Alumni discuss female leadership

At the annual Women’s Leadership Conference on the Mount Vernon campus on Friday, three GW alumni discussed their successes as women during a panel called “Stepping Up for Change: Personal Stories.”

The panel consisted of Theresea “Memphis” Holland, principal at Holland Development Group, Cynthia Frye Wilson, former mayor of Granbury, Texas, and Gillian McHale, a secondary school teacher for Teach for America in New Orleans.

The panel was the final gathering of the day-long conference in celebration of women’s leadership where president-elect of the GW Alumni Association Laura Taddeucci Downs moderated.

The keystone of the day’s events was chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee’s visit to the conference earlier in the day.

The panelists discussed how Rhee inspired them to “step up” in their daily lives.

McHale talked about Rhee’s influence on her as a role model.

“She is teaching herself in this city to save our children,” she said.

Like McHale, Rhee was also involved in Teach for America. “Seeing her speak is like seeing Michael Jackson to me,” McHale said. “She teaches all of us that we can’t make excuses for ourselves.”

McHale described her own experiences being in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina.

“As far as women and leadership goes, the kids that I teach never had someone who believed that they could do anything. Some of them don’t have parents and some are years behind in school. It’s easy to say, why should I be able to make a difference,” McHale said.

She added, “This is when you decide whether or not to be a leader.”

“Michelle discussed how annoyed you can get with the school district but at the end of the day, you need to get down to business and be your best as a woman,” McHale said. The women spoke about challenges they have faced in male-dominated workplaces.

As a single mother with three children, Wilson gave advice to the women in the audience on how to overcome obstacles. She said, “Sometimes we just have to work harder.”

Holland agreed, “You have to have the hunger to succeed.”

Wilson told the audience how GW influenced her to grow as a person. “I found my voice here,” she said.

McHale also commented about GW’s role in her life. “When I co-founded the Daily Colonial Web site at GW, I learned a lot about the process of taking nothing and making it into something.”

The panel discussed the essential role of mentors in a woman’s life. “There are women I’ve met, young women that I want to inspire, and take my wisdom and experience to the next generation,” Holland said.

Jennifer Solt, the associate director for Mount Vernon Campus Life, summed up the event with words inspired by Rhee’s speech.

“There is no impossible task if you are willing to take the chance.” Solt said. “No moment is better than this one to step up for change.”

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