Kendra Bracken-Ferguson addresses attendees from the stage. Behind her is a digital screen that says "Meet Kendra" and includes her photo and a short biography.
The seventh-annual Women's Leadership Conference attracted more than 300 students, alumni, professionals, industry leaders and community members for events including a keynote address by Kendra Bracken-Ferguson, founder and CEO of BrainTrust.

Begun six years ago with a few volunteers and a dream, Adelphi’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference has become a premier event welcoming more than 350 professionals, industry leaders, alumni, students and community members—along with nationally recognized keynote speakers—to promote leadership for women.

From a one-time event with a few volunteers to a powerful annual conference with a full day of programs, panels, networking opportunities, keynote speakers and an awards dinner, the Adelphi University Women’s Leadership Conference is now making a profound impact on women in business.

“This was our largest attendance ever,” said Maggie Yoon Grafer ’98, MA ’08, associate vice president for University advancement and external relations. She noted that in just seven years, attendance at the conference has gone from about 50 students to seven times that many people. LeeAnnBlack ’83, chief operating officer of Latham & Watkins, and Humera Qazi ’93, Morgan Stanley managing director and Adelphi trustee, co-chaired the event in partnership with Adelphi’s Student Government Association.

The conference started out as the brainchild of Qazi and Christine M. Riordan, PhD, Adelphi’s first woman president, who were looking for ways to support their women students. This year, the seventh annual Women’s Leadership Conference took place on March 9 on the Adelphi University Garden City campus. Its theme, “The Era of Embracing Change: Dare to Be Extraordinary,” drew more than 300 students, alumni, professionals and industry leaders for an invaluable day of learning and networking.

Dedication to Adelphi’s Women Students

The growth of the conference reflects Adelphi’s dedication to our women students and the success of women in the workplace.

“As this conference has grown, we’ve been able to offer more side services to students,” Grafer said. There was a photo area where attendees could update their headshots, sessions for financial literacy and work-life balance, and student leadership awards presented by the Women’s Giving Circle. This year also marked the introduction of the Career Closet, in partnership with Adelphi’s Division of Student Affairs. The Career Closet is a collection of donated professional clothing that students can wear to this event or at future events and job interviews. More than 160 items were collected at the conference.

“Students showed up at the conference impeccably dressed and ready to network,” Grafer said. “It’s just been a beautiful evolution of opportunities that we’re offering to our students.”

In addition to the full day of panel presentations at the conference, including “Breaking Barriers: Success Stories of Women in Color” and “The Power of Women in Philanthropy: Leading for Impact,” students benefited from classes before the event sponsored by the Office of Career and Professional Development. There, students learned the basics of how to network, how to dress for the event and how to prepare a résumé.

This year’s event featured a stellar cast of standout Adelphi alumni and industry movers and shakers giving sage advice on how to find a mentor and be a leader and the value of connecting with people who can help you be your best self. Conference panelists and moderators joined the conference from all over the United States, and participants walked away with gift bags filled by sponsors: Clinique, The Cunningham Group, Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, Valley National Bank, Northwell Health and Kron Chocolatier.

Rent the Runway Founder, Jennifer Hyman, Inspires the Crowd

Jennifer Hyman, co-founder and CEO of Rent the Runway, was the evening’s keynote speaker. “The most powerful thing you can give to a woman is the power to change,” Hyman said. Her idea for a fashion industry-disrupting “closet in the cloud” came from a desire to democratize fashion, empower women and provide a sustainable alternative to fast fashion, she told the crowd.

She talked about the struggles women face in the workplace and said women still make up a small percentage of C-suite executives and business owners for reasons that have nothing to do with their qualifications. She urged women to not let the situation get them down. “Keep moving forward. Keep trying something, keep believing. Your positivity and your forward momentum are the things that keep you in the game. I have made so many mistakes. We failed so many times. But we learn from those occasions. … And I think that we, as women, just need to keep on learning, moving, having that resilience, and stop thinking that we’re not good enough.”

