Campus & Community

Creating Impact at the 45th Annual Simmons Leadership Conference

Participants at the 2024 Simmons Leadership Conference
Photo credit: Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership

“The Simmons Leadership Conference is the longest running gathering for professional women in the world… we are at the forefront.”

On April 3, 2024, the 45th annual Simmons Leadership Conference featured a roster of speakers exploring this year’s theme of “Creating Impact” in their personal and professional lives, and how those efforts ripple out to the people and communities around them.

Organized by the Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership (the Institute), the Conference took place at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, with 1,100 people attending in-person and several thousand more engaging virtually. Emmy-Award winning journalist Joyce Kulhawik ’74 and the Institute’s Chief Operating Officer Kristen Palson co-hosted the event. The conference featured twenty guest speakers and fourteen sessions, including solo presentations, panel discussions, and a selection of concurrent breakout sessions.

Kulhawik, Palson and the Institute’s Chief Executive Officer Susan MacKenty Brady provided the welcoming remarks. “We want everyone to lead inclusively,” remarked Brady. “A good leader is someone who values and uplifts [others], and who nourishes the gifts and talents of others.” Kulhawik noted that “The Simmons Leadership Conference is the longest running gathering for professional women in the world… we are at the forefront.” As to the importance of the conference, Palson said, “We need to be inspired in order to make an impact.”

The conference began with a high-energy presentation from Cassandra Worthy, the self-described “World’s Leading Expert on Change Enthusiasm.” In her presentation, “Uncover Your Inner Change Enthusiast to Maximize Your Impact,” Worthy shared her strategy for harnessing the power of emotions to approach the “layered” changes often faced in today’s business environments, which include differences of culture, new technology, and altered organizational structures. “The emotions of change carry the power to significantly impact your transformation endeavors,” said Worthy, as she shared her own struggles to understand opposing business cultures. “Growth potential is determined by what happens at the intersection of change and emotion.” Worthy offered tactics for reframing emotional triggers in order to step into the transformative opportunities that change can present.

Jennifer Hyman, co-founder and CEO of Rent the Runway, an online “closet in the cloud,” which allows women to rent high quality and sustainable fashion, presented “How to Have a Big Career AND a Big Life.” A unique approach to work-life balance, Hyman shared the lessons she learned from professional experience that she later applied to building her marriage and family. “Part of my job at Rent the Runway is for everyone who works here to see that…they don’t have to make a sacrifice because they are focused on their career. [Their work] should fuel going after what they want in their personal lives as well.” Hyman grew up learning resilience, and the importance of approaching a situation you can’t control with a sense of humor. “People think of starting their own business as risky, but I viewed the decision of not starting Rent the Runway as a risk. Not going after my dream was the real risk….[of letting] years go by without pursuing that thing that brings joy to every day.”

The concurrent “Signature Sessions” included a variety of in-person and online options, including “Dare to Educate: Impact that Inspires” with Shabana Basij-Rasikh, Co-Founder & President of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA); “Thriving with Impact: Creating a Best Self Team Culture” with Susan MacKenty Brady, CEO of the Institute; “Are you Ready? What It Takes To Make an Impact” with Audra Bohannon, founder of Bohannon Advisory; “Break Free of Good Girl Brainwashing & Embrace Your Power to Lead” with Lisa Carmen Wang, founder and host of Bad Bitch Empire; “Create Impact through the Art of Active Listening,” with Heather R. Younger, founder and CEO of Employee Fanatix; and “Inclusive Leadership In Action™” with Professor Gary Bailey and Elisa van Dam, the Institute’s Vice President for Allyship & Inclusion.

In her presentation, “Think Like a CEO,” Magie Cook, Author and CEO of Magie’s All-Natural Fresh Salsas and Dips, shared her unique experience as a Latina businesswoman who imagined future success to sustain her through a difficult childhood in a Mexican orphanage. “By using my mind and putting myself in these states of already being [successful], that brought me happiness and a sense of hope.” An optimistic thinker, Cook impressed the audience with her compassionate energy. “Your conscious mind is trying to guide you to your purpose like a GPS, but we don’t listen,” said Cook. “Your ‘why’ has the ability to bring you so much success. With a strong enough why…nothing can stop you.”

In a “fireside chat,” Simmons University President Dr. Lynn Perry Wooten spoke with Emmy-Nominated Food Expert, television host and New York Times bestselling author Padma Lakshmi about the impact of her show, Taste the Nation. “So much of our lives are affected by forces out of our control, like patriarchy and racism,” said Lakshmi. “If possible, use it as fuel to make it your mission to destroy all of those preconceived notions that hinder an equal shot at success.” She also shared how the representation of different ethnicities and cultures on her show has made a huge impact on her work on Taste the Nation.

The conference also featured a panel with successful female leaders in business, speaking to how they create impact as leaders of their organizations. The panel, moderated by Kerry Seitz, Vice President of Women’s Leadership for the Institute, featured Annabel Flores, Raytheon Deputy President; Diane Gilworth, Senior Vice President of Health Care Services at Point32Health; Gloria Goins, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at Cisco; and Denise Millard, Chief Partner Officer at Dell. The group discussed the value of transparency and vulnerability in a leader, in order to create trust among team members and stakeholders. The 2024 Helen G. Drinan Visionary Leader Award was presented to Thasunda Brown Duckett, President and CEO of TIAA.

In the final session, “Allyship: Uniting for Change,” Brady moderated a conversation between legendary writer and feminist activist Gloria Steinem and comedian and best-selling author Trevor Noah. The group discussed listening as the core element of allyship. Steinem, who hosts “talking circles” in her home, described them as “a circle of diverse people, enough to be representative [of the population] but small enough that everyone can speak and everyone can listen.” In the current political climate, Steinem advocated for listening, and for hope. “Hope is a form of planning,” she said, encouraging women to envision the positive change they want to bring about. Noah cautioned that instantaneous communication in our perpetually connected world “robs us of a lot of nuance,” noting that difficult conversations are more effective in person. “If we have more [of these] conversations off the record, [people will] feel more comfortable speaking on the record, and for the rest of their lives.” He also reflected on male allyship, suggesting that it would benefit men to “Get comfortable with the parts of yourself that you’ve been told are not part of being a man.”

Given the polarization in the current political climate, Noah shared his own technique for approaching conversations on opposing opinions: “I start with, ‘what if I’m wrong?’” he said. “Even if I say it and don’t believe it, it puts a crack in my facade. I see the other person as someone who may be right…it helps me see how they see the world.” Steinem added: “This process [of communicating] is full of discovery and pleasure and fun. It’s not punitive or embarrassing. It’s a form of glorious growth. That is the heart of any social justice movement.”

We're excited to announce that the Video on Demand (VOD) for all sessions from the Simmons Leadership Conference (#SLC45) is now available for viewing! If you purchased a ticket for the conference you will be given access. If you did not attend but are interested in viewing all the sessions you can purchase a VOD pass.

Publish Date


Alisa M. Libby