Creating a network of support

Joanne Berger-Sweeney
Photo by Julie Bidwell

You could say that one gathering led to another.

A few years ago, two women of color leaders—Mariko Silver, former president of Bennington College and president and CEO of the Henry Luce Foundation, and I—were at a meeting of college presidents. We looked around the room and saw almost no other women of color. That was the moment when our idea began to take shape. We enlisted Johnnetta Betsch Cole H’98, president emerita of Spelman and Bennett Colleges, who was, at the time, a fellow at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to help us think about increasing the number of women of color presidents in academia.

What if we could bring together women of color leaders, not only from academia but also from across industries, to share a network of support? In doing so, we would be connecting women of color who lead the highest producers of talent (the academy) and women of color who lead the highest users of talent (other sectors). Through getting to know one another, we would have the opportunity to learn how to create a talent pipeline between higher ed and industry.

We knew early on that we should plan more than just a gathering of women of color; we wanted to bring together women of color who also are at the top of their organizations. We know that it’s often those in that No. 1 role—be it CEO, president, chancellor, or some other title—who hold the loneliest position. We all, as human beings, seek people who have something in common with us; we wanted to act on that premise.

In October 2021, with funding from a Mellon Foundation grant, we held “Convening Women of Color: Leaders Connecting Across Sectors,” with approximately 40 participants, including those at the top of their organizations and some aspiring to those roles, at the DELAMAR West Hartford (for more, please see page 4). During the two-day event, we shared our stories, built valuable connections, and took part in exercises meant to gain insight into one another’s lives, both personal and professional.

I was pleased to welcome several Trinity alumnae and administrators to the convening, including Francesca Borges Gordon ’82, director of development, outreach and external relations at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving; Karraine Moody ’01, CEO of Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity; Jacquelyn Santiago ’00, CEO of COMPASS Youth Collaborative; and Glendowlyn Thames M’13, deputy commissioner with the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. The event was expertly managed by Trinity’s Karolina Kwiecinska ’16, who is my special assistant.

One of the highlights of the convening was the discussion with Indra Nooyi, former CEO and chair of PepsiCo. She had just released her latest book, My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future, a memoir that offers lessons for women in leadership. The rapt audience benefited from the many pearls of wisdom she generously shared.

The atmosphere of the convening bears mention as well. All the details—from the stage setup to the music to the food—communicated that this gathering was meant to surround participants with support and care. While networking and getting to know one another certainly were key goals, having fun clearly was important, too. I know how tough it can be to lead an organization and to be a woman of color; I also know how isolating it can be. That’s why it was so important to provide a safe space to talk about a support network and to demonstrate what that network looks like and feels like.

Plans are being finalized for a second convening in January 2022, which will have taken place by the time you read this column. We’ll be meeting on the West Coast, at UCLA’s Luskin Conference Center, thanks to Rhea Turtletaub ’82, Trinity trustee and vice chancellor for external affairs at UCLA, and we’ll focus specifically on those at the apex of their respective organizations. We’ll also draw a more national roster (COVID-19 led us to stay local for our October 2021 convening) at the California event, made possible through the remainder of the Mellon Foundation grant and additional resources from the Henry Luce Foundation. We hope to continue to have additional gatherings, depending on funding.

We are confident of the great value in convening women of color leaders. Each participant in October’s meeting had to bring her head, her heart, and her spirit to the convening to make it work. And each leader, to a woman, did just that. This is one small way that Trinity connections are positively impacting higher education and the world.