“If you can see it, you can be it.”
This statement by keynote speaker Sandy Carter, who was a general manager at IBM from 2013 to 2016, vice president at Amazon Web Services from 2017 to 2021 and is currently senior vice president of business development at Unstoppable Domains, elicited an enthusiastic round of applause from the nearly 400 young women attending Clemson University’s second Women’s Roundtable. It could also be used to sum up the core mission of the event itself.
Carter was one of nine highly accomplished women brought in by event organizers to address the crowd of high school and college-aged girls and to inspire them by sharing their success stories from today’s workforce.
Ale Kennedy, associate vice president and chief human resources officer for Clemson University, opened the event saying that the attendees were about to hear from an exciting lineup of women who have risen through the ranks of their respected careers to achieve great success. But, she added, their journeys were not always perfect.
“Social media may paint a picture of people who are always winning at life, but every speaker who comes on the stage today will tell you that times have not always been easy, and they did not always win,” said Kennedy. “Being transparent in our struggles and vulnerabilities — being real — helps women around us not to feel less than and encourages all of us to push through the tough times to the celebrations.”
Participants from schools across South Carolina and Georgia spent the day at the Greenville Convention Center listening to keynote speeches, attending a networking luncheon, and breaking into small groups to have roundtable discussions with facilitators, or mentors, of accomplished women from various fields.
“I cried,” said Pendleton High School senior Zyadriya Johnson, 17, after hearing the keynote speech by Melissa Harris-Perry, Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University. “I feel like everything was real. I can relate to a lot of things I’m hearing and feel like I belong here.”
Johnson said her experience at the event opened her mind to the world of opportunities afforded to young women like herself.
“I’ve always wanted to be a psychiatrist, but now I don’t know after today,” she said, adding that her choice of colleges has always been a toss-up between Clemson and Auburn, but after the event, she’s leaning toward Clemson. “I think Clemson is my decision now.”
Destiny Simpson, a Pendleton High School chorus teacher who chaperoned Johnson’s group, said she’s grateful that the young women in her school have the opportunity to attend the event.
“I’m so excited they got this opportunity. I wish I could have had this when I was in high school,” said Simpson. “The pointers they are giving out are pointers I would have loved to have had early on. I think it’s great for these girls to get these things now. They were all into it. I hope we do it every year.”
Maira Patino, a Clemson doctoral student in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management who is also a decorated combat veteran and major in the U.S. Army, volunteered as one of the roundtable facilitators because she wanted to be the kind of mentor she never had as a young woman.
“I volunteer for this because I love to mentor girls who are potentially going through the same thing I did,” said Patino. “I didn’t have any mentors growing up. Even in high school my guidance counselor was a male. He told me that I wouldn’t be able to go to college because I didn’t have the financial resources. I come from a very poor, undocumented family. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh I’m not going to college!’”
Patino told the eight women at her table that, since she was made to believe she could never afford it , she joined the National Guard when she was 17 to pay for college.
“It was the only way in my mind,” said Patino. “No one in my family went to college. I didn’t know anything about scholarships or other opportunities.”
Patino, who also acted as a facilitator at the 2021 Women’s Roundtable, said she loves the Women’s Roundtable because it also provides the fellowship and mentorship she never experienced as a young person.
“This is very personal for me,” she said. “The three high school girls I met today are juniors and don’t know what they want to do as far as going to college. I told them, ‘You need to start having those conversations,’ and I took their emails. These young ladies need to find a safe space with an adult who has been through the process, and sometimes your family cannot provide that.”
Patino’s table was just one of dozens that filled a hall of the Greenville Convention Center at the end of the day, each headed by a facilitator striving to make meaningful connections with their group of young women that would carry on far after the event was over. Outbursts of laughter would regularly rise over the steady hum of enthusiastic conversations that filled the space.
Assistant Vice President for Diversity Education and Executive Director of the Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center Kendra Stewart-Tillman took the podium to close out the day. “Our hope is that when you leave here today, you’re inspired, determined, and understand how incredibly valued you are,” said Stewart-Tillman. “We tried to give you tools here today to create your own success, whatever that looks like for you. Please take what you’ve learned here and apply it to your life plans, nurture the relationships you developed here, and nurture what you learned about yourself today.”