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Ross Women Take Action to Inspire

10/21/2008 --

Women in Leadership conference designed to hone skills and challenge perceptions.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—The women of Ross urged each other and their peers to "challenge perceptions and change minds" during the 2008 Women in Leadership Conference Oct. 3. The annual event, organized by Ross MBA students and the school's Women's Initiative, tasked attendees with taking ownership of the way they are perceived by others.

With an emphasis on an action-based, interactive program, the daylong conference featured workshops, a case competition, and other activities designed to impart immediate skills participants could use in the workplace. In fact, a "speed networking" event transformed a typical cocktail reception into a timed exercise in which attendees honed personal sales pitches as though meeting a colleague for the first time.

"We believe in the action-based element of Ross and we wanted to bring it into this conference," said Emily Hoffman, conference co-chair and a second-year MBA student. "We wanted to make sure it was an action-based experience for not only the participants, but also for the sponsors, community members, and everyone present."

To that end, "The Power of Talk: Improving Communications Across the Genders" workshop, sponsored by Dow Chemical Co., coached participants on how to work inclusively and recognize differences in work styles, minimizing the potential for misunderstandings. Participants explored communication differences between genders and practiced overcoming "invisible rules" that so often become barriers to success.

"The so-called glass ceiling is becoming smaller and smaller, but it doesn't change the fact that women have, and always will have, a different way of communicating and working," said second-year MBA Holly Sharp, Hoffman’s conference co-chair. "Men and women are two different species in some ways and we communicate differently."

While issues of gender are to be expected at a conference targeting female attendees, conference Programming Co-Chair Sarah Raehl explained that she never feels compromised as a woman at Ross.

"Our class is only 34 percent female, which is a small percentage, but I don't feel like we're in the minority at all," she said. "I have such strong relationships with my female classmates, so while I'm interacting with guys every day, I have such a strong female support group that it doesn't feel like an imbalance."

However, added Hoffman, "As long as women are still a minority in business school, we need to have continued momentum because we want to make sure that we have the skills and experience necessary to succeed in the workplace."

The annual conference provided a conduit for that momentum. And the action-oriented twist in 2008 lent a forward-thinking element to the agenda.

"It's one thing to be aware of your environment, but it's another thing to be equipped to go do something about it," Sharp said. "We wanted the conference to be more than just information-giving; we wanted it to be a resource and a tool for change."

Those tools for change came in many forms. Keynote speakers Mary Barra, vice president for global manufacturing engineering at general motors, Sarah Opperman, vice president of global government affairs and public policy of Dow Chemical Co., and Camille Jayne, MBA '83, president of the Jayne Group and founder of Matter at Hand, discussed practical ways women can develop as managers and leaders.

"Don't be afraid of getting what you want," Jayne advised. "Always be the windshield, never the bug."

As the former chairman and CEO of Universal Electronics, Inc., Jayne successfully propelled the public consumer electronics company to become a global leader and created an unprecedented ten-fold market cap growth. She also has been an innovator in niche education, including wealth management products and services, as well as serving as director of many public, private, and nonprofit boards.

"Camille represented a woman that has succeeded in male-dominated industries and is in a position to give people lots of advice on how to advance in the workplace," said Hoffman. "She reminded us that we shouldn't think of being a woman as a liability, but rather as an asset."

Hoffman noted that alumni like Jayne and fellow Ross females have made a strong impression on her.

"The women at Ross are incredible," she said. "They lead conferences, they lead clubs, they are active in the classroom. I'm totally inspired to be in the room with so many strong women."

"The Ross women also walk with a purpose," added Programming Co-Chair Elizabeth Smith. "A lot of the women at Ross really carry that air and brand of 'I know what I'm doing, I'm very confident, and I'm walking with a purpose.'"

—Leah Sipher-Mann

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847, bernied@umich.edu