavus seven years ago. Tunheim noticed they struggled getting internships and jobs after graduation – something that resonated with her own life experience. They needed a bit of extra mentoring on things like proper interview attire and how to be their own advocates.
“My Gustavus students were smart, had a good work ethic and high potential,” she said. “They just didn’t learn how to apply some of these life skills from their text books or classes. I knew that leadership training, development and coaching could make a positive difference.”
In response, Tunheim created Gustavus Women in Leadership (GWIL), a student group, to plan and host a conference that would connect talented female Gustavus students with strong female role models in their community. The student group acquired a $5,000 grant to fund their first conference back in 2010 and they merged efforts with the director of gift planning at Gustavus, Kari Clark, the following year, to secure alumnae support.
This synergy between students, alumnae, and special guests carried straight through to the breakout sessions.
Energized from Nikki Sorum’s session titled, “Leadership Lessons: Inspiring and Equipping Others to Achieve their Passions,” sophomore Chloe Altman, a communications studies major, commented on the atmosphere of the event.
“I’m pleasantly surprised. I feel very comfortable in the setting,” she said. “Everyone has a common connection.”
Sorum is the divisional vice president of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. Her conviction in value-driven leadership was complimented by four other speakers: the former Director of Community and Public Affairs for Alaskan BP Karen Cowart, Founder and CEO of Lily Pad Consulting Grayce Belvedere-Young, President and CEO of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts Patricia Mitchell, and President and CEO of the Minnesota-based Health Partners Mary Brainerd.
“I’m really inspired by the number of strong women who were at this conference,” said Emily Atkins, a sophomore business management major.
Junior Terrece Oldenburg heard about the conference through the gender, women and sexuality studies program and decided to come by herself. She’s a triple major who plans to pursue a career in nursing.
“I thought it would be good for networking and [hearing] empowering messages for when I do have a career,” she said.
More than one speaker advocated the idea of the corporate jungle gym, in lieu of the corporate ladder. Brainerd explained that the jungle gym represents the ability to move in all directions, adventure, fun and collaboration. In essence, it embraces the notion that you don’t have to knock others off the corporate ladder to get ahead. This sort of mentality allows for a morally fulfilling ascent toward professional success.
“Doing what’s right goes first,” said Oldenburg, after listening to Brainerd. “I always thought that I should be climbing the corporate ladder. I never realized there’s not just one way to go.”
Brainerd reminisced about her early work experiences, a time when she wore little silk ties to look like a guy. But she rejected the masculine standards of corporate America long ago.
“We limit ourselves when we don’t bring our whole selves to work,” she said, encouraging young women to be authentic and not get hung up on gender-related expectations. “There’s still a part of me that believes women need to see potential and believe that doors are open for them.”
Anderson Kelliher, president and CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association, wrapped up the afternoon with a powerful message on being your own advocate. She shared leadership lessons she learned while serving two terms as speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives – everything from negotiating skills to developing thick skin.
Having transitioned through more than two major careers, including a period as a stay-at-home mom, she addressed a fear that holds many women back – the fear of being revealed as a fraud.
“I’m here to tell you that everyone has that feeling at some point,” she said. “But we need to push past that.”
In her closing remarks, Anissa Mediger ’94, a shareholder at Murnane Brandt, assured everyone that they held the potential to break the glass ceiling. It’s simply a matter of investing in events like this that help the next generation redefine professional success.
“These are young women who are going places. You want to get to know them right now,” she said, elaborating on the impact her involvement as an executive board member of the GWIL program has had in her own life. “It has made me a more thoughtful leader and a more thoughtful woman.”
In a thank you e-mail, Nancy Nelson, vice president and chief actuary of Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota, wrote, “It was wonderful to take the time to reflect on leadership, and hear from so many inspiring, high achieving women. The importance of linking leadership and personal values came through strongly, as did the benefit of both learning from and mentoring others.”
“I hope this event and program helps Gustavus women and indeed all who participate believe that leadership skills lie within each of them,” Clark said, reflecting on the conference. “I want Gustavus women to believe they have a voice and gifts to share with the world to make this a better place.”
As the GWIL program continues to grow, conference organizers hold high aspirations for next year, when the central leadership element of the conference will be “drive.” They are already busy recruiting speakers for next year, to build upon this year’s dynamic network of attendees.
“One of the hallmarks of Lutheran higher education is for us to be a welcoming place where we inclusively bring in groups of people to create a dialogue around certain topics,” said Tunheim. “It has been predicted that one billion women will be joining the global work force in the next 10 years. This is a topic that men and women need to be discussing so that we can develop the world’s human capital to help solve the global problems that exist today.”
Gustavus Women In Leadership is a student/alumnae program that seeks to help the women of Gustavus (students, alumnae and staff) in their academic, professional and personal leadership development. GWIL is designed to inspire and develop women within and through the Gustavus community. GWIL is dedicated to prepare, support and promote the role of and opportunities for women leaders.
About the Author
Erin Luhmann graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in 2008 with a major in English and a minor in peace studies. She then taught English in Kyrgyzstan as a Peace Corps Volunteer (’08-’10) and completed a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013. As a graduate student, she won a New York Times contest to travel and report alongside columnist Nicholas Kristof in West Africa. She now works as a freelance reporter in Minnesota.
Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin