Jo Raffa Boukhira ’76 hadn’t been back to campus in 25 years when she received her invitation to the first Women of Ohio Wesleyan Leadership Forum and decided to attend. “I really wanted to retrace the paths I’d walked on as a student,” says Boukhira.
The two-day event in September more than lived up to her expectations, as she listened to alumnae from around the country and spanning generations talk about their challenges and successes since graduating. More than 100 alumnae, students, and faculty gathered in Merrick Hall to listen to panel discussions on philanthropy, entrepreneurship, and achievement in wide-ranging conversations and informal networking gatherings.
“It’s amazing to see what people accomplished,” says Colleen Nissl ’72, a co-chair of the event. “It’s very inspiring.” (Please see biographies of some of the panelists in The Women of WOW story.)
Boukhira, director of institutional advancement at the Kingsbury Center, a private Washington, D.C., school for the learning disabled, was most impressed by the panel on women and philanthropy. Ginny Kirkwood ’64, who began giving back as soon as she left OWU, shared her uncommon life of international service. While most of her girlfriends were getting married, she worked in the Peace Corps in Turkey for two years helping orphaned children. That led to a marriage of 50 years and a life filled with family, career, and good works.
“If you can give something back, you should do it,” she told the audience. “There’s desperate need around us every day, and if you can help in any way, just do it. Doing volunteer work can be something little — sometimes it’s just going to see a neighbor for a cup of tea.”
A student panel moderated by Ashley Biser, associate professor of politics and government, touched on the experience of women at Ohio Wesleyan today and how they are being connected with opportunities. “I had the most popular major when I started: undeclared,” joked Emma Nuiry ’17. “I think OWU does a fabulous job nurturing and fostering passions.” (Nuiry has found several: She’s double majoring in sociology/anthropology and women’s and gender studies with a minor in black world studies.)
Two panels focused on how women have become leaders in their fields. “You have to just dive into it,” says Julie Podolec ’07, who started a frozen fruit-bar company in southern California with her husband. She was a stay-at-home mom when she decided to make fruit pops for her teething young son after searching for some without extra sugar.
She created Modern Pop, Inc., in 2013. In three years, the startup has evolved from a single pushcart to a company selling to retailers such as Costco and Whole Foods, largely because Podolec wasn’t afraid to reach out to big-company executives, embrace social media, and work tirelessly to promote her product. “You have to commit and be a little crazy,” she says. “I think that’s the thrill of it all.”
In addition to believing in themselves, panelists also expressed a common thread of encountering sexism throughout their careers. Carol Latham ’61 says she had no illusions that she was on equal footing with men when she founded Thermagon, which manufactured heat-transfer materials for electronic components. She’d been a single mother raising three children in Cleveland throughout her career and had worked in an almost 100 percent male world even before she started the business in 1992.
“I needed to outperform my male counterparts, and I never spent much time thinking about it,” says Latham, who majored in chemistry at OWU. “I just did my thing. I knew my data, and I knew our products were the best,” she says.
Aware of differing views of women in other countries, one of Latham’s early business cards listed her as technical director of Thermagon, not owner. “In Korea, a guy turned to me and said: ‘Why did your company send you?’ I told him it was my company and I invented the product. He was just speechless.”
Bridget Donnell-Newton ’80, the mayor of Rockville, Md., shared her career of public service but called herself a reluctant politician, although she grew up in a family where politics and government were discussed at the dinner table. “I just came into who I am,” she says.
“I decided I was complaining too much, and that’s when I ran for office.”
Based on the response to the inaugural event, plans have already begun for the next WOW, possibly in 2018. Colleen Garland, OWU vice president for university advancement, hopes the women’s forum becomes a signature event for alumnae to “connect, collaborate, learn, and give back” to the University.
“The inaugural year for this event was an inspiring way to connect the impressive women of Ohio Wesleyan across generations and professions,” she says. “It was so invigorating to see the attendees engaging with each other and discussing both the opportunities and the challenges that women face in today’s workplace, and how the university helped prepare them for their careers.”
Kelsey Ullom ’14, traveled from her home at the time in Houston to attend. “I left the conference feeling really empowered and reassured, like I was on the right track,” she says. “It was especially interesting to listen to the older women there and realize that everyone in the room had a different way of dealing with inequality in the workplace.”
Ullom, who recently transfered within her company to Washington, D.C., works for the Institute of International Education, linking undergraduates with scholarships to study abroad. She says she made useful contacts during the conference with whom she hopes to connect in the future.
Despite the different career paths the alumnae in attendance have taken since graduation, their Ohio Wesleyan education provided a bond across the years and professions. “I was a little intimidated to talk to some of the professionals in the room, but because we all had the link to Ohio Wesleyan, it turned out to be the most comfortable networking I’ve ever done,” Ullom says.
Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer from Columbus, Ohio.
To express interest in participating in a future WOW event, or to learn more about becoming a mentor for a current student, please contact Katie Webster at kpwebste@owu or (740) 368-3329.
For more photos from WOW, visit owu.edu/wow