Furman’s Women’s Leadership Institute Empowers Women to Lead

If there is one word to describe the experience of bringing 58 women together to learn how to use their strengths to become more effective leaders, that word is “empowering”.

For women who participated in Furman University Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI) for seven weeks between April and June, connecting with a group of peers from multiple industries was deeply inspiring.

Justine Allen, Programs and Events Coordinator for Ten to the top, said there simply weren’t enough superlatives to describe the experience.

“The women leading the sessions were so driven and empowered,” Allen said. “I would love to see more programs like this.”

Virtual but powerful

The recent program was entirely virtual, which was a different experience for participants than the traditional face-to-face setting in place since the program began in 1998.

Anthony Herrera, Furman’s chief innovation officer and executive director of the university’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said going virtual was a necessary but calculated risk. The enthusiastic response from attendees proved the program could remain vibrant and engaging and potentially reach a much wider audience than in the past, he said.

He added that going forward, WLI will offer a hybrid mix of in-person and virtual sessions.

Allen said that coming into the sessions, she expected to hear things she had heard before.

“But every session I had an ‘Aha’ moment,” she said.

Molly Claycomb, director of financial reporting and accounting policy at United Community Bank, said the experience was meaningful for her because she got to interact with so many accomplished women in so many different fields.

“I’ve thought about the word ’empowering’ a lot and it’s really perfect,” Claycomb said.

One of the lessons that stuck with him came from working sessions on innovative thinking, Claycomb said. The exercises aimed to move leaders from a “yes, but” mode of thinking about issues to a “yes, and” approach.

Claycomb said the transformation showed him and the other participants how to approach problems to produce a wider range of ideas and solutions — an essential skill for leaders.

Furman Professor Shaniece Criss (left) is part of the university’s group of female professors who shared their expertise with WLI attendees.

An unstable world

Among the changes to the program’s curriculum developed over the past eight years was the integration of VUCA training, Herrera said. The acronym stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity and stems from a type of leadership training that prepares leaders to survive and even thrive in an unpredictable world.

He added that the pandemic was disproportionately affecting women and posing greater challenges than they already faced in the workplace. Based on advice from a number of female leaders on the skills most useful for thriving in today’s corporate world, WLI has brought together presenters from a number of industries.

Herrera said that, combined with the large bench of talented women on the Furman faculty, the program addresses a range of leadership skills.

He said an additional strength of the program was the support of community partners to ensure WLI’s success. United Community Bank was the presenting sponsor and SCBIO was the presenting partner.

The fact that two of these organizations recognize and support the empowerment of women to become more effective leaders sends a powerful message.

“From an organizational point of view (he says), we know it’s good and it’s fair,” he said.

For more information about the Women’s Leadership Institute, visit furman.edu/corporate-professional-development/womens-leadership-institute.

Mara R. Wilmoth