Women’s Leadership Conference digs into politics, business and the human condition


Steve Marcus

UNLV’s athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois, center, speaks on a panel with Pati Jinich, left, host of the PBS series “Pati’s Mexican Table” and Coca Cola marketing executive Katherine Twells during the 11th annual Women’s Leadership Conference at the MGM Grand Conference Center Monday, Aug. 7, 2017.

Mon, Aug 14, 2017 (2 a.m.)

All we need is hope

And for that we have each other

And for that we have each other

We will rise

Opening the 2017 Women’s Leadership Conference, the young voices of the Musicology Academy blew the roof off the MGM Grand. They sang of struggle and triumph, prevailing themes of the testimony given by speakers and attendees of the two-day event. For the 11th year, it featured diverse thought leaders sharing professional and sometimes deeply personal revelations.

“The issue of women’s equality in all aspects of society has taken on increasing importance,” said Phyllis A. James, MGM Resorts International’s executive vice president and chief diversity and corporate responsibility officer. She pointed to protests around the world in the wake of the U.S. presidential election and all that had unfolded since. “Huge inequities remain,” she said, referencing the United Nations’ goal to end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls by 2030. Not only was it the right thing, James said, it was the smart thing. “The world needs the talent and the power of women. ... It’s our collective responsibility to continue to demand change and widen and shatter the glass in the artificial ceiling.”

Keynote speaker Lisa Ling then challenged the sellout crowd’s perception of people with different realities, whether rooted in culture, faith or profound hardship.

Economics of equality

During her speech welcoming attendees to the conference, Phyllis A. James shared statistics backing up the argument that parity of women and men in the workplace is the "smart" thing economically: In 2016, the McKinsey Global Institute found that if all countries matched the rate of improvement in women’s equality of the country progressing fastest in their regions, $12 trillion could be added to global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025. And the Harvard Business Review found that $2.1 trillion could be added to U.S. GDP by 2025 if all states matched the one improving fastest in terms of increasing female participation in the workforce, the mix of sectors in which women work and the share of women employed full-time.

In her 25 years of journalism, the executive producer and host of CNN’s “This Is Life” has been exposed to such realities as rape in the Congo, bride burning in India and her own sister’s detainment in North Korea, where Ling once posed as part of a Nepalese medical crew to report on conditions inside the dictatorship. No matter how strong her notions of what drove the injustices she saw, Ling said being on the ground in these places and talking to the people affected almost always changed her perspective. “It forced me to allow my horizons to be broadened,” she said.

One of Ling’s first assignments abroad was in 1994 in Afghanistan, where she was greeted by throngs of young boys carrying heavy-duty guns. She described how the U.S. flooded the country with weapons for a proxy war with the Soviet Union and then pulled out, creating a “power vacuum” that played into the rise of the Taliban.

Ling shared other reflections from trips to Iran and China, acknowledging the difficulty of viewing the world without the lens of your own experience.

“As Americans, we do have to be careful to not seem like we’re imposing our values and our culture on other people. But always, my barometer is when girls or women say: ‘This isn’t right.’ ‘I need help.’ ‘I don’t want this to happen.’ ‘Help us tell our story.’ That’s when I know I’m doing the right thing. ... I can’t understate the importance of listening,” she said after her speech. “At a pretty young age I was exposed to things that shocked my eyes and shocked my soul, and once you get exposed to those kinds of things it’s hard not to continue telling those kinds of stories.”

During the Q&A following Ling’s keynote, an attendee told the audience she had been a child bride in India, finally leaving her abusive marriage to be with her “soulmate” and find her way as a professional. But she revealed that she didn’t tell co-workers or friends that she was Muslim out of fear.

Ling encouraged curiosity, crediting her success to intense desire to understand others: “When women become aware,” she said, “that’s when things start to get ignited.”

Debby Cameron, 54, shared a personal memory of awareness and action. Now the executive assistant to Tony Gladney, MGM Resorts vice president of national diversity relations, she had the opportunity to attend one day of the conference in 2014.

