On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2022, The Lab on Dexter welcomed 100 women to its Access & Allies MasterClass. The event included a symposium of dynamic speakers addressing a range of topics, from leadership, technology and innovation to health and wellness and cultivating creativity. Attendees also enjoyed access to the Business Council of Alabama’s Leadership Luncheon, as well as a “Bubbles & Bourbon” networking reception at 23 Court Cigar Bar.
Located downtown, The Lab on Dexter is a collaborative learning environment providing educational resources for innovators, entrepreneurs and the tech community. The event provided the women in attendance with opportunities to make connections and gain practical advice for success.
Building relationships is key, said Jordan Franklin, CEO of Stratice, LLC, a woman-owned IT staffing firm. “Mentorship is an old word,” Franklin said. Mentorship feels inherently one-sided. Someone older, wiser, more experienced provides advice and direction – plays the role of giver – while the acolyte is a receiver, like a vessel or a sponge. Instead, she suggested, why not think of business relationships as an allyship?
“How do we get diversity and inclusion at every table, on every board, in every position? We have to do it intentionally. And that’s a group effort. Because someone knows someone, and they’re going to help. Being allies is a 50-50 partnership. I want to pour into you just as much as you pour into me,” she said.
“If you have position, if you have space, if you have time and talent to help another woman, that is what we’re putting out there today,” said Dr. Nichole Thompson, Executive Director of The Lab on Dexter. “It’s not about competition.”
Attendee Keiauna White, owner of Be-YOU-tiful Boutiques, echoed Thompson. “That idea of community over competition, that’s what I’m about,” she said. “Especially connecting with other women. The theme of this event rang loud and true, and I especially love the idea of allyship. Sometimes we don’t know how to gain access to a room. An ally can provide that entrance.”
The other side of that coin is not being afraid to say what you want. As a woman in the mostly male dominated world of IT, Franklin said she has learned that speaking up for herself is the only way to claim her seat at the table. “Maybe that’s the rest of the sentence. Access, Allies, but also advocates. Be your own advocate,” Franklin said.
Part of advocating for yourself is telling your own story, said Valorie Lawson, a veteran journalist who is co-anchor for WSFA 12 at the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. news hours. She started her Newsmakers Academy to help business leaders—both men and women—learn these skills.
“Your brand is what you stand for; it’s what people talk about when you’re not in the room,” Lawson said. “Without a clear, defined message that communicates to your potential client what you intend to do, your business will not succeed. Everyone has a story. How are you motivating or inspiring others by what you do? Believe it or not, someone needs to hear your story. Someone is waiting for the impact your story will bring.”
The ways to tell your story also are changing, noted Martha Underwood, Head of Lending Defaults and Servicing at PNC. She is regarded as a transformational leader in today’s fast-paced and challenging global software arena. “Technology has influenced the way we live – how we shop, interact with companies, learn, get services,” she said. “Your digital presence is the front door to your business. It provides a place to clearly communicate your message and provide more information.”
This includes websites and social media, but also should include thinking ahead about new technologies—like the Metaverse—and how they might change or add to the existing opportunities. “The future belongs to creatives,” she said. “How do I translate what I do today to be leveraged and monetized in the metaverse? How will you thrive leveraging the technology of tomorrow? Because it’s here today.”
She advised seeking out allies in the fields of technology and innovation, in spaces like The Lab on Dexter. “If we’re going to be lifelong learners, we have to lean into this technology. We have to know the language and have transferrable skills,” Underwood said.
“Make a plan,” urged Ashley Jernigan, Hospitality & Tourism Consultant for the Chamber. “What needs to happen? What are the threats to your plan? What can you do differently? Set specific, attainable and movable goals and put a date on it.”
Having a measurable plan helps business leaders avoid becoming overwhelmed, agreed Ilia N. Snell, M.Ed., ALC, NCC, a children’s therapist at Family Sunshine Center. Wellness — overall wellness, mental health, emotional wellness — depends on the ability to understand yourself and cope with the challenges life brings, she said.
“People are becoming more familiar and comfortable with the idea that it’s ok to not be ok, but feeling happy, feeling proud also need to be acknowledged,” Snell said. Making a “to-do” list and checking off items seems like a small thing, but it’s a way of providing yourself that acknowledgement, she said. It provides an opportunity to build yourself up.
“This goes back to being an advocate for yourself. You have to build yourself up and find your allies to help fill you up and you fill them up,” Snell said. “You can’t pour yourself out when you’re empty. We’re strong, empowered women, but to get there we need to rely on our allies.”
Joy Henderson, assistant to the Senior Vice President of Governmental & Corporate Affairs for Alabama Power, traveled from Birmingham to attend the event and stressed the continuity of each speaker’s message despite their individual backgrounds and experiences. “Every one of them, in their own way, reminded us to be our own advocates, not to shrink ourselves, to not be afraid,” she said. “We don’t all have the same journey, but we share a similar path.”
“WE DON’T GET JUST ONE DAY. WE GET EVERY DAY!” – ASHLEY JERNIGAN, HOSPITALITY & TOURISM CONSULTANT FOR THE CHAMBER
“IF YOU HAVE POSITION, IF YOU HAVE SPACE, IF YOU HAVE TIME AND TALENT TO HELP ANOTHER WOMAN, THAT IS WHAT WE’RE PUTTING OUT THERE TODAY.” – DR. NICHOLE THOMPSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE LAB ON DEXTER