Women MBAs in the incoming Darden Class of 2023 just completed several days at the virtual Forté MBA Leadership Conference. This annual event is traditionally held in-person, but moved to a virtual platform for 2020 and 2021. The conference hosted an impressive 1,500 women MBAs, and included a host of inspirational speakers, top companies looking to mingle with the Class of 2023, career panels and strategy sessions for women in business. The Forté Foundation is a non-profit consortium of leading companies and business schools (including Darden) working together to launch women into fulfilling, significant careers through access to business education, opportunities and a network of successful women.

Bridet Nolan and Elizabeth Owen, two incoming Darden students, recently shared their perspectives from the recent conference:

Bridget Nolan, Class of 2023

Bridget Nolan, Class of 2023

In the months leading up the Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I was keenly aware of Forte’s commitment to advancing women in business and its dedication to providing females with the resources they need to succeed in their careers, however, it wasn’t until the opening day of the conference when I understood the reach and scope of the network. I learned that there are over 100,000 women involved in the organization, and that 1,500 female MBA students were in attendance at this year’s conference. It was amazing to be virtually surrounded by so many powerhouse women.

As a producer at CNN for eight years, I had limited exposure to the business world so my goal coming into the conference was to keep an open mind and learn about as many different companies and industries as I could. The conference proved to be the perfect place to do just that.

While there is certainly more work to be done in advancing gender equality in the workplace and the world at-large, I left the weekend feeling hopeful because so many companies attending the event placed diversity and inclusion at the top of their agendas. I could not recommend it more, it’s such a wonderful experience for those certain of their career path and those still exploring.

Here are my key takeaways from the Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference:

  1. Connections matter
    The conference kicked off with a warm welcome from the CEO of Forté, Elissa Sangster who then introduced Cassie Mclean and Ciera Crawford from a healthcare company, DaVita. Ciera was an MBA intern at DaVita when she reached out to Cassie, who was much higher up at the company. Ciera was not afraid to network during her internship and she credited it with where she was today at the company. Cassie became a mentor to Ciera and emphasized the importance of making connections everywhere you go. This was a powerful reminder that connections are powerful tools for building your career.
  2.  Your path may be non-linear and it’s okay to take risks
    You don’t need to have an exact plan for your career and sometimes your path will only make sense in hindsight. That is what Val Kaplan Zapata, Chief Marketing Officer at Headspace, emphasized during her chat with Chandra Holt, Executive Vice President of eCommerce at Walmart. Val reiterated that you don’t need to have it “all figured out” at the start and it’s okay to take some risks in your career. She had been working in strategy at HBO for 3 years, followed by a position at Instagram, until she went to work at a startup, Helix Sleep. She now realized how important it was for her to learn and grow in different environments and remain open to opportunities that were seemingly out of her comfort zone, like a sleep startup. As an incoming MBA student, it was a key lesson for me to remember: a winding path can sometimes be the best one.
  3. Find purpose in what you’re doing and a company that fits your values
    There was probably no greater lesson that I took from the conference than how important it is to find a company that aligns with your personal values. This event was a great way to explore that. Women’s empowerment, as well as diversity and inclusion, are very important to me; a company’s participation in the Forté Conference already informed me that we had that in common. Many of the companies that presented or held discussions throughout the weekend really leaned into how they were helping women advance in their careers and it was so encouraging to see. The women who spoke at the conference encouraged us to pay attention to this and take the time to find a company that aligned with our values.

Elizabeth Owen, Class of 2023

What do Chandra Holt, Executive Vice President for eCommerce, Walmart, Val Kaplan, Chief Marketing Officer of Headspace, and Darden’s very own Jenny Zenner, Senior Director of Technology Careers all have in common? Not only are they all badass women leaders in the workplace, but they also all served as panelists and presenters at this year’s Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference!

Elizabeth Owen, Class of 2023

Although this year’s conference was…you guessed it… virtual, the Forté Foundation brought out all the stops to make the conference an engaging and active weekend for myself and the 1,400+ ambitious women attendees. The agenda was fun, motivational, and packed with opportunities to explore career options and gain insights from a world class suite of women in business.

For example, a Career Insights series spanned both days of the conference, showcasing the ins and outs of careers from consulting to entrepreneurship. Esteemed panelists in each field described their experiences, answered attendee questions, and spoke candidly about the challenges they’ve faced getting to the top.

The conference also featured discussions around topics aimed at accelerating success for women in business, such as “Building Career Winning Relationships,” “Igniting Your Brand,” and what turned out to be my favorite session, “Gender and Negotiations.” Did you know that during salary negotiations, men ask for more money ~8 times as often as women!?

To add to the fun, the conference also had a photobooth, a “power word” declaration, a virtual lobby blasting “Girl On Fire” by Alicia Keys on repeat, and a raffle for a KitchenAid stand-mixer to be mailed to one lucky pandemic bread baker.

A snapshot from the conference virtual photo booth. Go Hoos!

I feel fortunate to have engaged with such a fantastic group of accomplished women, including many of my Darden peers. Cheers to #MoreWomenLeading!

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