Women’s Summit Focuses on Authentic Leadership and Empowerment

The ninth annual event featured interactive learning and professional development sessions presented by women leaders from a variety of fields

March 7, 2024

The Office of Access and Community Connections (OACC) with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Haslam College of Business hosted the ninth annual Women in Business, Entrepreneurship and Leadership Summit. This year’s summit took place on March 1 in UT’s Student Union and revolved around the theme “Be Influential: Lead and Empower with Authenticity.”

Nayasha Farrior, OACC assistant director for academic support and partnerships, led the summit’s planning committee, which worked collaboratively to establish the theme and execute the event. “The [Women in Business, Entrepreneurship and Leadership] Summit committee is amazing,” Farrior said. “Pamela Sanchez thought of using influence as part of the theme after we decided to reach out to an influencer to be one of the speakers, and then the committee worked diligently until we all had something that we liked.” 

The half-day event opened with welcoming remarks from Stephen L. Mangum, Haslam dean and Stokely Foundation Leadership Chair, and Clarence Vaughn, OACC director, followed by interactive learning and professional development sessions presented by women leaders from a variety of fields.

Harnessing Courage and Self-Knowledge

In the summit’s opening session, Melissa Irvin, UT’s associate vice provost for student success, spoke about ways to overcome constraining beliefs about the ability to be influential. In discussing what it means to be authentic, she recounted a difficult situation she faced in a previous role and how she found the courage to express her opinions and contribute to solutions.

Attendees then participated in a variety of breakout sessions. Tara Mohrfeld, lecturer in Haslam’s Department of Management and Entrepreneurship, led a discussion about the unique opportunities and challenges introverts encounter as leaders. Julie Ezold, technical advisor for the U.S. Department of Energy Isotope Program, spoke about how to have influence while being “the only one” — a situation she has faced often in her male-dominated field.

Deborah Watts, Haslam’s director of executive programs in Nashville, helped participants analyze the results of their Predictive Index (PI) assessment to discover how they are “hardwired” and ways they can use that knowledge to effectively exert their influence. Whitney Heins, founder of the Mother Runners website, community and coaching business, shared her story of transitioning from television newscaster to public relations professional to entrepreneur, inviting attendees to think about leveraging their passions and expertise to build careers that evolve with their lives.

Developing Empathy and Business Acumen

After the breakout sessions, summit attendees reassembled in the Student Union ballroom for lunch and the keynote address from renowned nuclear chemist Clarice Phelps. As an integral member of the team that discovered element 117, tennessine, Phelps became the first African American woman to help discover a new element. She now serves as principal investigator for the Pm-147 Project in the Radioisotope Science and Technology Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory while also working toward a Ph.D. in UT’s nuclear engineering program.

Phelps spoke about the lasting effects, both good and bad, that casual comments can have on someone. Citing examples from her own life in which input from others altered her perception of her abilities — sometimes empowering her, and other times making her doubt herself — she urged attendees to exercise empathy in every interaction so they don’t inadvertently become villains in anyone’s life story. “I might be a grain of sand in someone’s ocean, but I can still affect change,” she said.

The summit concluded with a session focused on young, female entrepreneurs. Breanna Hale, executive director of the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI), introduced student entrepreneurs Mickey Napier, founder of Napier Athletics; Rheagan Haynes, owner of Lace and Glam Bridal Boutique; Kaitlyn Daniels, founder of the Henry BnB; Alexa Schnittka, owner of Athlete Meditations; and Lydia Capps, licensed realtor. The students spoke about developing their businesses and offered advice for those interested in entrepreneurship.

The 2024 Women in Business, Entrepreneurship and Leadership Summit drew 175 registered students, faculty and staff, the event’s largest turnout to date.


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist, sestep3@utk.edu