Know that life is not linear. Lead by doing your best. Fight to advance the women around you and pay it forward. And above all, embrace the fact that you’re too young to anticipate all the challenges lying ahead—use that to your advantage to trail-blaze, to innovate, to do good things in the world. Fearlessly. Ferociously.
Those were the lessons on display for an audience of 50 young women from across the globe—including Bhutan, Iraq, and New Zealand—who gathered Monday, July 29, at Barnard College to take part in the Women in the World Foundation’s Next Generation Leadership Academy. As a group, they were uniquely creative and committed—all students or recent college graduates, they’ve already plunged into issues ranging from sexual-violence prevention and Native American rights to maternal mortality and education for at-risk youth. They are the next generation to carry the torch of women’s equality and empowerment forward. As Daily Beast editor in chief Tina Brown told the crowd, “One day, we might be telling your stories on the stage of Lincoln Center,” where visionaries and leaders gather annually for the Women in the World Summit.
The academy, produced in partnership with Vital Voices and the Eleanor Roosevelt Center, hosted panels on the future of feminism and “Ten Things I Wish I’d Known at 20”; conducted a professional workshop on the power of storytelling through video and digital media, led by Women in the World executive producer Kyle Gibson, Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s senior vice president Kathy O’Hearn, and senior social-media editor Brian Ries; and launched a campus challenge to invite young women to submit their ideas for groundbreaking entrepreneurial projects of their own. Announcing the challenge alongside Women in the World’s head of strategy, partnerships, and philanthropy, Kim Azzarelli, Vital Voices CEO Alyse Nelson urged the audience: “Power expands the moment it’s shared. You’re not going to do it alone. You can’t make change alone. Share your power. Seek power and share it.”
The accomplished women who graced the stage at Barnard certainly have lived that maxim, opening up to the crowd with stories of great triumphs and crushing defeats, struggles with eating disorders and workplace sexism, intense fears of failure, and the gritty determination to keep pursuing their dreams despite the odds.
In the day’s first panel, “Portrait of a Woman Leader,” Vanity Fair writer-at-large and author Marie Brenner led an animated discussion with TV host Rula Jebreal, Barnard president Debora Spar, veteran producer Susan Mercandetti of ABC News, and New York City’s 29-year-old wunderkind chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne Haot. The women talked about the confidence—or lack thereof—to act boldly in a career. “I had that confidence at 6,” said Jebreal, who famously took on Silvio Berlusconi on Italian evening news at age 22. “I don’t know where this confidence came from.” Spar countered, “I didn’t have that confidence at 6; I’m pretty sure I didn’t have it at 22 either.” She shared her teenage struggles with an eating disorder and ruminated on what might happen if women took all the energy they used to focus on their bodily flaws and focused it outward—“less on themselves and more on the issues of the world. We’d have an energy here that is ripe to explode.”
Spar and Mercandetti also cautioned their young female listeners that the road to success is hardly straightforward. “I’ll bet if you polled many successful women, their lives are full of zigs and zags,” Spar said. Mercandetti—who noted that “fear and panic were great motivators” when she started out as a young White House employee—agreed: “Success takes on a different patina in every decade ... You have to give yourself permission to redefine success and to know it will change over the course of a 50-year career,” she told the audience. “If you’re successful, life will take a circuitous route.” And Sterne Haot talked about launching her first startup and about the importance of getting over the fear of failure that often holds young women back. “I was full of fear throughout most of the process, but I felt so passionately about it,” she said. “What’s the worst that could happen? I could fail [but] at least I’ll learn something. Every moment in my career when I’ve made a big change, I’ve felt fear but it’s been the good kind of fear.”
Among the other notable takeaways from the day: take ownership of something small that allows you to learn everything and grow it into a stellar career, as Tina Brown told Julie Zeilinger, founder of thefbomb.org, during “The Ten Things I Wish I’d Known at 20.” Believe in the possilbiity of change, as Zainab Salbi conveyed during her moving presentation, “If You Knew Me, You Would Care.” “It’s just harder whenever you’re trying to empower women and girls,” Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani noted in her panel on 21st-century feminism with Change.org’s Shelby Knox and The Daily Beast’s Michelle Goldberg. Drawing on the inspiration and words of Eleanor Roosevelt, scholar Allida Black said: “All you need is the courage to look in the mirror and take one step at a time.” And confidence can be learned and enhanced by “overpreparing” for your job, an insight shared by two of the New York Police Department’s top-ranking female cops, Housing Bureau Chief Joanne Jaffe and Deputy Chief Theresa Shortell.
Capping off the panels, Daily Beast editor Deidre Depke moderated a discussion with three young women who, at roughly the same age as their peers in the audience, have already achieved remarkable success with their own innovative companies: Kavita Shukla, the founder and CEO of Fenugreen, which produces a paper to help keep produce fresh in local food banks; Sejal Hathi, the cofounder of girltank.org; and Jessica Matthews, the co-founder and CEO of Uncharted Play, whose light-generating Soccket soccer ball recently made the news during President Obama’s trip to Africa. The panelists spoke about the advantages of youth—namely, that “there’s something amazing about being both smart and incredibly naive at the same time,” as Matthews joked to the crowd. Ending with a message to the young women gathered before them, to convey what they wish they’d known as they set out on their paths to CEO-hood, the answers were short, simple, and spoken from the heart: “Be OK with dreaming big,” said Shukla. “You do have something valuable to offer. You do have something interesting to say,” added Hathi. And above all, Matthews said, “it doesn’t have to be perfect to get started. You don’t have to have it all figured out.”