Leadership workshop at Sweet Briar draws women from 21 countries 

Posted on August 05, 2019 by Janika Carey

WomenLead Institute Participants in WomenLead Institute’s Global Women in Management Program at Sweet Briar College

If you heard an array of languages during lunch in Prothro last week, it was no coincidence: women from Argentina, Papua New Guinea, Russia and Egypt — and everywhere in between — were here for Global Women in Management (GWIM), a workshop sponsored by Counterpart International’s WomenLead Institute. It all began a few months ago, when Counterpart’s then-CEO Joan Parker came to Sweet Briar to speak with students in CORE 130: Women and Gender in the World. With her was Sue Richiedei, who heads the WomenLead Institute and was back on campus last week.

During that first visit at Sweet Briar, it was clear the two organizations had a lot in common, Richiedei wrote in an email. “We all agreed to look for ways to bridge our communities and shared interests in women’s leadership, and the first and easiest option was to hold one of the workshop weeks at the college.” With the help of College administrators, including Vice President for Development and Alumnae Relations Mary Pope M. Hutson ’83 and Senior Director for Alumnae Relations and Development Claire Griffith ’80, they made it happen.

WomenLEAD Institute Sweet Briar GWIM participants had fun with the design thinking projects last Monday. Photo courtesy of the WomenLead Institute

Sweet Briar’s new Dean of the College Teresa Garrett welcomed the group last Monday. “They have brought 26 amazing women from 21 countries here, and it was great getting to speak with them,” she said. “The GWIM aims to empower women to be drivers of economic change in their communities, just as Sweet Briar aims to empower women similarly to be agents of change in the world.”

GWIM is founded on the globally held premise that economic growth and gender equality can be fueled significantly when women are equipped with the education, skills and support systems needed to be business leaders and entrepreneurs. The program has been around in some form for more than 40 years — GWIM specifically is about 15 years old. Since 2005, it has received funding from the ExxonMobil Foundation’s Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative. Since then, GWIM has reached nearly 900 women from 77 countries with leadership, management and technical capacity development through residential workshops, woman-to-woman coaching, network support and small grants.

This year, the program has again attracted a wide range of early to mid-career NGO leaders and entrepreneurs from developing countries all over the world. What’s remarkable, too, is the age span: 23 to 63. There’s a lot of value in bringing women of different backgrounds and experience levels together to exchange ideas and learn from each other, Richiedei noted. Together, they “learn the tools and knowledge needed to grow a sense of confidence and efficacy; strengthen managerial systems and capacities; challenge restrictive gender norms and policies; and enhance and bring to scale women’s economic empowerment programs in their organizations and businesses,” according to WLI.

WomenLead Institute Sweet Briar GWIM participants discuss business models on Wednesday.

The entire workshop lasts one month. While this second week at Sweet Briar focused on technical skills and women’s economic empowerment, the first and last two weeks of the program, which take place in Arlington, address women’s leadership and managerial skills, Richiedei said, including advocacy, public speaking and project management. The program ends with each participant creating a 6-month action plan.

When we stopped by Josey Dining Room on Wednesday morning, Richiedei admitted she hadn’t been sure how the group would respond to Sweet Briar’s tranquil setting away from shopping malls and subway trains. As it turns out, however, the campus offered an ideal retreat. “They’re out walking, they’re swimming, they’re in the gym. They are communing with nature,” she explained. “They get together and watch movies in the Green Village apartments [where they are staying]. It’s really been such a bonding experience. It’s peaceful — they’re seeing deer and rabbits and hedgehogs. It’s really served the purpose of a retreat; it’s been perfect.”

Dairy Loop walking With 3,250 acres and 18 miles of trails, there is plenty of room to walk and relax at Sweet Briar.

Most of the day was of course spent inside brainstorming, discussing, presenting and problem-solving. Working in groups, participants on Wednesday were busy analyzing business forces and trends, and testing the business models they had developed and presented on Tuesday. On Thursday, the group planned to venture off campus for visits to local agricultural nonprofit organizations, including Lynchburg Grows and an organization called LEAP (which stands for Local Environmental Agriculture Project) near Roanoke. “The agenda is very comprehensive and highly participatory,” Richiedei said. The group’s visit with LEAP, which also runs a mobile farmers market in low-income areas, included a meal cooked by one of the women who runs the program. On Friday’s agenda: a talk by Sweet Briar president Meredith Woo and some closing words from Dean Garrett.

Richiedei hopes they can do it all again next year — ideally with even more opportunities for engagement between the two organizations. This time, they mostly met administrators and faculty, including Carrie Brown, director of the Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts. “Maybe we could bring back Sweet Briar alumnae, too, so they can meet women who have graduated from this school,” Richiedei said.

It all makes perfect sense. After all, Counterpart’s goals and values align well with Sweet Briar’s mission of educating confident women for today’s global workplace. And it’s probably not a coincidence that the week’s first session was a presentation on sustainable business and design thinking — two topics central to the College’s innovative leadership core curriculum.

WomenLead Institue Sweet Briar Almost all GWIM participants stay connected after the program ends.

Like Sweet Briar, GWIM boasts a highly engaged alumnae network: About 95% of former participants are still involved with the program today, Richiedei said, and they stay connected to each other.

“It’s impactful, it’s transformational — and those are their words — it really has changed a lot of lives, but we don’t want it to end here. We see women still connected and seeing GWIM as a major influence in their lives 10 or 15 years after,” she said.

Richiedei calls it a sisterhood. A global network of women who support and empower one another — in person, on WhatsApp and Facebook. They are doers, too. GWIM graduates take what they’ve learned into their communities to make them stronger, and they come back as mentors to teach the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Sound familiar?