Embracing the leader within Olivet College leads the charge to inspire the next generation of women leaders


On March 3, a couple hundred high school and college-aged women and working professionals embarked upon Olivet College’s campus for the inaugural Cultivating Women Leaders event. The women left inspired to dream big and embrace their inner strength, confidence and passions as women, and as leaders.

The daylong event featured prominent women business leaders from across the state representing many industry sectors who empowered the women to have the courage to pursue their passions no matter what obstacles they may face, as they aspire to their careers. Today, statistics reveal that women are still not reaching their full potential in advancing to executive leadership positions, despite the progress they’ve made over the years.

Women account for nearly half of the workforce in the U.S., yet they represent less than 10 percent of top earners and less than five percent of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. This is despite the fact that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on the board of directors attained significantly higher financial performance, on average, than those with the lowest representation of women on their board. Olivet College has realized that more work needs to be done and is leading the charge to inspire and develop the next generation of women leaders and this event is just the first step.

“Women, despite the clear and compelling statistics that women graduate at higher rates and tend to, on average, perform at higher rates in almost all the various measures, don’t end up in those positions at the same percentages that they represent in the population,” said Olivet College President, Steven Corey. “This is something I feel is a systemic issue that we have to take head on.”

The day consisted of multiple breakout sessions, with expert-led discussions on topics including Effective Communication Skills; Breaking the Stereotype, Recognizing the Dynamic Leader Within; Great, I Graduated … Now What? and Personal Financial Planning. The women in attendance had the opportunity to network and receive professional and personal development from successful Olivet College alumnae and women business leaders.

“Folks would always tell me, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’ but sometimes you want to go down a path that no one has ever seen before or seen by women before. My last three jobs have been that way, I never saw women in those roles. I want to get to the place where whether I see it or not I can help women be what they want to be,” said Paula Cunningham, state director for AARP Michigan and a panel speaker.

The Cultivating Women Leaders event was an overwhelming success. Many of the women who attended said the knowledge and skills they gained from the speakers were priceless. One Olivet College senior, Jessica Palacios, is an accounting major and a resident assistant on campus.

“Something that was reiterated in almost every session, that I was in, is the fact that you have to find your passion; by finding your passion you’ll be able to choose what you want to lead in, because you’ll have a reason behind it. You now have a why, and you have skin in the game. By doing that you can also gather a network of people that will support you and give you guidance. If you have those two things going out into the world, you will be able to have a life that you are happy with and be able to help others get along as well,” said Palacios.

During the luncheon, the keynote speaker, two-time Olympic silver medalist in volleyball, Danielle Scott-Arruda, shared her personal story as a young aspiring athlete and the struggles she encountered as she pursued her dream. Her continued hard work and perseverance came with great reward.

“I believe there’s an Olympian inside of each of us, whether it’s manifested through sports, being a CEO or by serving in community — we all have the capability and responsibility to discover and pursue that passion that is within us, that gift that is inside of each of us,” said Scott-Arruda.

Cultivating Women Leaders kicked off Olivet College’s new Presidential Women’s Leadership Initiative. The idea for this initiative stems from the college’s 175-year history steeped in courage and in challenging the status quo by being committed to inclusivity and a champion for every student. Olivet College was the first institution in the state of Michigan to admit women and people of color on a co-equal basis with white men in 1844.

In addition, for the past five years, the college has focused on leadership development for its students through the President’s Leadership Institute (PLI). The college takes 20 of its best students to be a part of this annual executive leadership program. President Corey, along with the Provost and top executive leadership coaches, have trained over 100 students so far, with nearly two-thirds of those being women.

“This is a curriculum that is specifically directed toward college-aged students but they’re the same topics that senior executives at Kellogg, Stryker or other companies in Michigan, and around the world, would train their emerging leaders as well. You can’t go into a yearlong program and become an expert, but if we can plant the seed that leadership is something I should be thoughtful of and that their own leadership abilities are something they should try to be reflective of, they can start their lifelong journey. Coupled with a liberal arts education, that can really be a powerful combination,” said President Corey.

Recognizing the lack of inclusion of women in leadership positions nationally, in addition to the great potential they’ve seen in the women students that have graduated from PLI, Olivet College leadership realized it had to do something to tackle this issue head on. The Presidential Women’s Leadership Initiative was a good first step.

Presidential spouse, Traci Corey, chairs the Women’s Leadership Initiative Advisory Council made up of more than 20 successful women leaders whose long-term goals are to build on the event by expanding and growing this effort into a sustaining yearlong women’s leadership program serving women and girls from middle school through working professionals. The college is currently having discussions with other organizations for further collaboration and is exploring grant opportunities.

“I personally would like to see the long-term work of building a sustaining $3-5 million endowment to create a women’s leadership institute here at Olivet to provide leadership programming, that’s my end goal. That’s how we’ll ultimately leave a legacy. It fits with our institution’s mission, vision and values and fits with our rich history of supporting young women since 1844,” added Corey.

When asked what she thinks needs to be done to inspire the next generation of women to grow beyond where we are today, Corey explained, “We need to have leadership with integrity in this country. More leadership with integrity at the top, then it will trickle down. We also need to have more women in leadership roles that are modeling this for the next generation. We can do better at improving women in leadership positions but we need to pull together and create a network of mentorship and support for one another. Together, we can close the leadership gap: one leader, one woman at a time.”

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