How to Get a Presidential Appointment and other Great Advice

May 31, 2013


Every year, a handful of women are honored as Women of Distinction at the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders. And these honorees give invaluable advice to the hundreds of college women who are attending the annual skill-building conference.

Last night’s event was no exception. The more than 700 women at NCCWSL heard from Donna Shalala, the former U.S. secretary of health and human services; Reshma Saujani, the first Indian American woman to run for Congress; Deborah Owens, an advocate for women’s economic empowerment; Lydia Villa-Komaroff, a trailblazing molecular biologist; Ritu Sharma, an activist for impoverished women all over the world; and Katie Miller, a former West Point cadet who resigned because of the injustice of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Shalala started off the night by outlining some of the lessons she learned in her time in the Peace Corps and throughout her career. She insisted that for every job she’s had up until her current one — president of the University of Miami — the consensus was that she wasn’t qualified. “I’ve spent my whole career overreaching,” she said. What helped her get some of those jobs? Networking, networking, networking. People often ask her, “How do you get to be a cabinet officer?” She suggested, look around this conference, figure out who will run for president, and keep in touch for the next 30 years. Shalala was the secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton, with whom she kept in touch after they met in graduate school.

The 2013 NCCWSL Women of Distinction pose with the AAUW Student Advisory Council for an Instagram.

The 2013 NCCWSL Women of Distinction pose with the AAUW Student Advisory Council for an Instagram.

Saujani, the founder of a nonprofit that encourages girls to learn computer technology and current New York City public advocate candidate, described how she woke up one day in her 30s and realized she wasn’t serving the country the way she always wanted to. So she quit and put her life savings into a congressional race. When she lost, she felt she had let many people down, but it taught her to embrace failure and risk. “If you haven’t failed, you haven’t done anything yet, ladies. You just haven’t.” Saujani also encouraged every woman in every field to learn how to code on computers, to own their ambitions, and to embrace the sisterhood. “There’s not one line or one spot. There are plenty of spots. The only way we will crash that glass ceiling is together,” she said.

Owens told the story of how she became an author and finance teacher. When she saw her mother struggling to make it in an expensive city after a 31-year marriage ended, Owens made a pledge to always have “a purse of my own.” That’s when she made it her mission to financially empower women since so many of us will have to deal with financial hardship and independence at some point or another. She advised viewing problems as opportunities, because “that’s what they are.”

Villa-Komaroff, who was one of the first Latinas to earn a doctorate in her field and who worked in labs with Nobel laureates, emphasized that you can’t get something you don’t apply for or ask for. She herself almost didn’t apply to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until her mentor insisted. So she got into the best molecular biology program in the world, and it set the stage for the rest of her amazing career in science and business. She also counseled to not let anyone tell you you’re not qualified for a job. It’s not for them to say, and it’s not for you to say, even — “It’s for your performance to say.”

Sharma, who advocates for women all over the world through Women Thrive Worldwide, told the audience that leadership is about being humble, listening, giving other people credit — and sometimes shutting up. “The women and girls that I serve and that I seek to represent, those are the people who deserve this award,” she added, describing how many women live on less than $1 a day breaking their backs to support their families. Sharma asked us, as we rise with our potential and ambition, not to forget the women who will never sit in the boardroom seats with us. We should all care about women’s rights, at home and overseas.

And finally, Miller — who came out when she was a top student at West Point and who later became a prominent advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender soldiers — spoke about compromise and how it’s highly misunderstood among young women. When she was counseled to keep her head down in the military, that keeping her sexuality a secret should be her compromise for her career and the status quo, she finally decided that maybe she should be the person to stand up and say something. “As a woman, I know that there’s pressure to be accommodating. Society expects you to be a mediator,” she said. But compromise shouldn’t mean ceding your convictions without ever putting up a fight. “Sometimes, you walk into that room, and you’re just plain right, and there’s no two ways about it,” she said. Now that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is finally repealed, Miller said, “Damn, it feels good to be right.”

Hannah Moulton Belec By:   |   May 31, 2013