"That was the point of a turn or a next level in my life," said Cameron, who volunteered at the registration desk this year. "By January of 2015, after 18 years of not being in school, I signed up at Capella (University) to do my master's."

In the process of completing her capstone classes to finish the degree, she says that single day of inspiration pushed her to dig in and strive for more.

"It's not only my story, it is our story — the different women in this conference. ... They didn't try to say that it was pretty," Cameron said, reflecting on the words of a speaker that stuck with her: "Enjoy the process, because if you can't enjoy the process you won't get that promise."

Editor’s note: Greenspun Media Group, which publishes The Sunday, was a sponsor of this event.

Session snapshots


Wisdom from Twells:

• “There’s no such thing as balance. Our lives are this constant collision of everything we care about. We exist in this continuum between hot mess and badass. And you figure it out. Miraculously.”

• “Every single growth moment, whether it’s professional or personal, every moment in our lives where we’ve transformed the most has been because we failed or something happened to us where we were kicked to our knees. Because you get really humble and inquisitive and you start opening your mind.”

Pati Jinich, host of “Pati’s Mexican Table”

Desiree Reed-Francois, UNLV athletic director

Katherine Twells, assistant vice president of customer marketing for the Coca-Cola Co.

The panel kept coming back to two drivers of success: vulnerability and change. Speakers stressed how much is gained by leaders who show their real selves and are willing to take leaps — and falls — to grow.

Desiree Reed-Francois, the first Hispanic woman to lead an athletic department at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, said she started out wanting to be Jerry Maguire, a high-powered broker of sports contracts. But watching her brother, Roman, reshape his life after a crippling football injury brought Reed-Francois’ purpose sharply into focus: “Know your ‘why’ — what you’re passionate about,” she said, sharing her aim to enrich support and opportunities for student-athletes. When she feels discouraged, she thinks of how courageously her quadriplegic brother has faced his challenges.

With Coca-Cola for 28 years, marketing exec Katherine Twells said sometimes change finds you, but mostly it’s a mindset. She said men often jump into roles they’re not trained for, confident they’ll learn on the fly, while women can underestimate their skills and potential.

“Believe in what you have to give,” echoed public television star Pati Jinich, who went from being a political analyst to sharing her native Mexican cuisine and culture onscreen. Going against the initial advice of consultants, she let her accent and her personality rip. “It’s those things that you think make you weak and that people will advise you to change that might make you proud in the end.”


Wisdom from Vash:

• “Communication. Connection. Compassion. The more we speak with one another, the more we understand each other, the better able we are to not pass judgment.”

• “(Companies) can establish discipline, make sure people don’t cross the line, but at the same time get people to trust that they’re actually going to be OK if they do make a mistake.”

• “Do the right thing for the right reasons, always.”

Rashmi Airan, ethics consultant and former federal defendent

Serina M. Vash, not-for-profit director and former federal prosecutor

Rashmi Airan hesitated before saying the word: “felon.” For a mother and successful lawyer who’d graduated with honors from Columbia Law School, facing her involvement in the “questionable business practices” of a Miami real estate developer was a painful process. She spent six months in federal prison and received a $19 million judgment against her future earnings, and she came through the experience wanting to share how to live with remorse without letting it define you.

Serina M. Vash, head of New York University School of Law’s Program on Corporate Compliance and Enforcement, invited Airan to speak on a panel about the gray area when good people make bad choices. Vash said she was struck by their similarities — that this could have been her, or anyone. “A person’s action is actually very distinct from who that person is,” Vash said.

Both women talked about the danger of rationalizing unethical choices, as Airan observed industry trends that made her actions feel typical, leading her to dismiss her gut feelings.

The fallout helped Airan teach her kids that they can’t be perfect. “You’re going to mess up, and when you do, you’ve gotta own it,” said Airan, who with Vash is trying to change norms around being accountable. “If you commit to being ethically vigilant always, you might lose a client. You might lose money. You might lose your job. But ultimately you’ll be happier, and it will come back to you. One-hundredfold.”

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