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Johnnetta Cole Addresses W&L's Women's Leadership Summit

Johnnetta Cole, the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, told the participants in Washington and Lee University’s Women’s Leadership Summit to be bold, to be of service to others and to respect and celebrate human diversity. Cole gave the keynote address at an event that encouraged W&L’s women students to seek leadership positions, both while they are students and long after graduation.


The summit, the third since 2009, brought together more than 100 W&L faculty, staff, alumnae and current women students on March 16 and 17, at the Hotel Roanoke, in Roanoke, Va. The undergraduate and law students were there after being nominated by faculty and staff in recognition of their existing leadership on campus and their potential for such posts. The summit’s organizers hope its attendees will form supportive networks, gain leadership skills, determine individual goals and explore the underrepresentation of female students in elected posts on campus.

Cole, the first African-American woman to serve as president of Spelman College and the former president of Bennett College for Women, traced her own passion for leadership to her childhood. She related how she enjoyed the support of such adults as her Girl Scout leaders, her parents and her Sunday school teacher. Her first-grade teacher, she said, encouraged her to hold her head up high, make eye contact and speak out. “We are here to prepare leaders,” the teacher told Cole and her fellow students at a segregated elementary school in Jacksonville, Fla. Cole related the words of another teacher as well: “You are here to learn there’s nothing that girls cannot learn. If we can learn it, we can do it.”

An anthropologist by training, Cole was the first woman to serve on the board of Coca-Cola and the first African-American to chair the board of the United Way of America. Relating her thoughts about her first day on the Coca-Cola board, she said, “I may be the first, but I’ll never be the last.”

She encouraged the students at the summit to find “sheroes,” role models to serve as inspiration, and to both seek out mentors of all ages and to be mentors themselves. “We don’t get anywhere on our own,” Cole said.

In another feature of the summit, seven attendees—six alumnae of W&L and the mother of a current student—gave a panel presentation and had informal talks with the students. The group offered insights they have gleaned from their own careers into such topics as life stages, handling failure, leadership styles and mentoring.

The panelists included Elizabeth “Happy” Vaughan Anderson ’99, vice president and partner of Cary Street Partners Investment Bank, Richmond, Va.; Meredith Attwell Baker ’90, senior vice president of governmental affairs for NBC Universal, McLean, Va.; Blair Hixson Davis ’94, a teacher of art history and a member of Washington and Lee’s Board of Trustees, Portland, Ore.; parent Karey Dye, a managing director in Goldman Sachs’ wealth services group for foundations, endowments and charitable organizations, Houston; Nicole Gilkeson ’02, an attorney with Covington & Burlington, Washington; Stacy Morrison ’90, editor in chief of BlogHer.com, New York City; and Sakina K. Page ’96, ’02L, an attorney with Wells Fargo, Richmond.

During the summit, the attendees also listened to student presentations; watched a video of a TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook; discussed a Ms. article titled “Paycheck Feminism”; and viewed the documentary “Miss Representation,” about current images of women in the media. Nicole Smith, who teaches communications at Lynchburg College, Lynchburg, Va., offered a session on public speaking.

The dearth of women students in leadership positions is a concern at colleges and universities across the U.S. To combat it, the American Association of University Women sponsors a program called Elect Her: Campus Women Win to encourage female students to run for office. At W&L, law students and undergraduates recently participated in an Elect Her held at the Law School.

Julie Campbell
Assoc. Director of Communications and Public Affairs
(540) 458-8956