Monday, March 21, 2011

Empowerment Conference 2011 in Review

We had our first Spring Empowerment Conference on March 9-11, 2011. (See our full program on the website.) The conference focused on potentially untapped sources of power and began with Cindy Gallop’s keynote. There were events about deriving power from communication (Communications Workshop), from social networks (Online Personal Branding), from personal partnerships (Power Couples Panel), and from forming strong bonds with other women (Modern Feminist Voices Panel).

We describe the events, attendance, and feedback from the audience. You may find photo highlights from the conference here.

ynote: Power, and How to Find it in Places You Didn’t Expect [photos]

Cindy Gallop, CEO and founder of IfWeRanTheWorld, opened the conference with a talk about finding power in unexpected places to an audience of over 100. Cindy described sources of power through a series of witty anecdotes from her personal and professional life, starting with her stage-acting college days to her days as a high-powered advertising executive to her present career as the founder of a web startup. She deconstructed power into, among other things, the “power of clothes” (finding self-expression and confidence through what you wear), “power of sorry,” “power of money,” “power of honesty,” “power of not caring” (about specific achievements, about what others think, etc), and, finally, “power of you.” The main point of the lecture was a common theme throughout the conference: power comes from knowing who you are, what makes you happy, what you want, and how to best get what you want based on your resources and preferences. The lecture was followed by a Q & A session and a catered reception sponsored by Microsoft.

One audience member described the talk as “relatable, humorous, and actionable.” Another attendee said that the talk had given the audience “the courage to design [their] own lives.” Yet another commented, “Not a typical MIT speaker, very worthwhile!”

Communications Workshop [photos]

Dina Napoli Goode, president of Napoli Communications Inc., gave an engaging and interactive presentation to an audience of 50 pre-registered attendees. The workshop started off with a series of video clips from female celebrities to showcase the danger of bad communication habits. She then challenged the audience to recall and jot down key “difficult” questions (such as "How is your research progressing?" and "Why should we hire you?") that they wanted to learn how to answer effectively. Dina introduced two key communication tools: flagging, which helps one stay organized while talking, and bridging, which is effective in deflecting difficult questions. The audience practiced their new skills by forming pairs to practice their “difficult” questions. In the meantime, Dina recruited three brave volunteers to be video-taped in one-on-one mock interviews that were then shown to the audience for commentary and critique. During the seminar Ben Waber from the Media Lab also showcased the “Sociometer” application, which can provide useful communication skills feedback by measuring social signals such as voice modulation and level of gesticulation. One attendee said that the tools were “useful” especially “in situations where you are caught off guard.” One of the women videotaped said, “I learned so much about myself from observing other’s responses.”

Power Couples Panel [photos]

The Power Couple Panel attracted a diverse audience of about 100 including female graduate students a MIT and Harvard, male members of the community, spouses, and even a few children. After enjoying appetizers and refreshments prior to the event, attendees listened to the relationship wisdom of dual-career couples Margo Seltzer and Keith Bostic, Millie and Gene Dresselhaus, and Linda and Don Fuhrman. The panelists represented a mix of academia and industry as well as life decisions: Margo and Keith are an academia/industry couple, the Dresselhauses are an academic couple, and the Fuhrmans are a couple in industry. The event began with moderator MIT Prof. Margery Resnick introducing the couples, who spoke briefly about themselves and their history as a couple. The couples then addressed questions from the moderator and the audience about making important decisions together, making sacrifices for their partners, deciding when to have children and how to care for them, and living apart. One attendee said that the event was “Wonderful!” Others said they enjoyed the “open and honest discussion” and the way the “panelists opened their thoughts and life experiences.”

Online Personal Branding [photos]

Nick Lamphere, Social Media Consultant and Harvard Instructor, gave an engaging and informative introduction to online personal branding to an audience of 50 pre-registered attendees. His Prezi presentation can be found here. (If you have never seen a Prezi presentation before, you should click on the link - it blows PowerPoint out of the water!) The big idea is that in the Internet age, each person is responsible for marketing themselves on the web. There is probably already a lot of information about you online, but by using tools like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, you can influence your online presence to create an appealing, positive, and professional image.

Nick's talk was followed by a demonstration by MIT EECS graduate student Tilke Judd, who showed us (in less than 15 minutes!) how to make professional websites using Weebly and Google Sites. Her notes, including some tips specific to MIT students, can be found here.

In the words on one attendee, this event gave "info and tips on how to actually do [online personal branding and website creation], rather than just saying its important."

“I’m not a feminist, but...”

"Conversations on Modern Feminism with a Lawyer, an Activist, & an Academic" was the final event of the Empowerment Conference, with the tagline "I'm not a feminist, but..." to initiate dialogue on that often-heard phrase and contextualize the importance of feminism for the MIT community. The panel featured lawyer and Harvard Law School lecturer Diane Rosenfeld, writer and Women, Action, & the Media (WAM!) founder Jaclyn Friedman, and Harvard biology Professor Pardis Sabeti. The moderator was MIT Prof. Elizabeth Wood from History and Women's & Gender Studies.

Prof. Wood opened the panel with a thought-provoking discussion on the historical trajectory of "feminism" and its role in shaping the careers of young women. Panelists told stories of their feminist "ah-ha" moment, and shared experiences of successes and challenges within school and the workplace with regards to gender discrimination. Rosenfeld discussed current legislation on issues of sexual violence, healthcare, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Friedman spoke on representation and the influence of the media as both a tool of exploitation as well as empowerment. Sabeti spoke about unconscious bias in academia and the workplace and urged young scientists to stick to their convictions and push to "have a voice at the table."

One attendee said that they "loved the openness of the speakers and willingness to share personal experiences with sexism." Another was impressed by the "incredibly accomplished and knowledgeable panel members."

Planning Committee
Luyao Li (EAPS), Jean Yang (EECS), and Kay Furman (HST) oversaw overall planning. Julia Robinson-Surry (Chemistry), Ni Ji (BCS), Kirki Kofiani (MechE), Shelby Kimmel (Physics), Cathy Lennon (Math), Xuwen Zhu (Math), and Mitali Thakor (HASTS) were responsible for individual event planning. Sunny Wicks (Aero-Astro) made sure the conference came in under budget; Erin Shea (EAPS) handled rooms and catering; Jennifer Milne (MechE) designed the posters and website.

Everyone involved in planning contributed to this blog post.


  1. Will the video recording of Cindy Gallop's presentation be posted to the blog when it's available? I would love to re-watch it to pick up on things I missed the first time around.

  2. Seriously! Same here.. please post the video!!

  3. Inspiring post.