Annual conference empowers women to advance to higher levels of leadership

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Women enjoy The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County’s annual Advancing Women To The Top conference at the Gadsden Country Club in 2019. Photo courtesy of The Chamber.

By Katie Bohannon, New Editor

A coalition of remarkable individuals will congregate this year at an annual conference designed to motivate and uplift women to pursue their professional and personal passions.

An all-encompassing event designed to celebrate women’s achievements and encourage them to fulfill their ultimate potential, The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County’s Advancing Women To The Top Conference opens its doors and heart to all attendants on September 24 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Gadsden Country Club.

Discussion among Chamber volunteers and board members generated the first conference in 2015, which sprouted from a partnership between the initiative’s Chair – Kendall Lowe Hamilton – and Chamber President and CEO Heather Brothers New. When Hamilton began her career in the automotive industry, she was one of extremely few women in her field. Alongside the volunteers and board members, Hamilton and New witnessed the need for programming designed specifically for women in professional development, to increase the number of women in critical roles, equipping them with resources and motivation to achieve their aspirations and advance to higher levels of leadership.

“We saw an opportunity for networking and leadership development among women,” said Hamilton.

The opportunity that Hamilton and New envisioned manifested in a two-hour luncheon featuring an array of guest speakers crafted to uplift women to pursue their professional and personal goals. As attendants mingled with one another, an outpouring of positive response surged, with participants expressing their interest in the conference’s future – and asking for more.

The seed that initial luncheon planted soon sprouted into a phenomenal annual event, transforming into a full-day conference enriched with interactive workshops, training sessions and inspirational conversations where women connect with one another and flourish in a welcoming and encouraging space. The conference addresses women from all backgrounds and current positions in life, offering beneficial tools to nurture success in every attendee.

United Way of Central Alabama’s Jessica Hightower Hopper serves as this year’s keynote speaker, who carries the legacy of an incredible community cornerstone in her mother, former United Way of Etowah County Executive Director Joanne Hightower. The 2020 conference transitioned to a series of virtual small group sessions, of which Hightower was scheduled as the keynote speaker. When Hightower’s health declined and she requested someone else take her place, current United Way Executive Director Ruth Moffatt graciously stepped into her shoes.

In January of 2021, Hightower passed away, leaving the county mourning and remembering her leadership. As a remarkable individual and an exceptional example, Hightower’s influence on all around her resounds and her memory remains paramount in her daughter. Hopper’s conference speech will be full of beloved ‘Joanne-isms,’ the life lessons Hightower taught not only Hopper but an entire community.

Joining Hopper at the conference are Gadsden State Community College President Dr. Kathy Murphy, who will discuss courageous conversations. Former Shepherd’s Cove Hospice volunteer and current CEO Rhonda Osborne will demonstrate how to turn a passion into a profession, while Gadsden Regional Medical Center’s Dr. Shawn Moorehead’s talk, “If Your Doctor Was Your Girlfriend,” will explore topics and questions that often intimidate women, alleviating any anxiety regarding those subjects and encouraging women to converse confidently with medical professionals.

In discussing the power of emotional intelligence, CED Mental Health’s Jocelyn Woolfork will help audiences understand how to gain better control of emotional intelligence, channeling that knowledge toward success. Coosa Riverkeeper Executive Director Justinn Overton’s send-off conclusion, “Undam Your Life,” addresses those areas that frequently inhibit (or dam) an individual’s progress, highlighting methods women can practice realizing their full potential. Knowles & Sullivan, LLC’s Megan Huizinga and Never Surrender’s Shelia Migliore and Tara Fulford will also present topics at the conference, with New incorporating a fun and creative activity for attendants to ‘playdough’ their personalities.

In addition to a collection of talented and captivating speakers, Advancing Women To The Top 2021 will feature a surprise roundtable and honor two award-recipients. The conference’s annual FIERCE Award (Females Inspiring and Engaging in Rare Courageous Efforts) recognizes local strong female leaders for their extraordinary contributions to their community. Alongside the FIERCE Award, the conference is debuting its inaugural Young Fierce Award, introducing a young woman at the event chosen by the committee for her efforts.

“The event’s mission is to instill a sense of belief in women that they can achieve whatever they want,” said New. “[To let them know that] the tools and resources are there, and there’s a strong network of other women and men who will help them get where they’d like to go. Advancing Women is just about that; it’s about women understanding their full potential for themselves and seeing a clear path of getting to that opportunity.”

