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Highlights from the MIT Sloan Women's Conference

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On the same day the MIT Corporation named Sally Kornbluth as the Institute’s 18th president, the long-awaited MIT Sloan Women’s Conference commenced with a pre-conference dinner and a full slate of plenary talks, breakout sessions, and interactive engagements the next day.

The event was generously sponsored by Brad Feld, SB ‘87, SM ‘88, Amy Batchelor, and the Anchor Point Foundation.

Esther Duflo, PhD ’99, Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics

Credit: Tim Correira

Creating a movement

Associate Dean Kathryn Hawkes delivered opening remarks and Dean David Schmittlein offered a brief state of the school before introducing a fireside chat between Tavneet Suri (Louis E. Seley Professor of Applied Economics) and Esther Duflo, PhD ’99 (Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics).

When asked by Suri about what drew her to economics, Duflo—who won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics with Abhijit Banerjee (Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics) and Michael Kremer—credited her mother’s NGO work providing medical services to children in war-torn countries around the world.

“It was always in a corner of my mind that I should repay my cosmic debt to the world,” she said. “I wanted to do something meaningful to help those kids, but I didn’t know what it could be.” After a fateful conversation with the economist Thomas Piketty, who was studying at MIT at the time, Duflo decided to pursue economics.

The two colleagues also discussed their work at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which Duflo co-founded in 2003 with Banerjee and Sendhil Mullainathan.

“This can’t happen without a movement of people. It’s what we’ve said from the very first day: It’s a movement of thousands of researchers, people in the field, and you and government,” said Duflo. Suri agreed: “It’s a movement but it hasn’t been as inclusive of a movement as we have liked... It needs to be a global movement and I think we have a responsibility to make it that.”

Building organizations

Energized by the fireside chat, conference participants attended breakout sessions focused on a variety of topics.

Credit: Tim Correira

In “Leading in the Community,” moderator Nicole Obi, MCP ’95, SM ’95, President and CEO, Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, discussed working in the civic and nonprofit sectors with panelists Sabreen Alikhan, EMBA ’22, Director, Women for Women International, and Jessica Toth, SM ’91, Executive Director, Solana Center for Environmental Innovation.

The “Pact For Impact: A Social Good Venture Showcase” featured several alumnae founders and their startups. Participants included Marcie Black, SB ’94, Meng ’95, PhD ’03, co-founder and CEO, Advanced Silicon Group; Susan Conover, SDM ’15, co-founder and CEO, Piction Health; Patty Ferreira, MBA ’97, co-founder and CEO, Silvis Materials; Katie Hall, EMBA ’20, founder and CEO, Claira; Minsun Byun Kevers, SB ’02, co-founder and CEO, DiVerity; and Aceil Halaby, IDM ’17, co-founder and COO, Bloomer Tech.

Similarly, “Capital Conversations,” featured multiple simultaneous discussions about investing and seeking investment. The conversations were facilitated by alumnae with relevant experience in investing and managing investment funds—including Lola Kamdem, SFMBA ’20, Shawna Slack, MBA ’99, Jean Hammond, SM ’86, Amanda Von Goetz, MBA ’14, Christina Qi, SB ’13, Rohini Chakravarthy, MBA ’99, and Marian Hodges, MBA ’01.

Other sessions, like “Finding Your Voice, Making Your Impact,” featured more individualized presentations for attendees. Session facilitator Nicki Roth (Executive Coaching Program Lead, MIT Leadership Center) provided alumnae with practical strategies for overcoming self-doubt and realizing their potential.

“The way we have impact, every single day, is through small actions,” said Roth. “Impact is not the big stuff. You are most likely unconscious of the impact you have on all the people you touch.”

Becoming energy

At the final plenary session, Aliza Blachman O’Keeffe, SM ’90, former MIT Sloan Alumni Board chair and MIT Sloan Women’s Conference Steering Committee member, reviewed the day’s events and learnings with the audience and facilitated a series of small group discussions.

“With the amazing lineup of speakers that we had, and the fact that we could each only attend a few of the sessions, we wanted to take some time now to reflect on what we heard together, to share collectively, to benefit from the learning that we hope has emerged, and to think about as one community,” she said.

O’Keeffe then introduced the keynote speaker, Monica Lee, EMBA ’19, NASA Detailee, Federal Reserve OCISO, who delivered a moving oration about her time at MIT Sloan and her experience at the conference.

“Yes, the ecosystem at MIT is powerful,” said Lee. “To the casual observer, it seems magical, even. But magic, it is not. It is not science fiction. It is science fact, and that is clear in the dialogues and the engagements that have occurred in this year’s breakout sessions, in the conversations in the hallway.”

Monica Lee, EMBA ’19

Credit: Tim Correira

Throughout her keynote, Lee repeated the chorus “you are energy.” She drew on the context of work in physical systems, a W.E.B. DuBois quote about there being “no force equal to a woman determined to rise,” and the very nature of existence itself.

“You are energy, and your energy is enough. You are enough to inject strength, hope, and inspiration into the veins of humanity,” she proclaimed. “We all make mistakes, have struggles, and even have regrets, but you are not your mistakes, and you are not your struggles, and you just need to keep moving forward.”

Following Lee’s moving speech, Associate Dean Hawkes officially closed the proceedings.

“The network is a living thing today. That energy—we can feel it,” she said. “I hope the question you take out of the day will be, ‘Who will you take with you?’ The women of MIT Sloan, I hope, is part of that answer.”

Visit the recap website to see more selected highlights from the MIT Sloan Women’s Conference.

For more info Andrew Husband Senior Writer & Editor, OER (617) 715-5933