‘Women Who Empower’ summit highlights importance of compassionate leadership

Four experts, including Keynote speaker, Helen Russell, Co-founder and CEO of Equator Coffees & Teas, weighed in on what it takes to be an effective leader at the inaugural “Women Who Empower” summit at Northeastern on Wednesday. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Mere hours after the close of a divisive, bruising election cycle that saw the defeat of the first female major party presidential candidate, a standing-room-only crowd of women gathered at Northeastern on Wednesday to encourage each other to inspire and lead, at the “Women Who Empower” summit.

The inaugural summit, held on the 17th floor of East Village, featured prominent leaders from across the professional spectrum who spoke about thought leadership, inspiration, and learning, to a crowd largely comprised of fellow female leaders. And though it was neither the focus nor the inspiration of the event, the impact of Tuesday’s presidential election was not far from anyone’s mind.

Diane MacGillivray, Northeastern’s senior vice president for University Advancement, urged attendees to keep pushing forward as leaders.

“My favorite monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, once said, ‘The past cannot be cured.’ But the future can be shaped. Today, we are hearing from exceptional women who are doing just that,” MacGillivray said. “Today is a day to hear individual stories,” she said, “and it is in sharing those stories that we encourage, inspire, empower, and elevate others.”

Women Who Empower

Philomena Mantella, senior vice president and CEO of Northeastern’s Professional Advancement Network, echoed the sentiment and encouraged those in the room to “take this as a moment of reflection, and bring it back to starting with us—what we can do to support leaders in their work so we have an ecosystem that supports humility and grace. Let’s bring it back and think about how we can be constructive in how we approach leadership,” she said. “It starts with us.”

Here are some of the highlights from Wednesday’s speakers.

Helen Russell, DMSB’88, co-founder and CEO of Equator Coffee & Teas

“It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it,” Russell said. “When you think about why some businesses are more successful than other businesses, it’s about the why—it’s the story behind the business. People want the story.”

She would know. Inspired to create a high-impact coffee company that offered the opportunity to exert more control over the entire plant to bean to cup process, Russell and her partner, Brooke McDonnell, started roasting coffee out of a Marin County, California, garage in 1995.

At the time, McDonnell (who was in charge of roasting) was one of only five female coffee roasters in the country, Russell said.

“There are really no mistakes when you’re starting out because you learn something from every mistake,” she said. “You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and your passion will grow from there.”

Since then, Equator has become a national brand and the first coffee roaster in California to earn Certified B Corporation status. Russell and McDonnell were early adopters of fair trade practices and cultivating direct relationships with growers, and this year, the company became the first LGBT-certified business to win the Small Business Administration’s Small Business of the Year Award for the state of California.

It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it. When you think about why some businesses are more successful than other businesses, it’s about the why—it’s the story behind the business. People want the story.
—Helen Russell, DMSB’88, co-founder and CEO of Equator Coffee & Teas

Russell emphasized the importance of connecting with people at each level of the coffee supply chain, in her case, and creating the financial security to be able to give the company a broader impact.

“If you immerse yourself in your business, and then you have the opportunity to really make an impact on someone’s life, you take that opportunity,” she said.

Maryrose Sylvester, president and CEO of Current, powered by GE

Sylvester began her career at GE in 1987 as an intern at GE Motors in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and steadily rose through the ranks, eventually being named to several successive executive offices within the company.

She spoke Wednesday about occasionally being the only woman at the table, so to speak, and encouraged leaders to continue to diversify their workforce and their leadership teams.

“I’ve always said, diversity hires diversity,” Sylvester said. “You’re only going to be a better business if you surround yourself with people who bring different points of view and different skills to the table.”

Meredith “Max” Hodges, executive director of the Boston Ballet

Hodges took the helm of the Boston Ballet in 2014, bringing with her a data-driven approach to running it.

“Data doesn’t have to be cold,” she said. “I think when it’s used to maximize the programmatic success of your organization, it really shines through.”

To that end, Hodges offered to those gathered a template that she uses to track the success—both financial and mission-based—of projects within the organization.

She set up a graph that measured mission fulfillment along the x-axis and financial success along the y-axis. That way, projects could be charted based on to what degree they meet those categories.

“In order to place programs on this framework, you need to be able to have a clear consensus understanding of the organization’s mission and you need to have an honest financial accounting of the resources required for each program,” Hodges said.

I’ve always said, diversity hires diversity. You’re only going to be a better business if you surround yourself with people who bring different points of view and different skills to the table.
—Maryrose Sylvester, president and CEO of Current, powered by GE

Kristen Kish, winner of Bravo’s Top Chef season 10; co-host of The Travel Channel’s 36 Hours

Kish encouraged those in the room Wednesday to follow their passion, even if they don’t know yet where it will lead.

“Really, my only plan now is to get out there, be kind, love what I do, find happiness, and hopefully inspire others,” she said.

After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Chicago, Kish became an instructor at Stir, a culinary demonstration kitchen in Boston. She was promoted to its chef de cuisine in 2012, then later appointed to the same role at Menton Boston. She left in 2014 to travel the world and write a cookbook.

Kish said learning to cope with her personal struggles with depression and anxiety helped her become a more compassionate leader.

“Everyone has a story; everyone has some fight that they’re fighting,” she said. “One of the most fascinating parts of life is trying to understand people and trying to understand why they do what they do, then challenging them a little, pushing them.”

Women Who Empower

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University

University president Aoun also addressed the crowd Wednesday.

To be a good and effective leader, Aoun said, one must put the community before themselves. When he became Northeastern’s president, Aoun said he realized that “in some ways you cease to exist.”

“You have to start promoting the whole community—the students, the staff, the institution,” he said. “Almost overnight your identity disappears. So what sustains you? Your community is what sustains you.”

In fact, he said, the leadership team cultivated at Northeastern is guided by—rather than guides—the university community; a principle that’s reflected in the new academic plan, Northeastern 2025.

“The measure of success is not based on one exciting day,” Aoun said, “it’s going to be measured based on what you do tomorrow, and the day after that. Are you going to bring people into your networks? Are you going to lead us into uncharted territories? Our new academic plan is all about networks and those networks are not given; those networks are formed, a student at a time, a project at a time, a discovery at a time.”