Approximately 50 attendees participated in the 2019 Women in Business, Entrepreneurship and Leadership Summit held in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Sponsored by Haslam and International Paper, the summit provides an opportunity for Haslam students to network with successful mentors in the business community.
The conference kicked off with Cathy Slater’s introductory talk on enhancing organizational success through respect for different cultural backgrounds’ perspectives and closed with Nzinga Shaw’s keynote address on promoting pro-level diversity in a corporate setting. In between, breakout sessions included “Own It! Women in Entrepreneurship,” “Navigating the Workforce as Women Leaders,” “The ‘U’ in Leading,” and “Speed Professional Development.”
Shaw is the Atlanta Hawks’ chief diversity & inclusion officer, the first person to hold the CDIO position in the National Basketball Association and the first CDIO for all 122 North American professional sports teams. Before her address, she led the group in an interactive exercise, “Step to the Line.”
In the activity, all in attendance lined up against a wall. Shaw then made a series of statements. After each statement, if attendees identified with it, they stepped forward and turned around to see those who did not identify with it. Shaw touched on generational identities, cultural identities, racial identities, gender identities, minority and majority status, class, wealth and many other subjects.
The activity demonstrated how ideas of diversity and inclusiveness intersect and overlap with multiple group identities. Shaw noted that each time she does the exercise, she can never tell who will step forward on what topic.
“That is a testament to the fact that human beings bring so many levels and dimensions to a situation, nine times out of 10, you can’t tell a person’s life experience by looking at them,” she said.
It also demonstrated how significantly corporate perceptions of diversity have changed from two decades ago, she said, when diversity and inclusion meant “having a conversion about black and white.”
“It now extends to gender, sexual orientation and the mass of what people bring to the table, and that is what we are talking about today,” she said.
Slater, International Paper’s senior vice president of global cellulose fibers & IP Asia, was there in part to recruit Haslam students, observing that several graduates already work for IP.
“I care about encouraging people from a lot of different backgrounds to venture into careers where maybe there aren’t as many people like them there right now,” she said. “I’m glad to be here today to encourage some of the attendees to continue that path forward.”
Sara Taylor, a student in graphic design, attended the meeting because she wanted to network with women in business and because of her concern for women’s issues.
“I’m very passionate about women’s issues and women’s empowerment, so this summit seemed really unique and exciting to me,” she said. “There’s been an emphasis on discovering your own leadership style and discussing specific challenges women face and how to navigate a male-dominated field.”
For Allison Fowler, who is in the Haslam MBA program, the examples of successful women in business inspired her to continue in their footsteps.
“I think it is incredibly important for women to hear each other’s stories, to learn from the women who have come before, to learn from what they’ve had to experience, their hardships and how they’ve overcome it,” she says. “We can learn from that and hit the ground running.”
The Women in Business, Entrepreneurship and Leadership Summit is presented through Haslam’s Office of Diversity and Community Relations with the assistance of the Women in Business Summit Committee. This year, committee members Leann Luna, Wendy Tate, Tom Graves, Jeannine Berge, Tara Mohrfeld, Ryessia Jones Russell, Ashley Smith and Ellie Mulherin aided with the logistics of the summit.
The Diversity and Community Relations Office strives to educate students and business partners on the importance of a diverse student population and a diverse workforce, and it works to increase both through its outreach programs. To help pursue that goal, the summit brings speakers from industries in which women are often underrepresented to provide Haslam students with inspiration, to serve as role models and to offer opportunities to network.