PLEN Taught Me What it Means to Be a Leader
Jolina Harris, Senior, Mount Holyoke College
In October, I had the opportunity to attend the Public Leadership Education Network’s (PLEN) “Women, Business, and Policy” seminar in Washington, D.C.
PLEN is a nonprofit organization that prepares college women for leadership in the public policy arena. The nonprofit hosts annual seminars that aim to increase the number of women in leadership positions. PLEN’s Women, Business, and Policy seminar discusses the ways in which policy and business impact each other across the public, private and political spheres. Although this seminar is new to the PLEN roster, it shares the same goal: to help college women create a professional network while developing fundamental professional and leadership skills through exposure. With the influence of great role models and training exercises, PLEN makes entering the workforce less intimidating for college women by building up confidence and making college women prepared to become the next generation of leaders.
THE PLEN IMPACT
Because of the small group size, I was able to have a more intimate introduction to women who shape policy in business, economics, and corporate social responsibility, and this provided me with valuable insight into a more focused career path. The keynote speaker, Laura Lane, specifically left a huge impression on me. She was vulnerable yet so strong, confident but still modest. I thought, “she is everything I want to be when I become successful, when I become a ‘real leader.'”
Just as I completed the thought, Mrs. Lane looked at me and said, “You are strong, beautiful and intelligent. You have it within you now to be a great leader, so why not be that, now?” While this was a rhetorical question, I was left baffled and without words. I was aware of my leadership skills but I never considered myself to be a “leader” entirely. It was as if I was waiting for an epiphany, which was conveniently placed within success. Mrs. Lane dismantled that idea with swift accuracy and truth. I left that session having gained a renewed sense of confidence in my leadership skills as well as a new challenge: leading from where I am now in order to reach where I want to be tomorrow without fear or self doubt. Mrs. Lane really impressed upon me that leadership is just as important to my growth as it is to those who look to me for guidance, and for that lesson I am truly grateful for PLEN.
This PLEN experience has also catalyzed a complete upheaval in my career goals. Prior to attending the seminar I had yet to create a plan of goals pertaining to my professional career beyond getting the job, and learning and applying new skills. This experience revealed something I had yet to admit to myself: the immense amount of fear I have towards the future. As a first generation college student who is about to graduate, finding a job and becoming less of a financial burden on my parents is paramount. Those reasons are both my motivation and the source of my fear and anxiety.
While listening to multiple panelists like Brionne Dawson, Alex Dickinson, and Melissa Bonacielli talk about their personal and professional growth in spite of their fears, I realized that while my fears were rational; they should not dictate my actions. Since PLEN, my career goals have become more specific and more aligned with the things I am passionate about. Instead of simply going into business and learning hard skills, I also want to be the change I wish to see in the world. This means volunteering with organizations whose mission reflects my passions, becoming more active in public policy (whether it be as a government consultant or policy maker), and creating value for peoples lives. I was so strung up on fear that it was inhibiting my growth. Going forward, I want to be that woman, like so many other great women, who get uncomfortable but have the courage to do it anyway.
NETWORKING PLEN STYLE
With over 25 years of successful federal, state, and local government relations, Ms. Anne DarConte is a networking guru, and the PLEN mentor who lead the “ Networking 101” panel. Emphasizing the importance of networking as an opportunity to exchange information, Ms. DarConte replaced what I thought of as an intimidating situation with excitement and curiosity. With her advice in mind, I took part in the PLEN networking event with such confidence! Being in a room surrounded by professional women who were all curious about my goals, offering advice, and talking about themselves as well, was indeed the icing on the PLEN cake.
Once I was able to find my footing, I began working the room, and even asking questions. When I found Ms. DarConte to thank her for the advice, she did something that took me for surprise. She asked me, “What do you want to do?” I replied with a rehearsed line, “I want to become a consultant and bring value and solutions to companies around the world.” Ms. DarConte looked at me, unsatisfied, and then asked: “If you could have any type of career and work anywhere, what would you do?” After taking a breath and sipping some wine, I replied, “I would help people by fixing this mess of a healthcare system and prepare the world for the effects of climate change. And I would use the power of technology to do this anywhere.”
A smile finally danced across Ms. DarConte’s face and she said, “You’re such a millennial; you want to do everything!” She then proceeded to tell me who I NEEDED to talk to, one of which was Ms. Nancy Bocskor. So after having had my soul read by Ms.DarConte, I continued to socialize, and afterwards I followed up through email and LinkedIn.
I did not meet Ms. Bocskor until the last day of PLEN and like Ms. DarConte, she saw me, gave me her business card, and told me to follow-up with her as soon as possible. Since returning to Mount Holyoke, I have made keeping in touch with those two women specifically a priority. I have also maintained contact with those most inspiring to me via LinkedIn and email; but since most of the PLEN mentors are based in the Washington, D.C. area, I must be proactive going forward. I intend on doing this a few different ways, such as sending emails with interesting articles attached that pertain to their personal interests or profession, and through social media meet ups.
PLEN INSPIRED LEADERSHIP
A visionary is someone who has to ability to see beyond the now, taking the lessons of the past and building a better future. A great leader, on the other hand, is someone who is a visionary, but also has the ability to inspire others to be visionaries as well. The PLEN seminar reinforced this belief through amazing mentors and the overall experience. In the end, it was not the pretty folder, pen, and free lunch that I remember, but the way the mentors and programs administrators made me feel. It was the feeling of empowerment, inspiration, and confidence in me that helped me to remain proactive in unlocking my potential. In essence, this would not have been the same experience if it were not organized and implemented by women, strictly for women.