She urged attendees to take risks and bat for the fence. “Every time I hire someone—a man or a woman—I say, ‘You know what, when you work for me at this company, I want you to dream bigger for your whole life. I’m going to make you do things that we’re all unqualified to do because that’s what a start-up is. When you leave in a few years and you get your next job, you will be more confident about all of the things that you can do, not just at work but outside of work as well.”

A Day of Wisdom for Women

The breakout sessions covered topics like building diverse workplaces, women in philanthropy, AI, building a network of allies and mentors, and success stories from women of color. Kendra Bracken-Ferguson, author of The Beauty of Success: Start, Grow and Accelerate Your Brand (Wiley, 2024), kicked off the event with a speech on how to build a “brain trust” of intelligent people who will make us smarter and better. “Everybody is smart in their own way,” she said. “We can’t measure the intelligence of somebody. We all come from different backgrounds. We are all uniquely valuable because there is nobody like us.” Conference participants walked away with copies of Bracken-Ferguson’s latest book.

In a session on building diversity and equity in the workplace, moderator Channing Martin, chief diversity and social impact officer at Interpublic Group, gave a history of the evolution of diversity, equity and inclusion from a movement to avoid lawsuits to a desire to build diverse workplaces. “We want to attract talent, all talent, that can meet critical skill needs. We live in an era where there are four generations in the workplace,” she said. “We need to help them work together for the good of the company.”

Moderator Jovi Stevenson ’95, a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging consultant, spoke on the value of different points of view. “Diversity brings innovation. That’s what moves companies forward,” she said. “Diversity is the future.”

Advice on AI in the Workplace

AI is at the forefront of any discussion in an era of change, and a session titled “Leading in the Age of AI” addressed how the new technology will affect careers. Kees Leune, PhD, associate professor and chair of the mathematics and computer science department, said that AI will change the way we work but will not replace the decision-making power of humans. “AI is basically a fancy toaster, right? It’s a machine built by humans and programmed by humans, but the people using this technology are the ones that make decisions. You cannot hold a computer accountable,” Dr. Leune said.

Panelist Linda Chan, vice president of information technology at Amphenol, noted a surprising statistic. “GPT Chat launched Nov 22, 2022. In five days they had one million subscribers.” Her advice for learning to how use it? “Go for it. Start using it. Jump right in.”

“Use AI to write the first draft of your blog or the first draft of a press release. The impact on marketing will be immediate,” added moderator Anita D’Amico, PhD ’84, president of Cotopaxi Consulting LLC.

“It doesn’t matter what your job is today or what your business is, AI is going to impact it,” added Kevin Goodman ’00, MBA ’02, global director of Go To Market at LinkedIn. “You’re constantly going to be learning because AI will make the work environment move at a fast pace.”

Lessons on the Importance of Mentors and Allies

A panel on building a network of mentors and allies stressed the importance of surrounding yourself with smart people and harnessing their collective wisdom. Sharon Cunningham ’90, managing director/senior portfolio management director at The Cunningham Group at Morgan Stanley, related that having a mentor helped her go from a first-generation college student to a job on Wall Street where she was usually the only woman in the office. “My mentor helped me transition from a peer group I was comfortable with to a field where I would go into a room and deal with people who didn’t look like me,” she said. “A mentor helps you make a better transition by sharing their opinions and experiences and by telling you the truth when you don’t want to hear it.”

President Riordan summarized how the annual conference aligns with Adelphi’s educational mission. “Higher education is uniquely positioned to develop solutions to today’s workforce trends, from the rise of AI to remote work and a stronger emphasis on diversity initiatives.

“Our goal in hosting this conference is to discuss how women can use education to break down barriers, inspire each other to strive for greatness—and maximize our value in every career field.”

To support programming, leadership activities and other opportunities to empower Adelphi women, a Women’s Leadership Conference Endowed Fund was created in 2022. In fact, next year’s conference is already slated for Saturday, March 29, 2025.


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