MBA@UNC Women's Leadership Forum 2016

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — After a harrowing 10-day boat trip, from their home in Haiphong, Vietnam, to Hong Kong, five-year-old Lisa Nguyen and her mother sat in a refugee camp, awaiting relocation. Mother and daughter would eventually reach Australia, and Nguyen would one day become a well-known television personality in the Vietnamese-American community. Some in the community describe her, she says, as “the Ryan Seacrest of Vietnamese people—so suddenly I’m a guy and I’m short.”

Nguyen would also go on to found Senhoa, a nonprofit organization that addresses the prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration of survivors of human trafficking in Asia.

But back in that refugee camp in Hong Kong, someone offered 5-year-old Nguyen an apple, and it was that gesture—not the boat trip—that launched her life’s journey.

“It was the biggest apple I’d ever seen,” Nguyen told a group of about 100 students at the MBA@UNC Women’s Leadership Forum. “It smelled so good. I didn’t eat it for a couple days. All she did was give me an apple. It wasn’t a gigantic act of changing the world. It was a simple act, but meant a lot to me.”

As an adult, Nguyen quit a good job in Australia to process application forms for refugees in Manila. She looked at the opportunity as a chance to change one life at a time. “Sometimes if we just shut out all the noise, and think, ‘just this one act,’ even if it’s simple. We can underestimate how powerful that is.”

Nguyen was the keynote address that kicked off seven sessions on December 15 that made up the Forum’s second year. MBA@UNC announced at the event that the Forum would expand in 2017 thanks to a grant from Procter & Gamble.

After Nguyen’s address, Forum organizer Mary Ryan interviewed Meena Dorr, Director of Business Partnerships at UNC Kenan-Flagler, and Betsy Smith, an executive leadership coach and author, in a panel called “Making Your Voice Heard.”

Ryan asked the panelists about how to navigate unconscious biases without coming across as too aggressive.

“I’m from Texas,” Smith quipped. “I don’t know too aggressive.”

Smith counseled attendees that the first step in dealing with unconscious bias is to be aware of its existence. “Be bold,” she said.

Dorr agreed. “It’s not something you can control, but it’s out there,” she said. “Recognize it, and ask yourself where it shows up.”

The panelists also spoke about how women should remain visible at work and be their own advocates. They offered advice on approaching promotions and salary increase discussions, and cautioned attendees to refrain from starting a conversation with an apology.

“As long as you say you’re sorry, people will let you take responsibility for whatever went wrong,” Smith said.

In a two-hour workshop, Shawnice Meador, Director of Career & Leadership Services for Working Professionals for MBA programs at UNC Kenan-Flagler, guided attendees through the trenches of creating and maintaining a personal brand. She asked the group to identify the proudest moment of their career so far.

One student, an attorney from Dallas, said she’d defeated an attempt by Hustler Hollywood Stores from opening a location adjacent to her client, a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. Another student, Beth Hacker, said as a financial manager in Shreveport, La., she was proud to advise active duty military about their personal finances during a stressful time in their lives.

Hacker came to the financial industry from a background in government and, in an interview, said since business is a “predominantly male field,” she believed it would “take a while for the tide to turn” in women’s favor. A reason she decided to attend the Forum was to learn from, and support, other women in business.

That’s precisely what Meador hoped attendees would take away from the conference.

“I hope this has inspired a couple women to be as self-aware as they can be,” she said in an interview. “If they own their differentiators and strengths, people will know they’re as cool as they are.”

Meador flashed a quote from former GE CEO Jack Welch on the screen: “Control your own destiny, or someone else will.”

“You have a personal brand,” she told the group, “whether you like it or not.”

In the afternoon sessions, James Johnson, William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Director, Urban Investment Strategies Center, kicked things off by painting a picture of the future of American life and work using big data. His talk, “The Great Demographic Disruptions,” detailed how the U.S. is in “the middle of an unprecedented demographic transformation” that will “dramatically transform workplace, workforce and consumer markets.

“The new normal is certain uncertainty,” Johnson continued. “Employers are looking for people who can groove on ambiguity.”

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Dean, Doug Shackelford, said in an interview that women face “a different set of challenges” than men in business, and that the school started the MBA@UNC program “in the hopes that it would be particularly attractive to women because of its flexibility, and it would work well with all the juggling women do in life.”

Attendee Katie Surma said she came to the event because it was “unique to have the opportunity to take advantage of professional development aimed solely at women.”

Surma, an attorney at a Scottsdale, Ariz., firm run by women, said Nguyen’s presentation was especially meaningful. “What she said spoke to me,” Surma said.

Senhoa is also run by women, and women make the jewelry that help fund the organization’s activism. The work provides vulnerable women—whom Nguyen calls “survivor artisans”—with access to fair wages, health services and education. A group of MBA@UNC students are helping Senhoa develop a business strategy, through the STAR Global program, that will allow the jewellry-making component of the nonprofit to fund its life-saving work.

Nguyen told attendees she hoped to “change the look of advocacy.”

“Instead of guilting someone by showing a tragic, horrible photo, we choose a different way of advocacy,” she said. “By wearing a necklace, showing their work, we’re not re-victimizing her by showing the state she was in, but rather showing her talent now.”

In an interview, Nguyen said she hoped to convey to the women at the Forum that “doing good will be good for business. It’s good karma, not just good marketing.”

Nguyen said that while Senhoa has an entrepreneurial focus, she has no business experience herself. “I wish I’d done an MBA, where you are right now,” she told the Forum, “to have the opportunity to leverage the skills you’re learning here at UNC to change the world for the better.”