What do Philly's women business executives have to say about their career journeys? To answer that question, the nationally operating CPA firm Citrin Cooperman
hosted an inaugural "Women at the Wheel" forum at the Union League of Philadelphia
. The January 21 event featured four of the city's most notable business leaders telling their stories and taking questions from the crowd.
Julie Coker Graham, a former Hyatt Regency Philadelphia general manager, is the new president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau
. Suzanne S. Mayes, a 2012 Alice Paul Equality Award winner and leader at several women’s initiative organizations, is the chair of the public and project finance group at Cozen O’Connor
. They were joined by Cheltenham native JoAnne Epps -- currently dean of Temple’s Beasley School of Law
, she was appointed by Mayor Michael Nutter to chair the new Police Department Oversight Board and earned the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Justice Sonia Sotomayor Diversity Award. Catherine M. Cahill completed the panel. Originally a musician, she has had a distinguished career in arts administration and been the president and CEO of the Mann Center for the Performing Arts
Citrin Cooperman partners Mary Brislin and Colleen S. Vallen moderated the panel.
In her opening remarks, Vallen noted that only about thirteen percent of U.S. business board and executive positions are held by women (though in local healthcare and higher education sectors, that number has topped twenty percent).
Graham touted her lifelong "passion for hospitality." Just a few decades ago it was virtually unheard of for a woman -- especially an African-American woman -- to pursue a four-year degree in hospitality management.
"The culinary scene here is just exploding," she said of moving Philadelphia in 2007.
Mayes spoke about her formative years at an all-girls high school where a you-can-do-anything attitude wasn’t aspirational or visionary, "it was a fact," with women leaders on sports teams and in school clubs. She took this attitude with her to college, where she remembers a "five-minute meeting" with her male undergraduate advisor -- she wanted to discuss her grad school options. He told her to focus on finishing college, not going to business or law school.
"Happily, I didn’t listen to him," she recalled, earning her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
"It didn’t occur to me that African-American women could run anything," said Epps of her school days; she thought becoming a legal secretary would be the apex of her career. She remembers her own mother, whose school counselor "laughed until he cried" when she said she was interested in medical school and put her on a secretarial track instead. Epps herself went on to attend Trinity College just after it became co-ed and was greeted on her first day with signs that read, "Co-eds go home, we hate you!"
But her years there were successful, leading to a prominent legal career.
"Be vigilant as to what is happening to us, and be vigilant as to what is happening to others," she advised attendees on improving gender parity in the workforce.
Cahill, a Temple undergraduate and Drexel graduate alum, has managed major music institutions such as Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, the Dallas Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and the Toronto Symphony before landing in Philly. She touted a recent "sea change" in the world of leadership for women.
The panel took several audience questions, including one about coping with "imposter syndrome" in high-powered jobs.
"It’s about recognizing the moment of self-doubt," said Mayes. "What do you do about it?" There’s no such thing as a work-life or mom-career balance, she continued. Instead, it’s about "integration" with the right personal and professional support.
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Citrin Cooperman Women at the Wheel speakers