Grit the takeaway theme at 2020 East Bay Women’s Conference
By Lou Fancher
Women are gritty.
That timeless idea was foremost on March 2 at the 2020 East Bay Women’s Conference. Held at the San Ramon Marriott and presented by the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau in conjunction with John Muir Health & Stanford Children’s Health, the title for this year’s sold-out conference was “Wow! Wonder of Women.”
As always, the all-day event included dynamic keynote speakers including retired U.S. Air Force Col. Nicole Malachowski, the first woman pilot on the Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron; Sandra Joseph, a “Phantom of the Opera” Broadway star, bestselling author and one of 125 members on the exclusive, invitation-only Transformational Leadership Council; Doniece Sandoval, the groundbreaking founder of homeless services nonprofit Lava Mae; and Rachel Wilson, a managing director and head of cybersecurity for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management. Breakout sessions led by experts and thought leaders addressed mentorship, motivation, online networks and branding, growth mindset leadership, asset management and more.
Malachowski, speaking to roughly 500 people in the Bishop Ranch Ballroom, delivered a knockout presentation, “Breaking Barriers: Conquering Self-Doubt and Cultural Paradigms.” As a jet fighter pilot with more than 188 combat hours, commander of an elite squadron of F-15E instructors presiding over a $119 million flight training program, a White House fellow and more, Malachowski’s illustrious 21-year career in the Air Force was ended by a tick no larger than a sesame seed. Battling back from the brain infection that left her unable to speak or walk for nine months, she emerged with a new mission and purpose.
“Fidelity to self,” and “nobody wants to lead a scripted life,” became go-to phrases. Long lines of young girls wanting to hear her story at public events stamped her ticket when she realized, “I represented a role model that they could see themselves in.” With those motivating forces in operation, Malachowski told the audience to risk failure, never write themselves or anyone else out of the script, stop carrying around a curriculum vitae to prove value and learn to say “you’re not my audience” to naysayers.
To women specifically, she advised accepting promotions that require hard work and mastery of new skills, establishing trust with teams through intentional, tailored leadership, “loosening your grip,” requesting help when it’s needed and asking, “What do I need to feel full?” The answer to which, for Malachowski, meant dividing her week into four strictly adhered-to segments: designating 100% energy on specific days to her roles as pilot, commander, wife and mother of 9-year-old twins.
Another model of “fidelity to self” and grit was Joseph, who in an interview used the term “authenticity” to describe the message she brought to women.
Joseph for 10 years portrayed Christine in Broadway’s longest running show, “Phantom of the Opera,” and included in her keynote presentation live performance of three songs from the production. “Most people have the perception I’m used to being in the spotlight and comfortable giving public appearances.” Instead, Joseph said she was consistently plagued by deep insecurities until, turning 50 and having fought back to health after a tumor threatened her singing voice, she said to herself, “Enough already.” Finding courage to bring out their stories, Joseph said, will leave women “standing in their own power.”
Everywhere at the conference — not just in the featured speakers and experts but among attendees — the kind of gritty determination and outstanding achievement researched and written about by author and University of Pennsylvania psychology Professor Angela Duckworth was in evidence. As defined in the 2013 MacArthur Fellow’s best-selling book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” determination was the formula behind their stories. Reliant not only on genius, talent or luck, most women in interviews said they sought from the conference confirmation, fresh ideas and new inspiration for habits already established.
Melanie Davis, of Walnut Creek, said during her 18 years at Chevron she often feels pushed to “be extra” because of being a woman. Attending for the first time, she said, “I’m holding onto the idea of being authentic, of not apologizing.” Even when young women she mentors are confronted with a challenge and are nervous, she advises them to reframe and realize, “I’ve stepped outside of my comfort zone. I’m finding efficiency as I work on something important to me.”
Save Mount Diablo office manager Dana Halpin said easy access to uplifting speakers and practical tips, like self-checks she can do to notice anxiety that might impact her performance in the business world, make the event “the biggest don’t-miss, feel-good conference of all.” Keynote presenters, she noted, are not only successful monetarily, but are “happy people doing good work to raise other people up.”
Trish Proctor, at the event as a volunteer and representative of Pleasant Hill-based food rescue and recovery nonprofit, White Pony Express, said women supporting women in the conference’s enthusiastic, bold environment was empowering and confirmed her commitment to heart-centered activism.
Call it grit, fidelity, authenticity or stepping beyond one’s comfort zone into unscripted territory, women have done it before the East Bay Women’s Conference and will continue doing so long after this year’s event. Note that the conference sells out far in advance every year, so those interested in attending the 2021 East Bay Women’s Conference can sign up online at walnut-creek.com to receive notice when admission for it is open.