New emphasized that the celebration of women at the conference does not coincide with the exclusion of men. Contrary to the misconception that men are not involved with the conference, New invites men to extend their support as allies for women, esteeming positive roles in advocating for equity, something that benefits both women and men alike. The conference welcomed several male speakers in the past, including Man Up Gadsden’s Dr. Jon Pirani, whose organization flourished from the assistance of knowledgeable female partners and women-based nonprofits such as Never Surrender. Pirani’s speech represented the triumphant result of respectful collaborations between men and women and the success that arises from those invaluable partnerships.

New noted that the conference reinforces the importance of equity among all, whether that be racial equity, gender equity, LGBTQ+ equity, economic equity or any other disparity afflicting groups of people. While the inequity women have experienced throughout history emerges as one example of unbalanced treatment, the conference administers principles of respect and understanding across all borders to emphasize the importance of evoking positive change.

“I’m always just blown away at what exceptional talent we have in our own community, and the willingness of people to help,” said New, sharing how each year she learns something different and applicable. “We have women who have accomplished incredible things and incredible women in our community who have broken many ceilings. This [conference] is one tool we see as a way we can hopefully reach greater depths of equity in our community, to provide resources and direct information, to be advocates for ourselves and each other.”

The conference’s impact is attributed to its planning committee, which brainstorm topics of discussion each year and organize each finite detail, from the decor to the menu to selecting the FIERCE Award winners among applications. This year’s overarching theme reverberates mental health, a significant subject that surfaced during the pandemic as individuals dealt with isolation and loss.

New reiterated that the event’s inclusivity heeds to a wide range of audience members, which fuels the conference’s purpose. In advancing women, the conference seeks to uplift all women, not just those in positions of power and influence, but those who have yet to experience the same opportunities. Both she and Hamilton expressed that while the conference provides tremendous resources for women, the friendships formed and the camaraderie and fellowship that abound prove equally worthwhile.

“Everyone leaves feeling uplifted and motivated,” said Hamilton. “We have had amazing speakers in the past, and this year will be no different. We plan to bring attendees a day of uplifting and empowering information that will build them up both professionally and personally.”

“From my perspective, seeing that everyone else enjoys the conference is what I enjoy most,” said New. “I get to see new friendships. I get to see people excited about something they may not have known before. I get to see women celebrate themselves and stop and take a moment to focus inward, because they’re usually so driven and focused on giving outward. Going into that room and looking out over that sea of beautiful women, with laughter and chatter and compliments being given left and right and seeing the encouragement and wonderful friendship that’s growing…that’s what I enjoy most.”

Of all the paths women choose for their own lives, from stay-at-home mothers and entrepreneurs to entry-level employees and company CEOs, Advancing Women To The Top embraces each role to create an atmosphere in which women possess the freedom to express themselves and their passions. Through its comprehensive celebration of women’s past, present and future accomplishments, the conference fosters a priceless and unparalleled synergy among its participants, empowering them to achieve success and happiness in both their professional and personal lives. While the conference’s impact proves immense, with its genuine purpose generating year after year of encouragement for all who attend, its message to women near and far invites them to experience its promise for themselves: “Regardless of where you are professionally or personally, this conference is for you.”

“I certainly hope that [the conference] outlives me and all of us that are currently involved in it,” said New. “It would warm my heart to know that 100 years from now it’s still happening – not because women need equity at that point but because women want to congregate and celebrate together. That would be my vision, that this program and programs like this throughout the U.S. help achieve that equity for all people, not just women. That someday we get to a point when we have professional development conferences with a targeted niche, simply for celebration and targeted needs, and not because there are disparities in access.”

“If you’re looking at this conference and wondering, ‘I don’t know if I’ll fit in here,’ or ‘I don’t know anybody,’ don’t worry about that. Everyone is super-friendly, we would love to have you, and it’s definitely for you. Don’t limit your dreams with your insecurities. Whatever we need to do together, let’s address those insecurities, find out what your potential is and where your heart lies within it and go big. This is your world, too, and the seat at the table is waiting for you. Don’t be afraid to take it.”

To register for the conference, visit www.etowahchamber.org/awtconference/.

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