Don’t let anyone, or anything, stop you from achieving success.
That was the take-home message of over 100 women executives, who met with over 150 wide-eyed middle school students at their all-girls Cesar Chavez Academy in East Palo Alto for the Women and Girls 2011 Leadership Summit on Thursday morning.
Over three hours, keynote speakers and panelists, including California Attorney General Kamala Harris, related their experiences overcoming barriers and being minorities in their male-dominated, technology-oriented workplaces. They shared the skills and characteristics needed to pave the often tumultuous path to success.
Lori Goler, Facebook’s Vice President of Human Resources, recalled when she told the vice principal of her all-girls high school that she wanted to attend Yale University, only to receive a disheartening response.
“He told me that, ‘But Yale is for superstars.’ From that minute on, I wanted to go to prove him wrong,” said Goler, who received her bachelor’s degree from the prestigious Ivy League school before heading to the Harvard Business School.
The event, the fourth of its kind in two years, was organized by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a collaboration of over 300 companies in the area that addresses public policy issues. Its partners included the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley, and the the NASA Ames Women’s Influence Network (WIN). The women who shared their stories often elicited applause from the audience members who filled the school’s gym.
Rachel Chong, the first Asian-American Commissioner appointed to the Federal Communications Commission, recalled overcoming her shyness in the seventh grade to run for–and win–the race for student body president. Laura A. Clayton McDonnell, Vice President, Public Sector of IBM in Cupertino remembered triumphing over expectations posed by being both a woman and a minority. Kamala Harris, with a smile, told the crowd how many people told her, “Maybe it’s just not your time,” when she mentioned she wanted to run for Attorney General.
“Don’t listen to people when they say, ‘No one like you has done that before,” said Harris, who was recently listed in Newsweek as one of “America’s 20 Most Powerful Women.”
For Dr. Ivy Hsu, San Jose-based Brocade’s Vice President, success “is not being afraid to ask questions when you don’t know the answer,” while for NBC Bay Area News anchor Jessica Aguirre, it’s about “facing what you fear and going for it.”
The sessions ended as Principal Amika Guillaume guided the girls in their usual mantra. “I am strong. I am important. I will give back,” the girls repeated in unison.
“There’s so many older women who took the time to give back,” said seventh-grader Leslie Marin, who aspires to be either a lawyer or veterinarian, after the talks. “This event isn’t just for younger girls, but all the other women who can be inspired by them.”
“If you have something you love, go for it,” added her friend, seventh grader, Guadalupe Alvidez.
Joanna León, the site coordinator of the East Palo Alto nonprofit Girls to Women, sat in the audience to lend support. “It’s important for these girls to see that, at one point, all these leaders were just like them.”