Women's Leadership Institute hosts successful 'Women Revolutionizing the Future of the Workplace' forum

April 27, 2023 - Emily Jodway

The Women’s Leadership Institute held its spring 2023 forum on April 20 at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center. The event brought together a diverse group of women leaders working at the forefront of their fields to discuss change and equity across various sectors, how women can use their voices and advocate for their own success and discover their role in the future workplace. 

The day began with a brunch social where members of the student cohort, executive board and supporters could mingle and network. The executive board held their annual meeting in the afternoon, followed by an invite-only dinner. The main event, open to the public including students, was the evening panel discussion, “Women Revolutionizing the Future of the Workplace,” continuing the Institute’s focus on the Future of Work and Leadership. 

The panel featured three supporters of the WLI who are prominent leaders in their field. The discussion was moderated by Susi Elkins, the Chief Community Development Officer at Michigan State University Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU). Panelists included Senior VP of Human Resources at Pfizer, Kim Zerrenner, the newly named President of E.W Sparrow Hospital, Margaret Dimond and Nike’s Director of Social and Community Impact, Felicia Turrentine Watson. Dimond and Watson are both members of the WLI executive board.

The discussion ranged from the group’s thoughts on the future of women, diversity and equity and innovation in the workplace to how to self-advocate and negotiate in an effort to level the playing field for both current and future career women.  

One of the most recent ways the workplace has been transformed has been in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The panelists gave their thoughts on its impact and how their jobs, often intersecting the realms of both human relations and STEM, changed as a result. 

“I think we’ve certainly learned to work more cross-functionally,” Nike exec Felicia Turrentine Watson explained. “We relied on our core values of using sports to change the world and became innovative; we responded to our situation of not being able to meet in person, but also to the country’s need to heal from the pandemic.”

Kim Zerrenner and Margaret Dimond echoed Watson’s thoughts on staying true to one’s mission and values. 

“The most important thing to us during the pandemic was staying true to our mission [of healing] and keeping our colleagues safe,” Zerrenner commented. “When we stuck to that mission of delivering medicine to patients, everyone galvanized around that.”

Also working in a medical field, Dimond experienced this crossover of human relations and technology when she had to quickly develop ways to keep her team safe and healthy as they battled through the pandemic, supplying nurses with extra scrubs and personal protective equipment as well as a place to sleep should they become infected, so that they wouldn’t have to return home and potentially put their family at risk. 

Another developing change as a result of the pandemic is an employee’s desire for more trust and authenticity from the company they are working for. Women especially are looking to work for organizations that are true in their word and their commitment to diversity changes, as well as places that will work to foster a sense of belonging. This in turn can create more room at the table for women to innovate and lead. 

“People want to know that their organization cares about them, that they’re not just a number or indispensable. They also want bosses and leaders that they can look up to who are also trustworthy and authentic,” Dimond explained. 

For women especially, it will take fearlessness and confidence to be able to identify the best career path that reflects these values. The panelists discussed the importance of finding what drives your personal values, which in turn will help to figure out what position is right for you. Doing independent research can help as well, such as doing searches on a potential workplace and seeing how diverse their executive board is. 

The group agreed that while companies may invest in their diversity efforts in many ways, true diversity changes happen at the individual level. 

“You can read about a company and their commitment to the environment, diversity, inclusivity, but where diversity truly changes is at the individual relationship. That connection is where we really make a difference,” Zerrenner said. “The only way to do that is to walk into an interview and discuss - it this a good fit for me? Is the company’s mission right for me? And once you find out where your voice fits in and what you want from your career, you can help advance others as well.”

Watson also touched on this idea of holding people and organizations accountable to these concepts of trust, equity and inclusivity, and, once you are a part of an organization, being able to confidently use ones voice to stand up for both yourself and others that may come after you. 

“When you are in a room where a decision is being made, hopefully you will think about other women who may be black, Latina, LGBTQIA, disabled, and say ‘I’m at this table for their interests. They may not be in this room, but I have an eye for inclusivity and equity, and I recognize that if I don’t speak up in the moment, they may not ever get to sit at this table as well.’ As we continue to do this, and these commitments are brought forward, women will be able to show up as their authentic, audacious selves without fear of retribution.”

Sometimes, this also means knowing when to step away, and using personal judgment to decide what positions are right for you. They presented the current workplace phenomenon the ‘Great Breakup’ as a good thing, because it shows that women are choosing themselves over their careers, and if they are at a company that doesn’t support them, confidently deciding to move on to something that better serves them.

“Sometimes you have to follow what’s inside rather than what other people might want you to do,” Dimond said. “Taking risks is sometimes scary, but it’s the best thing you can do.” Watson echoed, “No one cares about your career more than you. You need to be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘I want better, I deserve better.’”

The biggest takeaway from the panel was the great importance of self-advocating, and the idea that when you advocate for yourself, you are also advocating for those that follow, whose path might be even more difficult. While using your voice and being confident can make strides for you in your personal life and professional development, it can also encourage more women to step up and accomplish great things. 

“It’s my hope as women, and as allies of women, that you will be at the table thinking about the next person that’s coming after you,” Watson said. “And that while you are advocating for yourself, you are advocating for those who are watching you, who need you, who are counting on you to make the right decision and to know yourself, so that their [path] is easier.”

Read more about the WLI here